Tablet ownership has more than doubled in the past few years – and as many parents are finding, children are highly proficient at using them. But are these devices harmful to their development? Or do they encourage ‘technological intelligence’?
Since their launch, tablets have become increasingly popular in preschool and early-years learning. And, in growing numbers, parents are buying them for home use.
If you are an adult in possession of both a tablet and children, the children are likely to take possession of the tablet. According to Ofcom’s latest report on the subject, household ownership of tablet computers has more than doubled from 20% in 2012 to 51%; where there are children in those households, they tend to be users too. When the Common Sense Report on media use by children aged up to eight in the US was published last autumn, it found that as many children (7%) have their own tablets as adults did two years ago (8%). Given the fivefold rise in adult ownership of tablets in the US since 2011, it seems reasonable to expect a similarly large leap in the number of children owning and using tablets by 2015.
But the strength of children’s engagement with the devices can sometimes appear sinister, even cultish. There are countless YouTube videos of toddlers sliding thwarted fingers along the pages of magazines, trying to unlock them. One friend claims her child’s first word was not “Mum” or “Dad” but “iPad”. In March the tabloids reported that a four-year-old girl was receiving treatment as “Britain’s youngest iPad addict”. The clinical psychologist Linda Blair, who notes an increase in parents asking her about their children’s tablet usage, says she would never hand her iPad to a toddler. But many parents happily do just that, while others are so concerned about the impact of technology on their children that they leave the room to use their mobile. Which is right? Do parents who choose to limit or deny access to tablets deprive their children of technological intelligence, or are they keeping them safe from an as yet unknown harm?
It was this question, or one close to it, that led Jordy Kaufman, director of the BabyLab at Swinburne University in Melbourne, to explore the impact of the use of technology on children aged two to five. BabyLab – note the hi-tech intercapital – is Australia’s first infant cognitive neuroscience laboratory, and Kaufman got the idea for his research while observing his son, then five, playing with an iPod Touch:
“It was so intuitive to him, I thought: there is something important going on here and we need to learn what effects this is having on learning and attention, memory and social development.”
His team’s research will be published later this year, but Kaufman strongly believes it is wrong to presume the same evils of tablets as televisions:
“When scientists and paediatrician advocacy groups have talked about the danger of screen time for kids, they are lumping together all types of screen use. But most of the research is on TV. It seems misguided to assume that iPad apps are going to have the same effect. It all depends what you are using it for.”
For very young children, there may be benefits in being able to handle the world of the tablet before they have the motor skills to handle their broader environment.
The difficulty for parents is that the dangers of tablet use for children – if dangers exist – are as yet unidentified. Research is in its infancy. We know little about what is going on in a child’s head while they are using a tablet. This is partly because it is hard to measure brain activity in someone who is moving, and partly because metal cannot be taken into an MRI scanner. Until we know more, parents can only follow their own parenting instincts.
So what should a parent who fears their child’s proficiency on a tablet do? You can choose educational apps or propose other activities. You could consider setting a time limit on tablet use – although Flewitt disagrees with this approach, in case you interrupt your child at the point of the app’s maximum benefit. She has another idea:
“You need to acquire proficiency, you can acquire it from them. They can teach you.”
This approach may also teach the parent to understand exactly HOW their child uses technology and can therefore relax in their dealings with the use of iPads and computers based on how the child shows their understanding of it to you.