Children & Technology: Cookies, Webs and Touchscreens

Two Children Using Tablets, Faces Hidden, Girls, Classroom

The subject of children and technology tends to be a controversial one, with some aspects of it dividing opinions along unusual demographics that don’t follow traditional patterns such as age and wealth.

As a father working in the field of ITC with a wife that is a primary school teacher, I find this disparity of opinions intriguing, especially as so many people are vehement in their objections-against or reasons-for children being exposed to technology.

I remember reading an article in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year entitled “25 Best Apps to Keep Kids Entertained while Travelling…”. I was wholly unimpressed with the article and found the responses of readers in the comments section to be infinitely more interesting, many from people outraged at the suggestion that children should use electronic devices on journeys, with comments such as:

What a stupid article highlighting more useless drivel to hinder their child’s development … old fashioned parental interaction with the child should be norm.”

“This is grotesque and is symptomatic of everything wrong with modern life”

This begs the question, should children be using tablets and other digital devices for play time? If so, for how long?

As with most things, the answer is not a simple yes or no but rather something in between.

Keeping Pace

An indisputable fact is that children need to keep pace with technology, especially as in modern times the technology in people’s homes mirrors that used in workplaces much more closely.  Historically only large companies could warrant the cost of expensive computer systems but now powerful PCs and laptops in the home are ‘old hat’, with many households also having touchscreen devices.

In addition to keeping up with current technology, when children play with digital devices, they are at least interacting with the device as opposed to the passive entertainment provided by watching TV or looking out of a car window.

Apps and games require hand/eye coordination and if you choose the right applications, cognitive processing and problem solving, making them instructive and educational.

Unfortunately the very thing that has caused an explosion in tablets is the same thing that makes them seem like even using them is a game – they are incredibly intuitive.  While there is no tactile feedback (you can’t ‘feel’ the item you drag or slide), using fingertips to tap, touch and move items is something we begin learning from birth.

What Do I Do?

I have two cheap re-purposed Android tablets (1st Gen. Kindle Fires, $50 from Ebay) for my children to use and I follow a few simple rules:

  • The apps on them MUST be either creative or educational (drawing, colouring, spelling, puzzles, etc.)
  • I have to have used the app before letting the kids use it
  • The devices are switched to ‘airplane mode’ any time the kids use them (this disables any adverts, in-app purchases, increases battery life and prevents internet browsing)
  • The kids can’t use them for any longer than 10 to 20 minutes
  • The kids can’t use them in the car

As it stands, my kids use the tablets so infrequently that we haven’t needed to set limits on time but many parents do and this is a good idea.

Whenever we travel, we take books, colouring pens, toys, etc. and only resort to the tablets as a last resort.

Why Not The Car?

The reason we don’t allow the children to play electronic games in the car is because they generally have them in their lap, meaning they’ve got their heads down looking at something bouncing around: cue instant car sickness.

On car journeys, we will often put Disney soundtracks on the car stereo or audio books and my eldest is now 5 years old and has a cheap MP3 player and headphones, she loves being able to listen to her music of choice on journeys (without the rest of us being subjected to ‘Let It Go’ for the hundredth time!).

Our last resort for very long journeys is to play a film on one of the tablets which we mount to the back of the front headrests, putting the sound through the car stereo – this keeps the children upright, watching something at eye level and more often than not singing along!  Note however, that the latter means you are subjected to the full ‘Frozen’ soundtrack.

Summary

While obviously all children are different and there are hundreds of valid and effective parenting styles, I do believe that electronic devices have a place in children’s development but as with anything, parents must monitor usage and be selective about what is on them.  Remember that like paper and television, a tablet or other electronic device is just the medium – the benefits (or harm) come from what channelled through that medium.  With this in mind, I will write a follow up piece soon with the Apps I have installed for my children – if you have any suggestions for this list please send them to me!

Bob McKay

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