Sunday 28 December 2014

I'm proud my 3-year-old son is a whizz on our iPad

Ed Power's three year old son Niall has grown up with the ipad.
iDaddy: Ed Power and his son Niall play on the family iPad

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).

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.

Irish Independent

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