Is your tablet hurting your child?

is your tablet hurting your child

Tablets, mobiles, computers - for today's toddlers, these "toys" are more common than Lego. "Children are mature enough to work independently with technology only at about the age of fourteen. Only then should they get a kind of digital passport,” says Michaela Slussareff, who teaches sociology and technology-related courses in the Communication and Media major at UNYP, and researches the impact of communication technologies on children and learning. The following is an excerpt from a recent interview in the Czech weekly news magazine Týden.

Half-open mouth, eyes wide, the appearance of being in a complete trance. In front of any screen, kids look hypnotized. Why is this?

They are fascinated by the rapid sequence of pictures and sounds, it's new to them, and it is difficult for them to ignore it. They get into a state of “flow”, or total removal from their surroundings, resulting in a loss of awareness of time and space. And with passive media such as television, the children actually disengage parts of the brain while watching the screen. Their brains actually work less than when the children are sleeping.

Is it the same with adults?

Yes, but it is not as easy to tell because they have more control over their facial expressions. Toddler’s nervous systems are not as fully developed, so information travels more slowly to and from the brain. You can see it, for example, when toddlers touch a hot stove – it takes time before they pull their hand away and start to cry. A child’s reactions will reach adult speed at around eight. When a two-year-old child watches a cartoon, for example from Disney, their brain becomes over-stimulated, and this can have serious consequences.

For example?

It can lead to problems with attention when they get older. Research has shown that when children under five years of age watch a lot of programming with fast editing, it results in poorer results in grades one to five. In one experiment, scientists exposed rats to dynamic visual stimulation similar to a video. The rats become so over-stimulated that they lost their instincts for self-preservation.

Could this have a similar effect on children?

We don’t know – these types of experiments are not conducted on children for ethical reasons, of course – but it is possible. Very small children do not benefit from even the highest-quality education programs. It has been proven that when a one-year-old child watches a screen for two hours per day, they have slower verbal development, and it is worst of all when the TV is turned on in the home all the time. Even if children are not watching the TV, it disturbs their playtime, and individual play is what helps children develop the most. According to our most recent research, the television is on non-stop in almost one-third of Czech households. That is scary!

Today’s toddlers are able to do unbelievable things with tablets. It almost seems as if they were born with the ability to use them…

That is definitely not the case. Children just copy what they see their parents doing, and what is happening in their surroundings – these things are normal for them. With technology, we generally accept things that existed before we were born as being part of the standard reality. We see advances that appeared before our twentieth birthday as being “cool”... Advances that come in our twenties and thirties catch our attention, and those that appear in our forties and after scare us.

So the boom in technology doesn’t affect our biological development?

It brings small changes, but so far not innate ones. One study, for example, found that people who use mobile phones a great deal have more advanced brain centers connected with the movement of the thumb. Another showed that children who played with a mobile phone before their first birthday have more developed motor skills in their fingers.

Mobile phones aren’t very appropriate toys for babies, are they?

Surely not. However, there are many conflicts concerning when kids should begin using mobile technology. Up until 2013, the American Pediatric Association stated that children under the age of two shouldn’t come into contact with any screen. Five years ago, however, they said that it is ok to use interactive audiovisual content, like applications on a tablet. This has resulted in waves of discussions in scientific circles, because there is no data to confirm that it is safe. Most evidence points toward ‘video deficit’, in other words, that children up to 20 or 22 months are unable to connect the things they see on the screen with reality.

Aren’t toy cars or Lego better for kids at that age?

Of course! Any physical activity is better than digital. But technology isn’t a great evil like many people think. A good digital application for babies can contribute to their development, but it must be used constructively and be related to offline activities. Tablets should never be used as a band-aid for boredom. Children need to be bored, as that is how they develop creativity.

So how should parents choose applications for kids?

First of all, according to content. Children imitate what they see on the screen, and technology functions as a role model. Scientists at the University of Buffalo looked at the influence of fictional superheroes on children. They concluded that when boys looked up to these characters, they had a better opinion of their physical abilities when they became older. They also learn better from examples that they know. If they like the Little Mole (Krtek) in particular, they remember colors better from him then from other characters. The form of the application is also important. Parents can consult professional platforms where different aspects of applications such as design, addictive nature, and so on are evaluated, such as the one we have developed called Hrajeme si chytre.

This interview originally appeared in Czech in the magazine Týden, 36/2018

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