In the past two weeks, there has been some widespread media coverage reporting that toddlers are receiving psychological treatment for ‘iPad Addiction’. Some reports claim that some parents are allowing young children to use mobile devices for up to four hours a day. There is no denying that this is excessive use of technology, given that young children have limited number of waking hours each day. Anything in excess is likely to be harmful for children. I firmly believe that appropriate use of technology is helpful for young children, but in these instances it appears that it has been inappropriate use.
As a result of these media reports, I have had many concerned parents, friends with children, preschool directors and media outlets contact me, asking for my ‘professional opinion’. So I am now going to respond collectively. I am going to wear two hats in this blog post: (i) as a children’s media researcher; and (ii) as a parent who is also trying to navigate this digital world.
So what do we actually know?
1. We Actually Don’t Know all That Much!
At this stage, children’s media and developmental researchers are desperately trying to keep pace with these new digital technologies. At this stage, we know very little about the impact of these mobile devices on young children. We have several studies that are underway throughout the world, exploring the impact of these devices on young children. For example, Dr Jordy Kaufman is leading a study at Swinburne Baby Lab examining ‘addictive-like’ behaviours that parents often report observing in children after touch-screen use. Kaufman and his researchers are trying to determine if these behaviours are directly related to touch-screen devices, or if it is a common ‘developmental’ reaction when something pleasurable is removed from children.
2. Interactive Viewing May be Helpful
We have a growing body of research on NON-INTERACTIVE video and these studies have consistently shown that these media offer little educational value for children aged under 3 years of age. Here we are talking about DVDs marketed as ‘educational’ and passive TV-viewing. However, we do have some evidence to suggest that toddlers DO LEARN from interactive screens. We are not yet sure as to why children appear to learn more from interactive screens than passive screens and research by Assistant Professor Heather Kirkorian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is currently exploring this idea further.
3. Dopamine Squirts: The Addictive Qualities of Technology
Neuroscience research is also telling us a lot about how brains (this research is with adults and not children) respond to technology use. We know that the brain receives a ‘dopamine squirt’ whenever it does anything that elicits a pleasurable response (from eating ice-cream, to checking out something exciting on Facebook, to reaching a new level on a computer game etc). The more pleasurable it is, the more of it you usually want and hence, this can sometimes lead to addiction. Many developmental scientists are speculating that children’s very plastic (and immature) brains are as, if not more susceptible, to the same dopamine response. It is proposed, but not yet founded on research, that when young children use devices such as iPads and use apps that reward them for achieving a certain level in a game, or even apps that respond to babies who swipe the screen, that these children are in fact receiving small squirts of dopamine. The more they play these apps, the more dopamine they receive and the more dopamine their brains desire. Hence, these devices can become addictive.
What have I learned as a parent of a digital native?
There is no denying that I am concerned about possible addictive qualities of devices like the iPad. I admit that I have witnessed first-hand how quickly my 33-month old son has become ‘engrossed’ with my iPad in the last month. Prior to this, he showed very little interest in the device, despite my best efforts to show him various apps. However, more recently, I have seen the way that he almost becomes ‘transfixed’ when using the device, as he has discovered apps that appeal to him (trucks and Spot are very popular apps at the moment). When I attempt to talk to him about what he is doing on the apps, he is almost un-responsive. We have also experienced the complete toddler ‘melt-down’ when we ask for the device to be switched off and returned.
So am I Concerned?
Yes I am! At times it petrifies me. Despite my understanding of the research, it is not until you see and experience first-hand how addictive these devices can be, that you realise the full impact.
So have I banned the iPad? No…not yet.
We have very strict limits as to when and where he can use it and we talk about what he has done on the device. We have also worked hard to teach him to be able to independently switch off the device without an adult having to insist on this or forcibly remove the device (we are still working on this skill). There are days when he doesn’t use the device at all and hasn’t even asked to use it. We avoid using the device when he is simply ‘bored’ (although I must admit it has been helpful when stuck in rotten Sydney traffic at the end of the day!!). He spends many hours playing outside, hanging off tress and digging in the sandpit, but he still uses the iPad on occasion. Do I think this is detrimental? Absolutely not!
As I have said before this technology will not be ‘un-invented’. Instead, we need to teach children how to manage technology. I now understand that it is easier said than done!
How are you managing your children’s use of touch screen devices? I’d love you to share any tips or stories here.