As a four-year-old is treated for addiction to tablet computers, are there benefits to a child's interest in tech gadgets?
The shocking news that a four-year-old girl is receiving psychiatric treatment for 'addiction' to tablet computers will have sparked an intense bout of soul-searching among technologically inclined parents in Ireland.
According to reports in the UK, the child became hooked on the device and started displaying obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
Now she is undergoing therapy at London's Capio Nightingale Clinic, her parents stumping up nearly €20,000 a month for the care.
Her psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham told journalists that parents shouldn't leave tablets around because if they do, and children see all the pretty colours, they will want to use it too. He adds that some can't cope and become addicted, reacting with tantrums and uncontrollable behaviour when they are taken away. Then as they grow older, the problem only gets worse.
His words carry a chill for those of us who have regarded the use of tablet devices by our kids as perfectly innocent. It's a club to which I have, until now, belonged. My son Niall is an enthusiastic member of the iPad generation.
Aged three, he was born just 12 weeks before Steve Jobs unveiled the first incarnation of Apple's take on tablet computers. They are literally growing up together. I remember their first encounter.
A tantrum had broken out in the middle of a long car journey. In a flap, I downloaded an alphabet learning game, Fish School by Duck Duck Moose. Nine months old, Niall was clearly too young to understand what the letters represented. Nevertheless he seemed intrigued by the bright colours, the cartoon fish flitting back and forth.
Instinctively, he tapped the screen. The iPad sang the alphabet to him. He giggled, or at least gave a baby's approximation of a giggle. He did not gripe through the rest of the journey.
While closely monitoring his exposure to television, limited at 20 minutes or so each day, with the iPad we are less vigilant. Upon waking, his first words are inevitably "Can I have the iPad?" Usually followed by "Is the internet working?"
He fires up YouTube and passes 10, 15 minutes cheerfully watching short films about the solar system.
Because the iPad looks vaguely like a book, I'll admit I do not police his use especially closely (apart, obviously, from ensuring the content is age appropriate). To my mind, interacting with a tablet is analogous to reading. It can only be a good thing, right?
Graham's warnings aside, experts are divided. The official answer – by which I mean the one early learning experts are cautiously edging towards – is that it's too soon to tell.
Three years into the life cycle of what from a certain perspective is a radical new technology, child development experts have yet to quantify what tablets and other touch-screen devices are doing to the brains of the very young (though smartphones have obviously been around longer, parents are possessive of phones and the screens are less accommodating towards squiggly toddler fingers).
To be sure, all sorts of theories are out there as to whether prolonged exposure to computer tablets is good, bad or has no impact whatsoever (one researcher has critiqued the tablet computer as a 'rattle on steroids').
However, this is all conjecture. It's as if we are back in the early '50s and the dawn of the TV era. You can make a calculated guess as to the long-term consequences. Ultimately that's all you are doing – throwing your opinion into the ring. What we do know is that, in the first three years, a child's brain develops rapidly.
At birth, the brain has around 2,500 synapses, the neural links by which the brain sends out instructions. By the time they turn three, the number will have increased to 15,000. Could exposure to computer tablets affect the way our grey matter reconstitutes itself during that vital period?
What it largely comes down to is whether the tablet computer relates to the child brain in the same way as television which, some contrary research notwithstanding, is agreed to be an essentially passive experience.
Two years ago, the American Association of Pediatricians, having assessed decades of evidence, recommended that children watch no television at all before the age of two.
Warning that TV could lead to sleep problems, disrupt moods and impair language development, the AAP said that until that age kids are typically unable to distinguish between relevant and irreverent information on television.
In essence they are mesmerised by everything they see on screen. The tablet is obviously different. Even the most basic children's app requires some level of cognitive buy-in. When my son was playing Fish School in the back of the car two years ago, he wasn't passively consuming media, he was making a bunch of cutesy fish move around the screen.
Moreover, a thin trickle of evidence indicates that, in a very narrow context, app use boosts cognitive ability.
In a recent American study, five-year-olds who underwent a test after playing with an education app called 'Martha Speaks' showed 27pc improved vocabulary. "It obviously is more interactive than passive TV viewing. It could be argued that it encourages the development of cognitive function: cause and effect, sequencing, logical thinking," says children's psychotherapist Eimir McGrath.
"All of these things are valuable, but can be achieved through playing with toys just as effectively. What makes it a really valuable tool is if a parent uses it interactively. Children's brains are hardwired to be social and learning can only happen when emotional connections are made with people. If a parent uses it as a tool for interacting, it can be valuable."
The smartest way to use a tablet with kids, she says, is to record and recall precious real-life moments.
"Using an app to record family events, photos of relatives, places visited – all of these things, when used to enhance interaction and conversation, are really valuable for developing brains. It helps the child make sense of their world, helps develop autobiographical memory in a young child.
"We have two types of memory: autobiographical is the one that allows us to create narrative. Which is very important in making sense of and remembering things. [It] can be a wonderful way of helping a parent to play with a child . . . learning songs together, reading stories together, expanding what is looked at on the screen by playing out a story with real toys after reading, creating a picture together of a favourite character."
The danger, she says, is that parents might grow to rely on a tablet as a virtual nanny.
"Passive viewing has limited value at best. And it has the potential to be very damaging if over used as a 'babysitter'. Young children learn how to be sociable by looking and learning to read others' facial expressions, body language – this is called social referencing.
"The less opportunity to do this, the more impoverished a child's social, emotional and consequently cognitive development.
"Babies and young children need face-to-face interaction for normal development to occur. Thinking a child can learn effectively by looking at a screen is naive. Interaction with people to bring a screen alive is what makes successful learning."
Without concrete data, in the end parents are going to have to decide for themselves. With my son now essentially taking joint custody of the family iPad, my feelings are torn. Am I the stereotypical slack-dad? Or is there another side?
Certainly, there are positives to his iPad habit. Through YouTube and sundry educational apps an entire new world has opened for him. By exploring the web he developed a deep interest in matters space- related.
He knows the names not only of every major body in the solar system but of far-flung stars such as Antares, Betelgeuse and Aldebaran. His third birthday present was a three dimensional rotating model of the solar system.
Lacking an iPad, it is an open question whether he would have anything like the same passion for planets (while we have bought a multitude of children's reference books about space, the internet, frankly, is better at conveying simple information in an exciting fashion).
That said, the fact developmental experts are now starting to query the wisdom of providing under-fives with unlimited access to touch-screen technology has given me pause.
As parents and children, we live in a world that is plugged in and wired up as never before. Together we are taking a step into the unknown. By the time science catches up, might it be too late?