Child's play

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By Apple's colourful technology has preschoolers going mad for gadgets. But is it doing them any good, asks FLEUR BRITTEN THE SUNDAY TIMES, LONDON
  • Published 3.01.11

Here’s a new trend in cyberspace: YouTube clips of toddlers in their first iPad encounter. “They just know what to do,” crow proud parents. “We never taught Stan how to use the iPhone — he just learnt himself,” one jubilant parent says.

Meet the “mobile kids”, the first generation to be raised with — or on — mobile technology. Or, more precisely, on Apple’s brilliantly intuitive devices, whose colourful icons and user-friendly touch screen mean that navigation, even for an 18-month-old, is, well, child’s play.

It’s a fact not lost on the app providers, who are exploiting the “pass-back” effect, where parents hand their smart gadgets to their nippers. Many apps — like Baby Flash Cards, Dr Seuss’s ABC and Wheels on the Bus — now target children. About 60 per cent of the iTunes App Store’s top 25 educational apps are designed for toddlers and preschoolers.

“You can download free books for the iPad in a couple of minutes,” says one mother of a four-year-old. “And it makes reading more fun.” Another mother, Sally, with a three-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, admits the family’s iPad was bought for the children: “They’re better on it than I am.” Tasks include counting, repeating sounds and tracing letters. Sally is delighted: “You don’t have to take 20 books on holiday and, if we are on the Tube or in church, it’s a good baby-sitting tool.”

One of the many advantages of the iPad is its portability. “Learning can take place more frequently,” says Professor Rose Luckin, a cognitive scientist at the Institute of Education, University of London. While television is seen as the baddie, Luckin argues that smart devices can provide powerful multi-sensory interactions in a family context. “Unless you are watching a film, they’re not passive. And, as they’re mobile, you can still be running around. You can be integrated more easily,” he says.

For others, though, it’s a Pandora’s box. “My five-year-old became addicted the iPad,” one mother laments. “Every time she saw it, she’d try to grab it to get to YouTube, and it was hard to monitor what she did.” It’s hardly surprising parents might encourage its pacifying properties: for some, the iPad is the new dummy.

At her north London practice, educational psychologist Kairen Cullen has seen a number of concerned parents. “In some cases, the iPad is the first thing children ask for in the morning,” she says. While she hasn’t seen any kids presenting symptoms of a clinical condition — prioritising laptop play over eating or sleeping — she notes it’s tending to displace other, more labour-intensive activities such as outdoor play. “Parents need the confidence, and time, to push more traditional activities,” she says.

Nothing can compensate for the undivided attention of a significant adult. “However good the virtual interaction, it’s never going to stretch development like human interaction does,” Cullen says. Cullen thinks there’s room for both man and machine (advising a screen limit of 20-30 minutes twice a day, maximum), but others are more hardline. According to Dr Aric Sigman, computers should be banned from schools until children reach the age of nine. “We risk infantilising the child’s mind by spoon-feeding it with strong audiovisual sensations... and subverting the development of children’s cognitive skills.”

Don’t scratch the iPad from the shopping list just yet, though. Sigman has his detractors, including John Siraj-Blatchford, of Swansea University. He points out that, although critics talk of “possible repetitive-strain injuries, lack of exercise, risks of obesity, decreased creativity, impaired language and literacy, poor concentration, social isolation, decreased motivation and even depression”, there are also benefits in “fine motor skills, communication, emergent literacy and reading readiness, mathematical thinking, problem-solving, self-esteem, self-confidence, co-operation and positive attitudes towards learning”.