- BC Games
Raising kids in the information age
Two mothers walk into a coffee shop, baby strollers in tow. Their toddlers are babbling away and laughing as they enjoy each other’s company.
Upon receiving their orders, the moms sit down, pull out their iPhones and hand them to their children.
Suddenly, a change comes over the little ones. For the rest of the time they are absorbed with the iPhone and no longer engaging with each other. They become quiet, focused, and oblivious to the world around them.
Most people have witnessed this scene in one form or another, although it may be more common to see teenagers and adults with their noses buried in their phones.
But one child psychologist is aiming to find out what impact modern technologies have on young children, in particular those under the age of three.
“The focus is on the environments in which infants and toddlers are being born and raised,” says Michaela Woolridge, a former Tsawwassen resident who is now embarking on her PhD thesis in infant development psychology at UBC. “And nobody really knows with the advent of mobile devices how they’re being used in families both among the caregivers and with infants and toddlers.”
To date, over 200 parents and children have participated in her study, the results of which Woolridge says will likely generate more questions than answers.
Since mobile device technology is still relatively new, there have been few studies on the effect it has on children other than anecdotes and hypotheses. Although research has indicated that there is no benefit to exposing toddlers to electronic devices, what remains unanswered is the question of whether there is any harm to doing it.
Part of Woolridge’s research will explore the goals and reasons parents have in exposing their children to these devices.
“If you believe that your child can learn language or learn literacy through a device that’s going to drive your behaviour differently,” she says.
Mary and Jeffrey Seitz of Tsawwassen have three children, all of whom use tablet computers for entertainment and educational purposes. While it may not be surprising to learn five-year-old Elan and her eight-year-old brother Jonah have iPads, even little Hans, who turns two in a week, received one from Santa Claus last Christmas.
“Mainly what we got it for was an interactive tool,” says Jeffrey, although he adds it was also a tug-of-war issue.
Hans was constantly stealing his siblings’ iPads from the time he could walk upright, so getting him his own device was more for peace of mind.
The Seitzes loaded the iPad with apps that would be educational. Hans can now play alphabet games, match shapes and puzzles, listen to phonetics, and dress up a teddy bear.
Although Hans doesn’t know the alphabet yet, because he’s played so many games involving letters his father says he’ll be farther ahead when it comes to learning.
“The other two didn’t have these tools when they were his age,” says Jeffrey.
Hans has become very proficient with his iPad games. He knows how to load a game, navigate beyond the free popup ads that frustrate even some adults, start the game, and restart it if he makes a mistake.
Frances Thomson, a community librarian at George Mackie Library and a former children’s librarian, says parents often turn to technology to teach their children literacy and other skills. And while she understands technology is here to stay, it shouldn’t become a replacement for adult interaction.
Instead of handing a device or even a book to a child, Thomson recommends parents guide the child through the learning experience.
“Talk to them and point out things you see,” she says. “Don’t just hand it over and think this is free time for you.”
Electronic devices can certainly distract children so they can have their own peace and quiet, but the reverse can also be true. At playgrounds it’s a common sight to see children frolicking while mom or dad flip through emails and Facebook.
“You hear the little ones saying, look at me, look at me, and every now and then they look up,” she says.
As a strong supporter of early literacy, Thomson says it’s important to get children excited about reading books.
“I grew up with that love of reading. My mother sat and read to me, my father took me to the library. I grew up in a small town in Northern Quebec with only two French-language television channels so that wasn’t much of a distraction,” she says, laughing.
Woolridge agrees that parental involvement is critical in early childhood development involving interacting with mobile devices.
Although preliminary studies suggest interactive screens are better for children than just viewing content (television and movies), children under three still require adult mediation to help them understand the meaning.
“[An iPad] doesn’t change the way the brain learns, or the way the way the brain develops to learn,” she says.
Woolridge’s research indicates that although most parents initially acquire the devices for their children with educational goals in mind, they’re often using them to occupy the child so they’re free to do something else.
“It seems to me on a preliminary level that this is just a really expensive push-button toy for very young children,” she says.
The Seitzes say they limit the usage of electronic devices so their children don’t spend more time than they think is healthy. And because Hans is a toddler with a healthy dose of curiosity, Jeffrey explains they usually don’t even have to monitor it because everything in the world is new and exciting.
“But it helps us with grocery shopping just to have that as a distraction,” admits Mary. “I’ve heard some parents say it’s like you’re buying a babysitter. But, for me as long as they’re not with their iPads all the time–everything in moderation–I’m actually very happy because it’s quite amazing when you see him do all these puzzles.”
She says sometimes when they’re in public people have stopped to watch Hans complete the puzzles and express amazement.
“I wasn’t exposed to many creative tools in my life because of my upbringing and I don’t have any creative skills because of that,” says Jeffrey. “I imagine without a doubt his creative skills will be better than mine.”
If you’re interest in being a part of Woolridge’s research you can read about it at www.infanttechstudy.ca.