Technology’s affect on early childhood development leaves people on the fence.
With technology permeating almost every aspect of our daily lives, it is no surprise that children are being exposed to it at a younger and younger age. Mobile touch technology, made popular by Apple, is more prevalently found in the tiny hands of toddlers and elementary-school youth as they develop and learn to interact with the world.
However, the debate on the effects of such exposure on the development of young children continues to thrive, with many early childhood educators emphasizing the importance of social interaction and the need to hold off on technology use in a child’s beginning stages.
“There’s lots of research coming out now about brain development, [stating that] children need, from the moment of birth, people to touch, they need to look at people, need to make eye contact,” explained Joanne Baxter, associate professor of child and youth studies at Mount Royal University.
Studies have shown that for young children, learning comes through unstructured play. The years between two and five are the time when cognitive skills like language and the recognition of one’s impact on their surroundings, as well as social skills like sharing and problem solving are developed.
According to Baxter, “a lot of parents don’t understand all of the things that happen in play.” Having spent so many years sitting in desks and learning from textbooks, that structure is what people remember about education and tend to feel is best for their children from very early on. Technology seems to play effortlessly into this need.
Mother-to-be Kristen Loates, recognizes that touch technology is “the way of the future” and plans to make it accessible to her son. She does however admit that it “should be used sparingly, as with all things, as we still need to encourage our children to be active, read books, write and draw and play.”
More and more young children are putting down picture books and pencil crayons in favour of flashier technologies.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Picpocketbooks.com
With two step-daughters, Emma, 7, and Nevaeh, 6, who have been playing with iPods for over two years, Loates has found the technology to be a useful tool to keep the kids occupied during car trips. As with television before it, touch technology has provided an opportunity for busy parents to distract their children when specific tasks require their full attention or they simply long for a break.
“If a parent begins to rely on technology as a babysitter then clearly the tool is being misused and neither the potential of the child or the technology's potential is reached,” said Josh Heidebrecht, president of Calgary-based app developer Soma Creates.
After seeing his daughter use an iPod to emulate him talking on the phone, he recognized the potential to apply this type of technology to children and in 2009 ventured into the realm of developing family-friendly iPhone games based on popular children’s TV shows and books.
Heidebrecht is quick to point out that technology is merely a tool, but like any tool, when used correctly, can do amazing things. Its benefits rely on how parents and app developers apply it.
“The apps are still in their earliest forms, but I see in the near future richly interactive experiences that will contribute to children's learning,” he said. “The technology is in place, the market exists, so now it will take a bit of time for the content to catch up.”
In Heidebrecht’s opinion a large portion of apps available through Apple’s App Store rarely benefit children’s development. “The quality today focuses on a lot of flash, but often very little substance. This makes it difficult for parents to sort through the store to find quality.”
Selina Renfrow, mother to five-year-old Cianna, admits that the free apps, specifically, are far from educational. Her daughter prefers games that she is able to understand via the visual component, with Angry Birds being the game that first drew her attention to an iPod.
Initially having Cianna use an iPod during their bus rides, Renfrow noticed her daughter’s interest in the technology extending to their time at home as well, prompting her to decide against finding her iPod after it was misplaced a few weeks ago.
“[Cianna] gets enough TV, she does not need video games on top of that,” Renfrow explained. “Especially, when she’s with friends, they have toys and dress-up clothes and books, just a thousand other things that kids should play with. They don’t need to be huddled over a little electronic device.”
Renfrow also acknowledged the lack of collaboration with these types of technologies. She noticed that kids would just argue over whose turn it was to play with the iPod as they’re predominantly oriented towards solo users.
During the years when young children are meant to be fostering social skills and learning conflict resolution, Baxter mentioned that these technologies could hinder that particular development. Being able to simply turn off a game when a child is losing doesn’t help them learn early on that you can’t always win in life.
Touch technology does however have its benefits, especially in comparison to traditional computer technology. According to Heidebrecht, “Young children are still developing their dexterity and coordination, so keyboards and mice form a barrier to traditional computers. The touch screen changes all that, nobody needs to teach you how to point.”
With every swipe of a finger, young children can see an immediate result, developing their perception of cause and effect and arguably aiding them in learning that they are able to impact their environment. Ultimately, a screen is still a screen, and like television, these technologies are limited in their ability to respond to inquisitive children. This need to converse and receive clarification is why interactions with parents and caregivers are key to early childhood development.
While studies about technology’s affect on early childhood development are only recently gaining popularity, it seems most people, whether they are parents themselves or not, recognize that just like television use, playing with iPods or iPhones should indeed be limited during a child’s formative years.
According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics published just last month titled, “Media Use by Children Younger Than Two Years,” found that many programs that are marketed as “educational” lack the evidence to support that claim, young children learn best from unstructured play and interaction with humans, and that young children with heavy media use are at risk for delays in language development.
Although this report was based on television use, the findings can easily be extrapolated to touch and video-game technology. The report recommends that media limits should be set, supervised independent play should be encouraged and that parents should set an example in terms of their own media use.
Both Renfrow and Baxter acknowledge that children will learn how to use technology eventually; that is the nature of our current world. Even though parents do wish to give their kids the best advantage, allowing their young children to focus too much energy on an iPod or iPhone may in fact be hindering their child’s success.
Only time will tell whether these interactive technologies, that are becoming increasingly present in classrooms, will alter how a young child thinks and perceives its world, and what foundational skills will fall by the wayside on the path towards the future.