Does your toddler love technology?
With digital devices literally at their fingertips, we investigate the pros and cons of touchscreen technology for tots
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.’