Pros and cons of technology for kids

Posted on May 22nd, 2014

Two-year olds now have access to iPads – and they love them. But what are they pros and cons? By Kate Sidley

By Kate Sidley

When the iPad first came out, the idea of handing it to a sticky-fingered toddler was absurd. Now, along with its little cousin the iPhone and other smartphones/tablets, it’s fast becoming a popular babysitter in modern families.

“It’s great for entertaining kids in a restaurant,” says Gina, mom to three-year-old Hannah. “It’s the difference between chasing toddlers around and having happy, quiet kids while you eat your meal. We put Hannah’s favourite TV shows on the iPad when we went on holiday and, on those rainy days when we would ordinarily be tearing our hair out, she was happy and entertained. And it’s fantastic for car trips.”

More toddlers and preschoolers are being given access to mom’s, or dad’s, iPad or smartphone. Knowing that technology is going to be a driving force in our children’s lives, we want them to be comfortable with it. But when you see a toddler staring intently and swiping a tablet, there’s a strong urge to yell: “Go play outside!”

So what does the research show about the pros and cons?

Not much, unfortunately. Small children owning iPads is such a recent development that few studies have been carried out. But there are many studies into other screen-based activities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time in toddlers under two and recommends between one and two hours’ quality programmes daily for older children.

The problems with screens rest on two issues:

  • Studies link many negatives, including obesity and attention disorders, to the length of time spent on the device or in front of the screen.
  • Inappropriate content is linked to aggressive behaviour, poor body image, sexual activity and more.

Studies do show that quality TV programmes may contribute to higher language and maths scores. There is also a growing pool of educational or creative content designed for children in apps.

The studies into other screen media are useful, but the iPad is different from other electronic devices.

  • It’s much more interactive than television
  • It’s easier to use than a computer.

Playing and learning

Apple promotes the iPad as an educational tool that encourages creative, hands-on learning. But is it really?

“Sure, I’d rather she was building with Lego or in the sandpit, but we’ve got some good educational apps that teach skills, such as learning colours or pattern recognition, or basic counting games. It’s definitely not all bad,” says Gina.
Occupational therapist from ADDnova OT centre in Johanesburg, Lucinda Home, sees frequent use of the iPad among very young children in her practice. She acknowledges educational apps may have a role in teaching specific skills, but she is sceptical about the value of learning through a screen. Nothing can replace traditional play with the real world and other human beings, she says.

“Children learn and develop by integrating a variety of sensory inputs (touch, sight, hearing, movement and so on) to form an accurate picture of their environment and the elements of their current tasks. Integration and true learning of skills is dependent on feedback from the environment, specifically proprioceptive (muscle and joint feedback) and vestibular (movement) feedback.”

She explains that tablets strengthen the child’s ability to adjust to visual cues, without recourse to the other senses. She cautions that too much ‘app time’ may result in the child learning ‘splinter skills’ without truly understanding the concepts involved in the skill he appears to have developed.

“He has just learned through visual cues what the iPad ‘expects’ of him in the game.

Tips from moms for managing technology

  • “If grown men can get addicted to Angry Birds, what can you expect from a child?” Gina laughs. “As a parent, you really have to manage it – 20 minutes is our maximum.”
  • Gina advises not leaving the iPad in plain sight. “Hannah will want to play with it, if she sees it. We’ve also become much more aware of our own screen usage and have made more of an effort to keep cellphones, tablets and laptops out of family time.”
  • Ann, mom to Laila (6) and Millie (11), bans all screens from bedrooms. “I’d find them under the covers with my iPad!” she says
  • Some moms find that an evening-only policy works best, while others allow access only on weekends. But definitely not at dinner
  • Choose app games which are child-friendly and offer imaginative, open-ended play. “I spend time researching and trying the apps before we download. I used to let the kids download anything that was free, but the iPad just got clogged up with junk. I’ve decided I’d rather pay a dollar for a game that engages the child and teaches something worthwhile,” says Ann.
  • Keep an eye out for enriching books, which include a story and game elements.
  • Always keep in mind that screen play is no substitute for active, social, and physical play.