I have a confession to make. I let my two-year-old play with and drool on my iPhone. When she starts to screech and flail in her buggy on the bus, I whip it out and open up a cartoon app to prevent toddler meltdown in public. The question is, should I? Is tech bad for tots?
Today our little ones are digital natives. Touchscreen technology is an integral part of our world and so, inevitably, theirs too. The number of apps aimed at them is on the increase and you can buy touchscreen tablet computers just for toddlers. Peppa Pig, Miffy, Paddington, Elmer and even Peter Rabbit have gone digital. But, like many parents, I can’t help worrying whether this new technology is educationally beneficial or just a load of brain-addling distractions dreamt up by clever marketing people. When it comes to the early years and technology, experts are divided into two camps of thought. Some think that, as it’s all so new, we simply can’t know what the long-term effects will be, so it should be avoided altogether. ‘There is absolutely no need for very young children to experience these technologies,’ says child psychologist Dr Richard House of Roehampton University. ‘They need to learn about human relationships and being in the physical world by experiencing it first hand. New technology is all about experiencing the world second or third hand.’ He recommends that babies and toddlers shouldn’t be exposed to any screens at all, not even TV (gulp!). For many of us, though, that’s just not realistic. And Dr Rosie Flewitt, an early years education specialist from the Open University, agrees. ‘We must recognise that new technology exists and is part of our everyday lives. But while there isn’t any strong scientific evidence yet to show that some exposure to new technology causes harm to young children, its overuse can have negative effects on behaviour,’ she says. ‘Parents should be sensible about how they use it with their children and make sure they experience a wide range of activities, some of which could include new technology.’ So if, like me, you have taken the view that technology is an unavoidable part of modern life, here are some expert tips on how to use it wisely with your little one.
Set a precedent
It’s best to drum the message in – right from the word go – that you are always going to be around when they’re using any kind of technology. ‘Supervision is very important for all children,’ says Janette Wallis, an educational advisor for electronic toy specialists LeapFrog. ‘If you’ve made it clear from early on that you’re going to be involved and will be monitoring what they’re doing when they are using the internet and other types of technology, it has long-term benefits. Then, when they get older and start to use things like Facebook, you won’t have any battles to face over your involvement.’
Share the experience
Heather Crossley, editorial director of Ladybird, oversees a whole range of baby and toddler apps – many featuring famous characters such as Spot the puppy and Peppa Pig. She compares their use to that of a traditional lift-the-flap book. ‘Apps create the chance for discovery that you undertake with a child, they’re not something for them to use by themselves. It’s got to be about that shared experience, discovery and excitement. You supervise and interact with them – talking about what they can see or do and joining in.’
Limit screen time
Boundaries should be set in terms of how much access to screens your little one has. But how much is too much? Early years literacy expert Sue Palmer takes a hard line, citing the American Academy of Paediatrics which recommends that children under two should not watch any TV. She believes the same goes for computers. Supernanny Jo Frost, whose new book Toddler SOS is out in September, has a more pragmatic approach. She suggests you limit a child’s screen time to no more than one or two hours a day, saying too much has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep patterns and impaired academic performance as a child grows up. Jo also recommends not eating in front of a screen and keeping TVs, computers and games consoles out of bedrooms – whatever your child’s age.
Vary their activities
‘Excessive screen time leaves less time for active, creative play – this has a huge impact on health, physically, mentally and socially,’ warns Jo. ‘Rather than relying on screen time for entertainment, help your child to find a range of different things to do. Suggest activities such as reading, playing a sport or trying a board game.’
Exercise quality control
As with books, TV shows and toys, it’s up to parents to be choosy about apps. After all, you wouldn’t read your pre-schooler a teenage vampire book at bedtime! ‘Do your research, read reviews – look for something that’s good for them and is educationally sound,’ says Heather Crossley. ‘Some free or really cheap apps aren’t that good.’ ‘There are a lot of apps out there of very little educational value,’ agrees Dr Flewitt. ‘Some cover certain, simple tasks and they soon become quite boring – you touch an animal and it makes a noise. They’re great in their own way, but are very self-contained. But other apps are starting to appear – what I would call open apps – that offer infinite creative possibilities. That’s what parents should be looking out for – apps that allow children to be creative and encourage parents and children to play together.’
Don’t forget books
As adult reading increasingly goes digital, children’s is set to do so too. But that doesn’t mean physical books should stop being integral to their world.Rachel Levy, children’s librarian and chair of judges for this year’s Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (the Booker prizes of the kids’ book world) says: ‘I would certainly not recommend that apps replace books altogether. There’s a certain experience you get if you share a book with a child. I think it’s important for them to be able to feel, touch and turn pages. It’s all part of the learning experience.‘Having said that, I’m not anti-apps. I have a friend who downloads an app of a book onto her phone so, when out with her son where it’s difficult to take an actual book, they look at it together.’
Apps on test
Melissa's daughter, Phoebe, and her friend Tilly (both two and a half) test out some popular apps for toddlers.
Draw and Tell
Duck Duck Moose, £1.49
Kids can colour, finger paint and make recordings to talk about their creations. The girls stabbed their fingers at pictures of animals. However, they found it tricky to change the colour of their ‘paintbrush’ and soon grew bored. It’s lovely, but probably a little old for these two.
£2.99, Sanoma Media
A really nice blend of story with in-built games – the girls helped their bunny pal to rake the soil and plant carrot seeds. I’m not quite so sure about Daddy rabbit winking out of the screen at them though!
We’re on a train, we’re late, Phoebe is tired and hungry. I open this on my phone. It’s a bewildering, noisy, chaotic combination of animal cartoons andphone noises. Phoebe loves it. A parrot’s face appears. It repeats everything we say. My daughter giggles endlessly and a potentially fraught journey becomes a fun shared experience. We even draw a small crowd.
Peppa Me Books
£1.99, Penguin Books
Quite a simple affair – they are really just e-books with some audio (although there is a record-your-own-voiceover feature I discovered belatedly). Both girls are devout Peppa fans, but neither was hugely impressed. Their little fingers tapped all over the place but nothing much happened. ‘Can we go to Peter Rabbit?’ Tilly asked.
The Original Tale of Peter Rabbit
Penguin Books, £2.99
This looks and sounds gorgeous. A combination of Beatrix Potter’s story about the naughty bunny plus games – such as going to Mr McGregor’s tool shed and playing ‘hide the bunny’ under the flowerpots. Tilly loved it and was transfixed but Phoebe lost patience and wandered off.
Spot Goes to the Farm
£1.99, Penguin Books
Phoebe was a little overexcited at the start with some particularly ‘extravagant’ swiping at the screen before she got into it. It works like a lift-the-flap book, with some carefully judged interactivity. The only downside was that after Tilly had opened a barn or stable door to reveal the animal inside, she wanted to shut it again and couldn’t. The app makers hadn’t anticipated toddler tidiness.