By Julia Headland
We have probably all heard at some stage there are concerns about letting our toddlers and older children use smart phones and tablets, but I suspect that many of us are guilty of letting our children have access to them even if it is just to watch an episode of Peppa Pig! I mean, what harm could it really do? I have to admit that before researching this blog, I had a flawed understanding of how potentially damaging technology, particularly unrestricted use of smart phones and tablets, could be to our young children and it has certainly changed the way in which I view the usage of technology with my own children. In fact, the worries about technology and children are so great that the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended that there should be no screen time for any child under the age of 2 years and a maximum of 2 hours thereafter.
Interestingly, I understand that the late Steve Jobs of Apple, never allowed his children to have a smart phone or tablet; if this is true, I wonder why that might have been – quite possibly nothing but curious nevertheless.
How widespread is the problem?
Recent research shows that 10% of children under the age of 4 years old are put to bed with a tablet to be allowed to play games or watch TV until they fall asleep. There is therefore every reason to understand the concerns about children being slaves to the screen. There is already a substantial body of research that links excessive screen time with obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic underachievement. In fact, even before the introduction of a well-known tablet in 2010, experts were warning that 80% of children arrived at primary school with poor coordination and sedentary lifestyles. There should be no surprise then when with the boom of smart phones and tablets, there has been a reported decline in the mental and physical health of children of all ages. This is echoed by Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield who warns about the effects of technology on literacy. She states that learning to read helps children to learn to put ideas into logical order and that staring at a screen puts their brains into suspended animation.
So why is screen time deemed as harmful to toddlers?
Experts are concerned on many levels but particularly because they view that too much ‘screen grazing’ contributes to low resilience. We have already seen this in older children; a report by ChildLine stated that Britain is producing deeply, unhappy youngsters who are sad, lonely, with low self esteem and an increasing predilection to self harm. The worrying thing here perhaps, is the fact that older children have only been using this technology since 2010, not since they were toddlers, so given the young age of some children who have access to screen time, are we about to see an epidemic in years to come?
So, why is screen time harmful to toddlers? A doctor from Boston University, Dr Redesty (2016) says that, “heavy device use during young childhood could interfere with development of empathy, social and problem solving skills that are typically obtained by exploring, unstructured play and interacting with friends.” She went on to say that there is a very real fear that these devices also may replace the hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual motor skills which are important for the learning and application of maths and science.
There is also the worry that screen time will prevent toddlers engaging in ‘Real Play’. Real play allows children the opportunity to cope with challenges themselves. It enables them to learn from mistakes, picking themselves up after they fall or sorting out squabbles with their playmate. All this helps them to be more emotionally resilient and boosts their self confidence.
One of the most prominent concerns from scientists and psychologists is the effects of screen time and the development of the baby’s and toddler’s neural pathways. If the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses are not developed in early childhood, it is difficult to retrieve them later. There is a fear that a whole generation is going to grow up without the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships because of endless screen time.
Babies are born with an intense desire to learn about their world so they are highly motivated to interact with people and objects around them- this is the beginning of real play. This is why games like ‘peek-a-boo’ are enjoyable as it helps develop social skills. The concern is though that when young babies and toddlers are given tablets, the instant rewards they get from the high-tech device, mean that they don’t need to bother with real play. Real play allows children to develop initiative, problem solving skills and many other positive traits such as a ‘can do’ attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience.
‘Free Play’…a positive note to end on…
I think it would be fair to say that sometimes we give our children a smart phone or tablet because we are busy and we don’t want our children to be bored or sometimes we do it because we feel guilty that for whatever reason, we can’t give our child attention. The good news is that we shouldn’t feel guilty that we can’t spend every waking hour playing with our children and that actually ‘free play’, that is play without technology or adult intervention, is actually a very important for neural pathway development.
Free play is incredible at developing those neural pathways and laying down the foundations for the skills our children need for life. Children need to be able to play on their own to test their limits, discover new things, figure out how to interact with each other, fail and bounce back and solve problems.
Other concerns about screen time are that children become very adept at ‘swiping right’ however some children lack dexterity in their fingers. The Association of Teachers has reported a marked increase in the number of children unable to perform simple tasks such as building blocks.