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Should I let my child play with an iPad or smartphone?

The modern baby and toddler will encounter smartphones, tablets and computers from the word go, but how much technology is good for them?

Posted: 19 November 2013
by John Farndon

girl with phone
Using your smartphone as an electronic babysitter can lead to problems.

We live in a media dominated world and it's hard to keep a toddler away from TV, smartphone and computer technology, even in you want to. In fact, a recent study by child smartphone manufacturer VTech showed that apparently a third of babies now know how to use one of these devices before they can talk.

Headline-grabbing surveys like these, conducted by manufacturers, should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. But there’s no doubt that smartphones and computers are already looming big in the lives of babies, especially babies of younger parents who themselves grew up entirely in the high tech world.

What's wrong with TV?

A decade ago, experts worried about using television as an electronic nanny, as babies were left to watch it on their own while carers got on with the household chores. Some research showed that overstimulation from television's fast-changing, attention-grabbing images might lead to later difficulties in concentration, and that too much at a young age might even delay language learning as toddlers were confused by the continual sound.

Now, often, it’s the smartphone that steps in as electronic nanny. Indeed, many mums now give their baby a smartphone rather than a dummy or a soft toy when they’re simply being troublesome. Manufacturers have responded with a range of baby apps.

Many of the concerns about TV seem less of an issue with smartphones, because phones are not so all engrossing, and have an element of interactivity missing with TV. However, despite mountains of research, no-one is yet sure just if overexposure to microwaves does real damage to the developing tissues of an infant. So to be on the safe side, most paediatricians recommend that infants should not engage with electronic media for more than an hour a day – and that they shouldn’t have a smartphone and computer in their bedroom where they can play unsupervised.

Why the interest?

Toddlers find technology fascinating, because it lets them do clever things. Most toddlers love pressing things and making things happen, and unless you’re careful you’ll find your little one’s just a little more adept at ringing someone on your mobile than you’d like. One toddler of 18 months recently successfully bid on eBay for a classic car on a smartphone! This is why you need to be sure that you’ve set all the parental filters and locks on your computers and smartphones so that they can't stumble upon inappropriate content (or run up a massive bill!) – though a few toddlers even manage to break through locks.

In the past, computers weren’t much of an issue for under-twos. This age group just don’t have the manual skill to operate a mouse or trackpad, or enough knowledge to press the keyboard except randomly. They might become familiar with computers, as mum talks to her sister on skype, or shows family photos on screen, which seems positive because it is interactive. Some toddlers are even very good at identifying animals on screen and making the right noise. But that was about it, until recently. 

The rise of tablets

Tablet computers, however, are changing the situation radically. Tablet computers are small and simply-shaped enough for a toddler to hold – and the touch-screen and swipe system is so easy to use that even babies under one can manage. A YouTube video shows a one-year-old so familiar with touch and swipe that to her a paper magazine seems like a broken iPad. There are now a wealth of baby-oriented apps for adult tablets, as well as tablets created specifically for toddlers.

Pros and cons

Opponents think that screen-time takes little ones away from interacting with the world, from physical development and from interaction with carers. Supporters argue that they’re no different in essence from a clever interactive book – and they’re great for parent and child to look at together.  The great benefit must be that they can introduce toddlers to the computer technology that will be part of their lives, at a very early age. They will become familiar with moving around the screen, finding things and finding answers within, and the right interactive software may even help with language and cognitive skills.

On the other hand, there is a genuine danger of them becoming hugely addictive, especially if used unsupervised, and draining away time from much more valuable activities for a toddler. It’s far too early to yet for any meaningful research to have been done into the ups and downs of tablets. They may be a hugely valuable aid to the children of the future, who will find a whole new world open to them at an early age. But until then, it seems wise to use them judiciously – either together with your baby as you would a book, or only under your watchful eye for limited periods.

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John Farndon is the author of 50 Things You Really Need to Know: Super Bright Baby (£9.99, Quercus). Available from Amazon

Super Bright Baby by John Farndon

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