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Dubai, UAE: Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter, Aradhya, was a little over a year old when he indulgently blogged about how expertly the little one operated the iPad and watched her favourite nursery rhymes. The doting celebrity grandfather couldn’t stop marvelling at how cyber savvy she was.
Such gushing sentiments are not exclusive to the likes of celebrities like Bachchan. Millions of non-celebrity parents around the world are equally enamoured of the power of this gadget to keep their toddlers enthralled as they eagerly thrus iPads into their toddler’s hands with an uninformed sense of what it can do to the child’s development.
“Every extra minute a child spends on an iPad is an extra minute lost interacting with the world around him, whether it’s human interaction with adults or his peers or interacting with toys that he can manipulate and respond to their touch.”
Thanks to the proliferation of gadgets and gizmos today, age restrictions on their usage no longer apply and we find toddlers who are barely able to stand being encouraged by parents to take to the iPad, and get drawn into a world of bright, moving images and appealing sounds.
Recent research suggests that up to 50 per cent of family households around the world own at least one iPad or tablet. These inventions have become an integral part of people’s lives and it doesn’t matter if you are seven or 70 years old, you are dependent on them to get through the day.
Recently, a young mother living in the US, Carolyn Robertson, blogged about her sense of horror at the behaviour of her one-year-old daughter a day after she had been introduced to the iPad. On the second day, when Robertson tried to play some real games with her daughter, the one-year-old’s fury at being distracted from her iPad was so intense, she threw the mother of all tantrums that shocked Robertson. The toddler had become so engrossed with the images on her iPad, she had no intention of being weaned away from it and any attempt to do so only produced negative results.
While there is a lack of comprehensive research on the subject of extremely small children being allowed to play with such gadgets and the resulting impact on their developmental milestones, the fact that we take the digital nativisation of children as a given without considering the other side of the coin, perhaps calls for introspection.
Most developmental psychologists seem to agree that it is too early to hand an iPad to children between the ages of one to four.
Educationists Gulf News spoke to said that there is little need to rob children of their imagination and creativity at that age — which develops with role playing and other usual outdoor games — by diverting their attention to a gadget.
When child developmental experts talk about the milestones in a child’s life such as motor, cognitive and other developments, they refer to the tactile aspects real role play provides. The running, jumping, turning of knobs, feeling and touching of soft and hard surfaces in games is crucial information a young brain processes as it learns to differentiate between various impulses. Whether it is recognising aromas, knowing textures or understanding voices and identifying faces, real play is irreplaceable for its developmental worth.
Where does an iPad fit into the scheme of things with its two-dimensional images of a person, flower, thing or place? How does this impact on a child’s cognitive milestones?
Educational psychologist Grainne Boyle, who works with little children at Sensation Station, a children’s sensory gym and speech language centre in Dubai, points out the important milestones a one-year-old needs to reach quickly and the journey therein which might be hampered with the use of technological gadgets.
“A one-year-old has more important skills to master than the use of an iPad,” she says. “They are still developing their gross and fine motor skills for daily living. They need plenty of opportunities to crawl, walk, clap and pick up small objects using their pincer grip. They require opportunities to imitate sounds and facial expressions of adults and to laugh when they are entertained,” she explains.
As important are the opportunities for motor coordination and intellectual development, it is the developing of emotional bonds which is equally critical in the early years, according to Boyle. It is imperative that the child learn social skills. This age is crucial for the child to bond with his parents, says Boyle. “A one-year-old is developing a very important attachment to his parents and caregivers that will affect his relationships and interactions for the rest of his life.”
At this important juncture, allowing a gadget to take control of the child’s responses can be unwise. Two-year-olds playing Angry Birds and baking virtual cakes are activities that are prematurely thrust on them while harried or ill-informed parents earn themselves a breather in their parenting routine.
Developmental psychologist Naeema Jiwani says: “Technology such as tablets and smartphones have replaced the television of previous generations which was used to entertain and pacify a child. Statistics today reveal that one out of three children uses these gadgets before they can even speak. An interesting study conducted at Barnard College’s renowned Centre for Toddler Development compared the distractibility of toddlers who were engrossed with apps to their behaviour after their iPads were confiscated and found that when iPads were taken away from the toddlers, they transformed into more verbal, more social and more creative creatures.
One of the most important disadvantages of the increased interaction with the iPad for children is the replacement of human interaction. Every extra minute a child spends on an iPad is an extra minute lost interacting with the world around him, whether it’s human interaction with adults or his peers or interacting with toys that he can manipulate and respond to their touch.
However, the counterpoint to this argument is also valid, according to Jiwani. In today’s world of increasingly gadget-oriented schooling systems right from the start, the child cannot afford to be alienated from the electronic toy.
“Aside from the disadvantages of children spending too much time on the iPad, it is also important to consider the prevalence of technology in schools and nurseries today. Many educational facilities now have specific areas known as ICT (Informative and Communication Technologies) rooms where children are encouraged to interact solely with technology, whether it is to complete their homework or conduct research on their projects. As this is such a large part of their curriculum, not exposing a child to technology ahead of time will put them at a disadvantage when they begin school.”
Many applications today, she says, work specifically on allowing children to practise hand–eye coordination as well as fine motor skills as they interact with moving objects across the screen.
