I was rattled in a restaurant recently watching a couple encouraging their year-and-a-half toddler to slide a finger across his iPad. The little one was excited to see the changes on the screen. A few weeks later I observed a two-year-old grabbing his four-year-old brother’s iPad and operating it vengefully! For a few of the “advanced” members of this age group their first word is not “Mom” or “Dad” but “Pad.” Some toddlers even have become addicted to these electronic wonders! What is happening is that children are being subjected to unknown and untested challenges to their personal development.
There are numerous videos on YouTube of these little ones sliding their fingers across the pages of magazines lying on the kitchen table in an effort to activate them. Parents may wonder how the tablets affect their young ones, but most are pleased that quiet reigns in the house and they rationalize that even at this early stage of life their offspring are learning how to focus and develop their attention spans. However, some mothers and fathers are so fearful of the possible consequences that they have chosen to deny their kids access to these technological marvels.
“There is something important going on here and we need to learn what effects this is having on learning and attention, memory and social development,” says Jordy Kaufman, the director of BabyLab, one of the rare groups researching in this area, which is under the auspices of Australia’s Swinburne University.1 His team is trying to learn how the iPads and tablets affect the long-term mental development of the very young. His BabyLab is using innovative approaches to explore the cognitive as well social aspects of brain development in the very young.
The techniques at BabyLab include behavioral eye tracking, which measures observable changes in development, for example whether babies have a preference for faces over objects, as well as electro-physiological methods, which track changes that occur in brain activity when resting or responding to iPads. Toddlers do detect subtle changes. When they see something happening on the screen, like a change of color, an object in motion, or a face. The youngsters may empathize with what they observe. Their instant reaction is: “Is that me? Is that another?” For an instant they relate because that’s the way their brain is wired. Some of the very young may believe that the iPad is alive, but most intuitively accept that it is not.
While in depth studies have been made of the effects of television on the younger generation, very little research has been made on the effect of tablets on those in kindergartens. Indeed there may be benefits for the very young in developing motor skills as they learn to push buttons and softly slide their fingers. Their exposure to tablets may give them a kick-start to learning. However, Kaufman cautioned that “There is a school of thought that tablet use is rewiring children’s brains, so to speak, to make it difficult for them to attend to slower-paced information.”
Denying children access to iPads entails risks, contends Rose Flewitt who is doing research at the Institute for Education at the University of London. She studies how iPads can help literacy at the nursery and primary levels. “Having one section of society that is growing up with skills and one section that is growing up without it,” is problematic she posits. On the other hand, tablets and iPads do nothing to foster social skills for the very young.
The immediate response to pushing a button is highly satisfying and pleasurable for children who delight in the lights, images and sounds that emerge. There also are no admonishments coming from the iPads as well as a lack of any positive feedback. The electronic instruments are fast, dependable and soon become familiar. However, the cold glass, plastic and metal of the casings of the tablets provide only limited sensory experiences for the very young. There is none of the comfort provided by the traditional cuddlys and stuffies. The experts wonder whether a profound shift in childhood mindset may be taking place here without our understanding. It is appalling how little is known about the effects of the rapid and continuing educational technology advances these children now experience.
What is certain is that many of the new generations get hooked on the irresistibility of the swift educational technology advances. By the time they are teenagers they are likely to spend close to eight hours a day using electronics like computers, TV sets, smart-phones and iPads as most American 13-year-olds do today. However, I shall not wander into the more advanced levels of the $100 billion educational technology industry (which here encompasses the combined European and North American educational technology markets) which experiences continual development driven less by the needs of students and teachers than by the profit motive.
Over the past three decades we have seen that computers have been used to improve efficiency in the classrooms and keep pupils engaged, but they have not transformed learning in the way the promoters had predicted. It is basically unknown whether educational technology is advancing the potential of the new generation. The Economist contends that there has been a succession of inventions promising to overhaul education, but these have not done so yet. There has been little difference between the money spent on IT in schools and the abilities of 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading who have not received it.2
It seems evident to me that what is happening electronically at the early stages in the lives of children is now one of the basic aspects challenging their overall mental development. We simply don’t know how abandoning the reading of books, listening to stories, and other aspects of traditional education will affect future generations. Artificially personalized machine contacts are unlikely to match the look of the human eyes, the sound of a genuine voice, the scent of the adult, the warmth and familiarity of touch — all of which exert a personal impact whose combined effects on the psyche cannot be over-estimated. I believe we are putting our culture and entire civilization at great risk if we allow “the technological” to overwhelm “the human” during the introduction of the new generations into this world.
1Paula Cocozza, “Children of the Revolution,” The Guardian, January 9, 2014
2”Machine Learning,” The Economist, July 22, 2017, p.18