PARENTS can relax now. Widespread exposure to new technology does not have any effect on young children’s behaviour or health and does not turn them into digital addicts, according to a new study by a leading academic.
The findings have been made by Professor Lydia Plowman, of Edinburgh University, who set out to explode the myths surrounding the use of technology among pre-school children.
Plowman also claims that buying expensive play laptops for nursery-age children is a waste of money as there is no proof that it helps them as they progress into the classroom. She says the devices trade on parental insecurities about whether they have devoted enough time to their child’s learning in the modern computer-reliant world.
Plowman, who is also an adviser on technology-enhanced learning to the government’s Economic and Social Research Council, based her findings on a decade-long study of 50 families in Scotland with children aged three to four.
With co-researcher Joanna McPake, she found that even at this early age most had encountered mobile phones, DVD and MP3 players, desktop, notebook and tablet computers as well as play laptops.
But parents found it difficult to know whether widespread exposure to these products was good for their children, as many of the devices had not been invented when they were children.
“Some will tell you that children have an affinity for technology that will be valuable in their future lives,” Plowman said. “But others think that children should not be playing with technology when they could be playing outside or reading a book.”
Plowman said that although there had been widespread media coverage about the advantages and disadvantages of children being exposed to computers and other digital media at an increasingly young age, there was little research on whether it really had an effect.
On whether early childhood and technology should mix, the researchers examined parents’ fears that too much exposure could be responsible for children’s lack of social skills and emotional development. But she found there was “no evidence from parents to support the notion that children’s experiences with technology were having a detrimental effect on their behaviour, their health or their learning”.
She also dispelled the notion that technology was dominating children’s lives. “Many people feel that the domination of children’s lives by technology means they don’t get enough exercise, or spend enough time playing. However, our research showed that technology doesn’t influence day-to-day life for children of this age as much as its ubiquity might suggest.”
The researchers also investigated the use of educational products, such as play laptops, which accounted for four of the top ten toy sales by value for UK pre-schoolers in 2011.
Plowman said: “Some of the products available for young children use the concept of interactivity to claim they accelerate progress in learning to read, write and use numbers. The learning toys are marketed at parents who want to get children ready for school, but they are often based on mundane educational tasks disguised as entertainment.
“The content is little more than you might find in an old-fashioned workbook.”
Professor Muffy Calder, the chief scientific adviser for Scotland, welcomed Plowman’s findings, saying she hoped they would encourage parents and teachers to be less mistrustful of technology.
But she added: “Let’s not forget about encouraging them to climb trees too, though I think there is evidence that little children can be discriminatory about how they spend their time, perhaps more so than a 13-year-old, who you may well need to kick out of the house to play.”
Baroness Susan Greenfield, a professor at Oxford University and expert on the impact of 21st-century technologies on the mind, agreed that the educational value of computers needs to be better understood.
“What do we actually value and want our children to learn?” she asked. “I’ve heard people call for every child to learn a poem. I don’t want them to learn a poem, I want them to understand a poem, and – in terms of technology – you need to think about what kind of understanding and knowledge you want children to gain.
“There’s talk about giving every schoolchild access to an iPad but, as far as I know, no-one has done a study into what the educational benefits of that would be. I would rather spend the money on improving teachers’ salaries. A child’s learning experience is only as good as the person teaching them.”