It’s the weekend, you’re snowed under with domestic tasks and your youngest child is grizzling for attention at your feet. So why not just hand over the iPad for half an hour to keep her amused? What possible harm could it do?
Well, maybe none at all. As long as it is just this once, and just for half an hour. But anyone acquainted with small children knows that, when they enjoy an experience, they want to repeat it. And they can get very upset indeed when we stop them.
Children’s love affair with tech
Babies and toddlers love smartphones and tablets, for two main reasons. First, they’re programmed to imitate the behaviour of their elders: grown-ups are always fiddling with handheld devices, so children want to fiddle with them too.
Second, since tiny children are naturally frustrated by their general powerlessness, they find it very satisfying to swipe at a screen and make something happen. It’s the same sort of pleasure-hit as a cuddle from mum or splashing water in the bath.
This means that half an hour with a tablet device is usually the first step down a slippery slope. Soon, it’s in regular use as a pacifier and before you know it, screen-play has become your child’s preferred ‘default activity’.
Effects of screen-play on child development
Sedentary screen-play is now displacing many other childhood activities that are known to be essential for physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. Activities that, in the past, filled children’s days, such as:
rolling, grasping, crawling, running, jumping, climbing …
active, creative play (especially outdoors) using whatever comes to hand
interacting with the adults who care for them
listening to (and eventually joining in with) songs, nursery rhymes and stories
Or perhaps just having a much-needed nap.
All these activities – designed by nature to develop infant bodies and brains – are steadily being displaced in the lives of many children by screen-based entertainment. And the addition of the iPad to the repertoire of solitary, sedentary fun means it’s happening at an ever earlier age. Unless we reverse the trend soon, the long-term consequences for physical and mental health could be disastrous.
Recommended screen-time by age
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that:
children under two should have no screen-time at all
the over-twos should have no more than an hour or two per day
parents should monitor and mediate their young children’s screen use.
And IT experts like those at Internet Matters stress the importance of teaching internet safety from a very early age. At present, however, the advice is often ignored – probably because most parents don’t recognise the dangers of that slippery slope and, once screen-play is children’s default activity it’s extremely difficult to change tack.
Teaching children how to use an iPad (as you would a cooker)
So I’ve started recommending parents to start as they mean to go on, by treating devices with internet connectivity in the same way they treat another item of domestic equipment. Something that – like iPads and smartphones – was designed for adults but is potentially dangerous for young children. The cooker.
I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of letting a child under two fiddle about with the cooker. And because you know how dangerous it is, you’re resolute about keeping little children away from it. This means they seldom whinge to join in with the cooking.
However, cooking is an important life skill. So, once a child is two or three, you probably invite them to help with meal preparation, showing how the cooker works but in very controlled conditions. Gradually, as they grow older and more confident, you maybe let them turn on the gas, stir the pudding, help you put the biscuits in to cook … always under careful supervision.
All this time, you’re constantly reminding them about safety rules, modelling the best way to work with the technology, and watching their progress. Maybe, when they’re about eight, you’ll feel confident enough to let them make beans on toast for their tea.
By the time they’re in their teens, you may have another accomplished cook in the family who occasionally takes over dinner duty.
Being proactive in children’s digital lives
This is how adults have passed on essential life skills and safety information to their children since time immemorial. Unfortunately, since even the tiniest of children can operate a tablet, we’ve been misled into thinking we can leave kids to it and they’ll sort it out for themselves.
But they need help and time to learn about internet safety, and we have to nurture their self-discipline and intelligence in using digital technology.
What’s more, in the first seven or so years of children’s lives, real life experiences are very important to help them better understand how to function in their environments.
Real interaction and real play develops physical fitness and coordination, self-confidence and emotional resilience, social competence and communication skills, and ‘common sense’ understanding of the world we live in. These are qualities that will help children navigate the world – both on- and offline – for the rest of their lives.