''No, no, no,'' Joseph Dillon scolds the personal computer in frustration. But with a few deft moves of the mouse, he solves the problem. The image he wants pops up on the screen.
''E-e-e-e-e,'' he squeals with joy, smiling and clapping his hands.
His anguish and elation are shared by millions each day as they confront computer technology, even if most are not so demonstrative.
But then, 2-year-olds don't hide their emotions. What so delighted Joseph Dillon was the image of a clown with balloons.
The next wave of keyboard conscripts is toddling into the digital age. They may not say much or be toilet-trained yet, but they are a lucrative new market for software producers.
Sales of software for children ages 5 and younger more than doubled last year, to $41 million, according to PC Data Inc., a research company in Reston, Va., that tracks the industry. For its calculation, PC Data counted software programs sold in four sets of recommended age groups -- 18 months to 3 years, 2 to 4, 2 to 5 and 3 to 5.
Introducing children this young to computing, however, is a subject of heated debate among educators and child-development experts.
''Computers are transforming our society in both good ways and silly ways,'' said Judah L. Schwartz, co-director of the Educational Technology Center at Harvard University. ''And this seems to be one of the sillier ways.''
Nothing silly about it, some child development specialists reply. Personal computers, they insist, will soon be as natural a fixture in the playroom or nursery as Dr. Seuss or Babar.
''Just as books are adapted in both form and content to meet the needs of babies and toddlers, computers and software can be adapted to delight and educate even the very young,'' said Corinne Rupert, a child psychologist. If the software is properly made and easy to use, she said, ''There is no minimum age level to computer introduction.''
Indeed, Ms. Rupert served as an adviser on Jumpstart Baby, a software program that is scheduled to go on sale next month and epitomizes the youth movement in computer software -- it is recommended for children from 2 years down to 9 months old.
Not everybody agrees that children should be taking time away from blocks and dolls to sit in front of a computer. Such talk has even longtime analysts of the computer industry shaking their heads in amazement.
''What's next?'' asked...
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