Technological tots

There are plenty of commentaries about the role of social media, gagetry and screens in our children’s upbringing, and I’m loathed to add to it…But I’m going to.

I am a first-generation IT-child. I started school in the world of BBC computers (well…one computer) and wheeled-out cathode ray tube TVs. I lived the first decade without knowing what a mobile phone was, and half of my second decade thinking they were a ridiculous status symbol. At 15 that changed overnight, and it became a necessity. I could not function in society without one.

I didn’t use the internet for research until I was in my teens, and even then only when the one phone in the house wasn’t in use. Before that I felt very hightech if I got to use the Encarta Encyclopedia CD. I did a GCSE in Information Systems, where I mainly used mail merge. That A* surely qualifies me to talk about this? And headed off to uni with a laptop under my arm, internet access, and an email account.

So how are we using all this technology around us, to enhance (or maybe unintentionally hinder) our children’s childhoods. What do you think? Computers, tablets, tvs, phones – When do you introduce them and how?

Computers and tablets: Education, in the broadest sense!

Boybug seems to be a natural on the PC! He broke into the study, turned the PC on and managed to print a Windows update message today, the inspiration for this post.

Boybug is a natural it seems!

Other than that, we don’t use computers or tablets with the kids much. I know preschool are introducing Girlbug to the iPad, but she prefers books (as do I).  If we’re having quiet time, I reach for a book out of habit. I keep meaning to get the tablet out a bit more. It feels like a treat, like a tool when I’m desperate, it’s not part of my usual parenting arsenal. I suppose it probably should be.

The school that Girlbug is going to in September has got rid of their traditional computer room, and indeed the PCs. Everything is done on tablets – iPads for the younger children, Microsoft Surface Pro tablets for the older ones. Not learning to use a “normal” computer feels weird to me. Already, I have that sense that I’m not keeping up with the accepted norms of technology!

So, like I talk to Girlbug about letters and numbers, I should probably also be introducing her to computers. But what should I actually be doing? Well, looking at the evidence for “learning” games, it’s not really clear. Some studies have shown that educational games have a positive impact, others that they don’t. A recent review article has suggested that as children naturally learn through making their own games, educational computer games should mirror that. Hello Minecraft!

It’s an interesting point, and one that appeals. I think for now, we’ll stick to the fun, unstructured games such as Toca Boca, and not bother with the phonics or counting apps.

TV, the one-eyed babysitter

So what’s the harm in a bit, or a lot of TV?

  • Obesity? We know TV use is linked to obesity in children. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The more time a child remains sedentary, the less energy they’re burning. Added to that you have adverts for food influencing children, and habitual consumption of food in front of the TV (be that snacks or main meals, people seem to eat more when watching TV). That’s not going to be a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that watching a bit of TV will make your children fat. Just that we should all bear in mind how and when we watch TV (us adults, too!)
  • Poor sleep? We also know that TV watching affects sleep. We try for at least an hour between sleep and bed, whether that’s enough, who knows! 
  • Activity replacement? Yup, if your kids are watching TV they aren’t doing something else. I guess it depends on what that something else is. I would prefer they did some imaginitive play, but sometimes we’re all just too exhausted for that! They should be learning about the world around them through experiences. Of course they should. But I still think as long as it’s not for hours on end, a bit of TV is OK.
  • Attention and attainment. Studies have shown fast paced TV has a detrimental effect on how a child functions immediately after. Definitely something to consider when you’re deciding when they watch TV and what they watch. In terms of attainment, young children watching TV rather than reading books have lower cognitive abilities. In Korea, a study of toddlers showed two year olds that watched more than two hours of TV each day were more likely to have a language delay. But this comes back to activity replacement. TV is not making these children less able, the lack of other activities are. 
  • Vision? “You’ll get square eyes!” I think this one harks back to the days of very poor picture quality. Obviously if you look at a screen for hours on end you’ll get eye strain, but other than that, I think the chance of damaging their vision is negligible. 

TV in our household is all about relaxing!!
TV is a tool, right? My kids sit and watch it for half an hour at the end of a day running around like nutters, after all their food has been eaten. The kids use TV like I do, for relaxation. I know there’s some educational content out there, but I suspect it’s a similar thing to the computer games – there are better ways of learning, and a bit of mindless TV is fine. Don’t get me wrong, when they’re older we’ll introduce documentaries and current affairs, but at three if Girlbug would prefer to watch Frozen than phonics, I think that’s fine.

Most of the studies looking at harm are dealing with children who are exposed to what I consider excessive amounts of TV. Im pretty happy with half an hour given the ages of my kids. There are also studies showing no benefit of TV under the age of two. In fact under two they just can’t interpret what they’re seeing. They may be transfixed, but not much is going on in their heads! I’ve never worried about this too much, TV hasn’t held either of my children’s attention until a few months shy of their second birthday (probably because they can’t process it) so there’s been no real point using it before then! 

The real baddies: phones and social media

What I don’t look forward to is the dreaded phones and social media. While I can see lots of benefits for adults, I really worry about the effect it will have on our children.

It’s not all as bad as I thought, though. While it seems counterintuitive to me, apparently the use of text-speak by primary aged children doesn’t negatively affect spelling, language or grammar attainment, in fact those using text-speak often fair better. I guess text-speak is after all a sophisticated set of abbreviations and modifications. To be able to use that, a child probably needs a reasonable understanding of the “proper” grammatical structure and spelling underpinning those short messages. Interesting!

But it’s not the educational or physical health aspects (radiation exposure – looks like children may be no more vulnerable, but that’d be a whole blog post of its own) that scares me. It’s the social aspects and mental health. The stories of cyber-bullying, the weird Facebook crazes, the insular and self-centred approach to life, the accessibility of the weird and wonderful world of the world wide web!! Urgh!

Getting that balance

I love computers, I watch TV, I’m probably too reliant on my phone and the internet. I’ve seen in my working life, the expectation that you’ll be able to program slip in. It is really going to be expected in a huge number of roles by the time Girlbug and Boybug are adults. And in the short term for school, computer skills need to be natural, intuitive, almost a reflex so as not to distract from the task at hand. Just as reading and writing do. I think computers are also a great way to explain more general concepts – how to research a topic, finding solutions to problems, languages and communications. I look forward to being able to help with some of these.

In writing this, I’ve decided the following:

  • TV for fun is probably fine in moderation. I’m not going to try to make them watch educational things. Education is probably better coming from a real person than a green blob on the screen.
  • I need to introduce computers and the iPad a bit more. Again, we’re not going to go in for the educational stuff. But there are plenty of open-ended games out there, and games that teach you to use a keyboard and mouse, or swipe the screen. I think it’s probably more about encouraging familiarity with technology at the moment.
  • The internet is scary. More so when you have children. Luckily I’m a little way off this issue, but probably not as far away as I think!
  • I suspect there’s little that I can do to stop the tide of social media and phones. They will want these gadets, almost certainly earlier than I really want to give them, and a compromise of some sort will have to be met. I remember feeling like my life might end without a mobile phone at 15, it’s just for them this might happen at…eight? I have no idea.

One thing’s for sure, when I think about stuff like this, I’m not convinced this parenting malarky is going to get any easier!!


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