Chitra Ramaswamy: Let toddlers play on smartphones

Research examining computer use in 2,000 families found that almost a third of children under five have their own device
Research examining computer use in 2,000 families found that almost a third of children under five have their own device
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WHEN my son was a year old one of his favourite toys was a phone.

Not the Fisher Price one with the smiley face, red wheels and turn dial that is no doubt as incomprehensible to this generation of children as an iPad would have been to mine. This was one of those “my first mobile phone” phones. You know, those big, brash, noisy, techie, 21st century toys that make you mourn the death of traditional play and yearn for a simpler time when toddlers played with nothing but a wooden spoon and their own imagination. A time when the woods were filled with children building dens and whittling sticks without fear of harassment, climate change or being mowed down by some posh git on a Segway.

Well, wake up and smell the Macbook Air. The truth is, most of us can’t get through a bus trip, let alone a day, without checking our phones. Why would we expect our progeny to be any different? Children copy adults. It’s how they learn. And what most adults are doing whenever they get a spare nanosecond is scrolling down their Twitter feeds, refreshing news pages, laughing at Donald Trump gifs, checking email and putting a photo of winter sunlight on a wall through an unmentionable number of filters to get it Instagram-ready.

In such an over-stimulated environment it is hardly a surprise that no retro wooden toy can compete. Of course toddlers want nasty little pieces of plastic embedded with buttons and jingles that are guaranteed to occupy them for 20 whole minutes (which as any parent knows is an eternity) and colonise an adult’s head until she finds herself whistling the tune of The Farmer In The Dell during Newsnight, clutching her head and screaming “Please god, make it stop!” to an indifferent Kirsty Wark.

It turns out that electronic “toys” might not be so bad for them after all. A report recently published in the Archives Of Disease In Childhood found that 87 per cent of parents let their toddlers (aged between 12 months and three years) play with a smart device. And the level of engagement toddlers experience when they’re slamming tiny fists into tablets is similar to the interaction in traditional play. There are other studies like this but we usually miss them because we’re too busy freaking out about raising an online generation of Vitamin D-starved, unsocialised weirdos who can’t name any trees but have played every generation of Xbox since 2001.

For example, research last year by the universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield examined computer use in 2,000 families and found that almost a third of children under five have their own device. Toddlers’ use on average was more than an hour a day. Most were able to use touchscreens and were using devices to play games, watch television, films and online videos. Though the researchers pointed out that parents must always monitor the appropriateness of their children’s usage, they also noted that “the study showed the use of apps on tablets by pre-schoolers can be very productive and foster a wide range of play and creativity”. And Ofcom figures last year revealed that five years ago just 7 per cent of 5 to 15-year-olds in the UK had access to a tablet. By 2014 that figure had jumped to 71 per cent.

So no matter what we think of it, it’s happening. My son, like many children born this century, loves gadgets. Show him a Samsung Galaxy S5 and he will swipe tiny expert fingers across the glass, open an app or two, and even – shock-horror – hold it to his ear and bellow “Hello!” Hold the phone aloft and he will purse his lips for a selfie. Open a laptop and he will demand his favourite film. Smartphones and iPads are as familiar to him as high chairs and books. He is a child of his time. He is two years old.

Go on, judge me. Actually, let me revert to my pre-parenting self and I’ll do it for you. What kind of lazy and uninterested parent would permit such unfettered and unashamed use of electronics? What kind of mother am I? I’m probably the awful middle class type who would sit him in front of an iPad in Pizza Express just to get some peace and quiet. And in a place where crayons are provided too. Disgusting! Shame on me! And so on. But now that I have some actual experience in parenting, my position, in general, is to shut up and be in the moment. If he’s not drinking bleach I’m happy. If he plays with my laptop for five minutes I’m happy. If he strokes a tree I’m happy. Tablets and phones, so far, have not replaced books and parks, and if that started to happen, I would intervene. Until then, I am delighted that one of his first words, shortly following apple, bus, and cuddle, was Kindle.

Children, just like their grown-up versions, are products of their time and, for better and worse, we are living in a technological age. If I let my son play with my phone I am not a bad parent. It’s just another way of engaging with the world and filling up time. After a couple of minutes he is bored with both iPad and wooden spoon and on to the next thing, whether that be building a tunnel out of cushions or looking out of the window. Toddlers are refreshingly democratic that way. They care about everything and nothing. The real issue in all of this is how we support overworked and anxious parents to spend more time with their children, our ridiculous expectations of toddlers (especially in public ­places), and above all our default position of judging mothers. The truth is that most of us, for most of the time, are simply doing our best. «