Amanda Cunningham started her daughter on computers at 2 1/2 with "Reader Rabbit" software and Web sites like Sesame Street. Like any parent, she was proud Madeline could master the mouse so young.
But Cunningham soon realized Madeline, now 4, wasn't really learning anything. She just kept clicking, dragging and playing the same games over and over. Now, she's in no rush to get her 1-year-old son, Liam, on computers or the Internet.
"I just don't see an advantage (to) starting early," said Cunningham, a former teacher who now creates reading software for elementary schools.
There's no shortage of sites and software aimed at very young kids and even toddlers. Noggin.com has games and virtual coloring books for preschoolers. A Crayola licensee makes handheld video games, including one where kids race in a crayon-shaped car, for 3 and up. KidzMouse Inc. makes computer mice for small hands.
But there's growing debate over whether children should be exposed to technology so early. Some parents and scholars see no benefit, and a handful even warn of a hindrance to child development.
"Mental ability is gained from manipulating the three-dimensional world at that age and (from) managing your own mind and not having it managed by an electronic machine," said Jane M. Healy, author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Mind."
Healy said computers take children away from other developmental activities more appropriate for their brains and can "easily become a habit for both parent and child."
According to a 2003 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 percent of children age 3 and under are already using computers. Sixteen percent use them several times a week, 21 percent can point and click with a mouse by themselves and 11 percent can turn on the computer without assistance.
Healy recommends kids stay off computers until age 7. Others suggest 3 is OK to start. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before 2, worried youngsters may get discouraged if they talk to a computer monitor and get no response.
Tech advocates: Just use common sense
David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, is concerned that kids are overdeveloping visual senses at the expense of touch or sound. "Children miss out on all these basic learning experiences if they are so attuned to the virtual world," he said.
Yet some researchers as well as developers of the Web sites and software aimed at young kids see nothing wrong with exposing children to technology early -- as long as it's done in moderation.
"Kids need a good balance in their lives and a mix of experiences," said Peter Grunwald, whose consulting firm specializes in kids and technology.
In other words, don't force technology on children and don't turn it into a babysitter while cooking dinner. Through common sense use, Grunwald said, computers can help kids develop hand-eye coordination and other skills.
Yong Zhao, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University, bought his daughter an iMac before she turned 1 and had her simply bang on the keyboard. Eventually, he said, his daughter picked up on how the banging led to changes on-screen.
Young kids should be supervised while surfing the Web anyhow, so early Internet use offers a chance for "spending time with your kids and seeing what they react to," said Regina Lewis, consumer adviser for America Online Inc., which has "KOL Jr." section for ages 2 to 5.
Developers of the kids site Googles.com -- not to be confused with the search engine -- say their games and songs promote self-esteem. Scholastic Inc. says its Clifford products teach reading and music -- not to mention computing.
Others say they can't possibly quell their kids' curiosity for a machine their parents -- and older siblings -- are using so much.
"The same way that every little kid who's starting to walk goes into the kitchen and takes pans out of the cabinet, they see their parents doing things and they want to do them, too," said Jim Robinson, an advertising executive who created Kneebouncers.com initially for his then-9-month-old daughter.
The site -- one of a number of so-called lapware for toddlers to toy with on parents' laps -- has Flash-animated games with lots of noise and bright colors. Robinson said he gets e-mail of thanks from parents of kids as young as 5 months old.
Research far behind marketing
Beyond the home, computers are increasingly creeping into daycare and preschool environments, in turn pressuring parents to get computers as soon as their child is born, said Peggy Meszaros, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and Families.
"Parents today are so obsessed with giving children every academic advantage, they've been persuaded that if they wait a minute to introduce children to computers and technology, that somehow their children will be behind," she said.
But if those same parents talked to teachers, they'd learn that kids pick up keyboarding and mouse skills easily even if they wait, said Patricia Cantor, chairwoman of Plymouth State University's education department.
More research is needed, proponents and skeptics agree.
"What's happening is the market is proceeding at a faster pace than the research," said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University. "It's taken awhile for the academics to reach a point where they are addressing these questions. The marketers, they were clearly on the case 10 years ago."