The coin has two sides clearly but the imperatives cannot be wished away. “Although these applications are beneficial, they will never replace traditional toys or techniques used to improve motor skills such as building blocks or exploring different textures — neither of which the iPad provides,” says Jiwani.
According to Boyle, although the iPad is a powerful learning tool for both primary and secondary school children, it is certainly not a replacement for parenting. “Sometimes, harried parents get their infant hooked on to it for want of quality time for themselves. The iPad becomes the electronic babysitter. If at all the iPad has to stay in the lives of such toddlers, its use has to be restricted as it can cause a child to get hyperactive and distracted,” says Boyle.
“IPad use should be monitored and restricted to certain times of the day,” she says. “No child should use an iPad or game console first thing in the morning or before school. When a child independently uses an iPad, he or she is in control of navigating from screen to screen, or from game to game. They receive high-intensity visual and auditory feedback that suits their personal preferences. That would make it difficult for children to transition between early morning iPad use to sitting in a quiet classroom, paying attention to a teacher’s instructions among a class of 25 peers.”
The most disturbing influence of the iPad over a small child, however, is the alienating impact. “The more time a child uses an iPad, the less time he is spending interacting with others, and developing his social and communication skills,” says Boyle. “Furthermore, too much screen time has been linked to obesity and diabetes. Although some computer programs have reaped some positive results with improved cognition such as working memory development, parents need to weigh the pros and cons.”
Are there any appropriate activities for a one-year-old on the iPad?
“Appropriate iPad activities for a one-year old might include listening to lullabies and nursery rhymes that will support their phonological awareness and language development. They might like to listen to, dance to and clap to music with a strong rhythm. Some one-year-olds might like to look at pictures of themselves, other babies, familiar faces and favourite characters. Undoubtedly, they will love the strong visual cause and effect of swiping images onto the screen,” says Boyle.
But at all times, parents must ensure that they are not leaving their child at the mercy of the iPad just because it engages him, says Boyle. Plus, there are unexpected dangers of leaving an one-year-old unsupervised with an iPad. “IPads are a breakable electrical device — a typical-one-year old will probably try to chew it if left unattended.”
Food for thoughts for parents.
Dos and don’ts of iPad use for kids
A mother has her say.
Dubai-based health psychologist and mother of a 18-month-old boy, Dr Melanie Schlatter is someone who believes in bringing up her child the traditional way. “Whilst I am sure that the iPad is the way of the future for learning (there are some amazing apps for children now), I think that babies as young as one or two can develop nicely without one as the main source of stimulation and entertainment.
“Whilst my son can be mesmerised by phones and iPads (actively swiping the screens, adjusting the volume, pressing them on and off, and boogying if there is any sign of music), I simply keep them out of view — mainly because he tends to throw things sporadically, but also because it seems to be a quick fix in terms of stimulation, to the exclusion of everything else around him.
“At this age, I would far rather he takes the perhaps old-fashioned route, and get him engrossed in a large variety of basic toys, objects, and wildlife, as well as engaging him in learning and social/interactive opportunities that benefit the body in addition to the mind. He has a monumental amount of energy, and can often be found pushing his little friends around the house in their plastic cars, or washing and filling up containers with water, so I would far rather he exhaust himself this way.
“Much like how we should monitor television usage, my overall preference is to give him the iPad when absolutely needed (the sleep app is very helpful!) but only for a very limited time.”
Zero screen time for 0-2-year-olds
One of the most important sources of guidelines to consider is the American Academy of Paediatrics that advises zero screen time for children between the ages of zero to two years. Jiwani explains: “Screen time could be anything from the TV to the iPhone or iPad. While screen time does not harm the child’s eyesight or motor coordination skills, prolonged use of the iPad has been linked to behavioural problems later on in the child’s life. One of the most important considerations related to screen time is due to the rapid scene shifts used to create an image using technology, which leads the brain to believe that this is a normal level of activity for the brain. As a result, when the child grows older, their brain needs an even higher than normal level of stimulation to engage the brain leading to attention deficient disorders such as ADD and ADHD.
“Statistics have shown us that a child is 30 per cent more likely to develop ADHD (attention deficient hyperactive disorder) at the age of seven based on the amount of exposure they have had to screens at a younger age,” says Jiwani. “Older children have been recommended to spend no longer than two hours a day using screens.”
iPad abuse and addiction
While it might be fine for your child to use an iPad intermittently, as a parent, what you need to stop is addiction to the virtual world, says Jiwani. “One of the most interesting considerations is that although the iPad has the ability to calm the child down, the child becomes dependent on the iPad as a tool for self–regulation — an important skill that must be learnt independently.
“As the child grows older and has to function within a school environment where iPads are not handed out as freely, this becomes a challenge as the child has not learnt to pacify himself.”
There are signs to look out for which reveal your child is addicted to technology, says Jiwani.
These would include:
a) a lack of interest in other activities apart from the iPad.
b) constantly being distracted by technology.
c) Withdrawal symptoms when being separated from their technology.
Digital detox for children
If parents feel their children are overly dependent on this technology, it is important to go through a ‘digital detox’ which basically involves increasing the amount of time spent together as a family through quality time and an increase in physical activity. “Most importantly, parents need to follow the rules set out for their children, including not using their devices during meal time or just before, during or after sleep time,” advises Jiwani.
© Gulf NewsSep 2014
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