How much tech can children take?

Are today's children facing technology overload, or simply gearing themselves up for life in a digital world? Stewart Mitchell investigates

Stewart Mitchell
18 Nov 2011

Every generation of parents faces their own technological dilemmas. Parents of yesteryear were warned about deploying the television as an unpaid babysitter.

Today’s parents have more than one screen in the living room to worry about: PCs, smartphones, tablets and games consoles are all part of the fabric of daily life for today’s children.

On the one hand, researchers warn of the potential dangers of too much “screen time”, pointing to alarming (some say scaremongering) research that suggests over-exposure leads to an increased risk of developing autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The child is interested in the world and the devices their parents use, and it’s incredible how much they can learn

Autism link

Educators, meanwhile, highlight how technology can improve interaction between child and parent, and provide essential life skills, such as enhanced communication and multitasking. Parents are left with conflicting messages, amid built-in anxieties about what’s best for our children. But how much technology is too much technology for children?

How much time children spend with technology is a contentious issue, with traditionalists stressing the importance of “physical play”, and citing figures from research body ChildWise, which claims children (aged five to 15) spend on average five and a half hours a day in front of screens.

“There’s enough research to say that it could have long-term detrimental effects, and you don’t know if it will, but safety is the best policy,” believes Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, who rails against young people being exposed to screen technologies before the age of two. “There’s research linking it to ADHD and autism, and it’s to do with the focusing of attention. They need real-life interaction with people, not to be staring at a screen.”

Palmer cites guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that suggests even older children should spend no more than two hours a day in front of screens of any type.

“Before the age of two, it should be a lot less than that – none at all even – and should be kept below two hours until they’re at least into double figures.”

No evidence

It’s strong stuff, but the research behind the concerns has been called into question by academics that support the early introduction of technology – in the right circumstances.

“There’s no hard evidence either way; there are lots of surveys and opinions, but it’s short on rigorous research,” says John Siraj-Blatchford, an honorary professor at the University of Swansea and co-director of the Supporting Playful Learning with ICT project. “Much of the research reported comes down to selective citation of marginal studies. Time after time, when people do a objective review of the evidence, technology use comes up as a positive influence.”

Although there are undoubted dangers online, and real risks of RSI from overusing computers, it’s inevitable that children will be interested in technology – and denying access could leave them at a disadvantage.

“A lot of it is common sense: if you have a child born into the world where everyday literacy practices involve a diversity of technologies, then the child will be interested and want to use them,” says Dr Rosie Flewitt of the Educational Dialogue Research Unit at the Open University. “The child is interested in the world and the devices their parents use, and it’s incredible how much they can learn.”

Early learning

The debate around preschool technology generates the most heat, with critics highlighting the competing benefits of physical playtime, reading and developing human emotions as reasons to eschew gadgetry. However, Dr Christine Stephen, a research fellow at the School of Education at the University of Stirling, says it’s too easy to lump technologies together when totting up the time spent with gadgets and screens.

“There’s much more to this than just computers,” Stephen claims. “There’s what you can do with a mobile phone, what you can do if you’re playing a computer game that someone has bought for you as an educational experience, and what you could be doing if you’re Skyping your grandmother in Australia – the benefits and values of these things are all different.

“Devices such as a digital camera can be a great entry point, because adults and children can share together,” she adds. “It’s inclusive and communicative, and it helps with family recollection. You can transfer all your pictures onto a computer, prompting conversations and sharing.”

While the experts we spoke to fully accept that there needs to be a balance between activities, especially given the potential impact of repetitive strain injuries and low-motion activities on growing bodies, the evidence suggests that preschoolers are unlikely to become sedentary.

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