Monday 23 October 2017

Smart children and appy parents

Some parents use their smartphones as a way of distracting kids, but they can help solve bigger problems too

Picture this: Lisa Domican has found her smartphone helps autistic daughter Grace (13) to communicate better.
Picture this: Lisa Domican has found her smartphone helps autistic daughter Grace (13) to communicate better.

Mary Kirwan

Like it or not, kids have always loved technology. I was certainly enamoured with my Commodore 64 when my parents got us one when I was 10. I spent many happy hours shooting body parts off a dancing monster, bombing King Kong and playing more tennis than Rafa Nadal. No harm done!

Nowadays there's much hand-wringing about what impact technology has on our kids. One device above all others that little fingers cannot resist is the smartphone. Hours are whiled away trying to defeat Angry Birds, scrolling through photo albums or marvelling at the power of the touch screen.

Kids and adults love smartphones because they are designed to be simple to use. If technophobe adults become iPhone bores within minutes of getting one, then it's no surprise that tech-savvy kids would be enthralled from an early age too.

As children we could only marvel watching 'Star Trek' characters with hand-held devices that did cool stuff when they pressed the screen. Now our own kids can access a device that when you tap a picture on a screen amazing things happen.

It has evoked the same passion as 'the telly is bad for you' debate or the 'computers will melt your brain' argument, with tut-tutting from the usual suspects like education experts.

I have to admit I've been guilty of successfully using a smartphone to get my order in at a restaurant with my bored toddler in tow, and kept him distracted in the supermarket while I whizzed around aisles.

A sample of the blog chatter on kids using iPhones shows the diversity of opinion.

"I don't buy the excuse of giving kids your phone because they're badgering you for it. Put the thing away and indulge them in something else, like your attention," said one parent.

Another mum responding to the anti-iPhone sentiment said: "You've clearly never had to deal with a stroppy toddler on a long journey..."

A pretty worked-up smartphone opponent says: "Please no. You're ruining children before they've had a chance to learn to play together and become people if you let them think that 'interacting' is through an electronic device. Let them play tiddlywinks!"

The pragmatic voices always seem to be the hard-pressed parents.

"I find these types of apps invaluable, mostly when I'm trying to load the weekly shopping onto the checkout at the supermarket, then bag it all and pay. Excellent toddler distraction!"

There are at least 350,000 apps for the iPhone alone, so the amount that smartphones can offer to stressed-out parents or curious toddlers is growing exponentially.

But what do Irish parents think? Are they the best thing since the cuddly toy or a needless distraction?

Today FM radio personality and mum of one Mairead Farrell often talks on air about her deep love for her iPhone. But Mairead thinks certain technology is strictly for grown-ups. "I don't let him touch it. It's not a toy!" she laughs.

It's not that she thinks iPhones are bad for Dara (four), it's that she doesn't want her heart broken with a broken iPhone.

"It is more about the fact he might break it as opposed to anything else. I just don't think kids should be allowed to play with adult gadgets like phones and iPads."

Mairead's main concern about the iPhone apps for toddlers is that they are sometimes not age-rated.

"He has a Wii and plays games like 'Fireman Sam' on it. These games are suitable for his age because they're rated and designed for his age group."

She firmly believes that smartphones are not meant to be a toy for young children, they are strictly a toy for adults!

"The whole thing started when Dara wanted to put my pin code in the bank machine. These gadgets are not toys. If I had let him do it once he would want to do it all the time.

"I am sure he will have his own smartphone when he gets older. That's fine but he is just not getting mine! These phones are not designed to be toys and are really expensive too."

Another reason why Mairead is now reluctant to allow her four-year-old near her phone is because she suffered the common iPhone-owner anguish of a cracked screen recently.

She prefers to channel his curiosity about adult technology into creative play. "I've given him a hotel key card and a toy cash register so he can play bank machine with that."

Because smartphones have come from nowhere to world domination in three years, the medical profession are lagging behind with advice on how young children should use them.

The American Academy of Paediatrics has been at the forefront of studies on toddlers and TV-watching, warning that children under two shouldn't be exposed to television.

Spokeswoman and paediatrician Dr Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe recently said: "The cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones. At the moment, we seem to feel it's the same as TV."

It comes down to screen time. Pre-school children need to observe everything around them at their age and not just be continually staring at a screen. Because of the potentially addictive nature of smartphones some parents are balancing the two opposing viewpoints by imposing screen-time limits.

One Irish discovery may end up proving that iPhones are actually different to television and they can have a positive effect on certain children's lives.

Lisa Domican has two children, Liam (11) and Grace (13). An iPhone app is central to their lives as both her children are autistic.

"Gracie is autistic and has always used a pecs book to communicate." This is a form of communication for non-verbal children using a picture system. "I had been using a smartphone with Gracie too ever since they became available.

"We had put this pecs book together over 10 years and it had 600 images in it. It was really heavy and big. When we were travelling it was too big to bring with us so we would bring a smaller version of it. This would often lead to frustration because she couldn't find what she needed," added Lisa.

"I saw an iPhone ad on a side of a bus one day and it reminded me of how Gracie interacted with the smartphone. I wondered could I put her picture album on the iPhone. Grace straight away learnt steps to open the screen and slide it to get the picture she wanted.

"There used to be a big time lag between her needing something and getting it laminated and into the picture book. If we go to a shop now and she wants a croissant all she has to do is open the album and touch what she wants," she said.

Lisa enlisted a developer who has created her own application -- the Grace App.

"It has made a huge difference to our lives. Grace can now communicate with us with a lot more ease and has become more verbal as a result."

Both her children had been techy from a young age. "Grace and Liam have been using a laptop since they were two-and-a-half," she says.

Of course iPhones are expensive to replace if broken but Lisa has had an idea. "We came up with the otterbox to protect the phones from day to day knocks and tumbles."

Which apps go down well with her kids? "'Baloonimals' is a great one where the kids blow into the microphone of the iPhone to inflate the balloon. They then shake it to make all sorts of different balloon animals. Grace has discovered she can inflate the balloon by shouting at the phone!"

Lisa also believes that story-book apps are a great interactive way for children to follow a current film in a more educational way. "They are not just passively watching but are reading, which is fantastic."

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