Tablets: for education or entertainment?

How technology is affecting our kids

“I honestly don’t know. It’s the only thing that calms her down.”

The mother of a fussy 16-month old at a high-end restaurant in Toronto shakes her head as she answers the question: What would you do without an iPad?

And judging from the half-dozen other patrons in the restaurant who were entertaining their small children with their smart phones and tablets, she’s not alone.

Is there anything wrong with constantly exposing children to this kind of technology?

Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying children under the age of two should only be watching television two hours per day at most. It was controversial at the time, but in the past 15 years there have been countless studies showing an undeniable link between excessive TV time and learning disabilities.

A study by Pediatrics showed that infants who watched a higher amount of television per day nearly always developed stronger attention disorders later in life, compared to those who had watched none.

But that was TV in 1999; this is tablets in 2014. Although both are considered screen media, the latter of the two is arguably more than just a viewing device.

Tablets are often used by parents as a learning tool. With millions of apps targeted towards young children to help develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, the market for kids’ apps is rapidly expanding.

But as illustrated by the mom in the restaurant, many — if not most — of the interactions between toddlers and tablets aren’t for educational purposes at all, but are a means for entertainment.

Alex Letov, a game designer from GLU Mobile, says that more games are being aimed towards children, even if they’re not the target demographic.

“Developers want to widen their audience as much as they can without compromising the game,” says Letov. “We make the controls super easy; make the game intuitive. Even the icons on the app store are very colourful and flashy. They pop up at you. It helps kids be drawn to it. A lot of developers do keep kids in mind, even if the game isn’t for children.”

Some apps have proven to be a benefit to children. The U.S. Department of Education says that a PBS app called Martha Speaks increases the vocabularies of children under seven by as much as 31 per cent in only two weeks. But in 2013 the American Academy of Pediatrics said they’re sticking by their original statement; a child’s time with any form of passive media should be limited, and that includes tablets.

A child will always learn more from someone interacting with them then they will learn from an iPad.

“A child will always learn more from someone interacting with them then they will learn from an iPad,” says Jelena Brcic, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Toronto. “You can practice language or social skills on electronics, but kids will learn more from seeing a person actually doing the behaviour.”

The brain develops more rapidly in its first three years than it does during the rest of its life span; when children learn in such a non-participative way, effects are long-term.

“If we’re relying on these devices to be language teachers, then we’re going to forget how to use language properly,” says Brcic.

“Even looking at how high school students speak these days, it’s getting worse and worse. Eventually university students will be communicating poorly and we’ll be satisfied with just a summary. We won’t need to talk to others because the answers we’re seeking will be at our fingertips.”

Children are being taught on tablet apps that in order to finish a puzzle on a screen, you simply touch two areas to connect the pieces. They technically are still learning hand-eye coordination, but the apps are providing a particularly limited version of it, and it’s doing so in a very sensory-restricted environment.

By merely watching these puzzles being completed on a screen, they’re lacking the skills to know how to actually put one together. Their bodies aren’t developing what it takes to see a puzzle piece, pick it up, and connect it with another piece. They’re only learning a small portion of the motor and mental skills it takes to complete the activity.

The proliferation of tablet technology also creates barriers in socialization. What is being demonstrated when an irritated toddler is consoled by an iPad, rather than identifying the source of his or her discomfort? That we should turn to our devices instead of each other?

Adults who were born without these electronics find it difficult to put their smart phones away when they’re in social situations. If a generation who has already mentally matured when these devices were invented can’t ignore them, what are the social skills going to be like for people born into a post-tablet world?

“If kids are socialized by their parents that they should always be on their iPad, then they’ll always be on their iPad,” says Brcic. “It’s the same in that if you’re not socialized to put away your phone during dinner, you’re never going to voluntarily choose to do it. When we have lots of parents checking their phone during dinner, their kids are going to learn that’s what you do in social situations. No children growing up with this conditioning today is going to know to put them away when they’re with friends.”

Tablets and smart phones are still relatively new forms of technology. We’ve only been able to track their short-term effects, but the educated guesses from child psychologists and pediatricians are enough to conjecture they are hindering children’s learning patterns in the long term.

The majority of our waking day fundamentally revolves around items we can plug in or turn on. And that’s only going to increase in the future.

Handing over an iPad to a child has become a precarious parental judgment call. While tablets have proven to be useful tools in some regards, allowing children to spend unlimited time on them will eventually come with a cost. So the question remains: is it worth the risk?

Photo (Flickr CC) by Marcus Kwan.

Originally published in Issue 18 of Converge Magazine.