As everyone in possession of an iPad or tablet device knows, young children are natural users of this device, instinctively finding it easy to navigate. Their talents in this area are both extremely impressive, and alarming.
Tablets and children seem made for each other. If you have children, you are very likely to have let them use the device on numerous occasions, just for some peace and quiet. Who hasn’t? iPads keep children engaged and motivated for hours – literally. They remain glued to it, without losing focus for inordinate lengths of time, never running to the loo or getting a drink - as they would with almost any other activity. Their use in schools has enabled teachers to use a variety of very clever apps that get educational messages across better than ever before.
Tablets open a whole new world in teaching terms – another dimension – if you like. They enable and facilitate many activities that were hitherto either impossible, or just far more time consuming, such as research, for example.
Since the invention of the touch screen iPad, 4 years ago, children, as young as 18 months old, can use a device independently, navigating their way through it, without even the need for sufficient dexterity to be able to use a mouse.
However, as with the interactive whiteboard, the full potential of the tablet is, as yet, rarely exploited. Most use it for research, communication, for filming and feed back of various types of performance. But these devices are able to take their users far beyond this level of use into the realm of simulating and demonstrating phenomena, the experience of which it has never been possible to convey by any other means before.
Apps for tablets are readily available, but be warned, many of them are no better than visually attractive gimmicks. Even apps purporting to be “educational” are frequently not devised by educationalists, or even based on sound educational principles. As such they do not add more than an informative book might, even if they do it in a form that many children find more palatable.
With changes in the world around us, and in an attempt to provide the best and most current form of education they can, teachers everywhere feel that it is their duty to embrace technology. “Children are growing up with this stuff. They use it intuitively, but we have a responsibility to show them how to unlock its potential,” says Hilary French, headmistress of Central Newcastle High School and chairman of the Girls’ School Association. “Technological devices today are as essential a piece of equipment as a slide rule and a pencil case.”
So not only are iPads weird and wonderful, they are invaluable assets in so many different tasks as well as forms of entertainment. There is overwhelming evidence that the evils of passive screen time, as we had experienced with television, are not true of iPads; iPads offer so much more.
Research points to the indisputable evidence that certain parts of the brain develop to a greater extent in iPad and interactive game users than in people who rarely or never engage in such activities. Neuroscientists have found that video gaming can have several cognitive benefits: stimulating the growth of new neurons and connectivity in the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills.
With this being true, it is of no surprise that tablet use has been found to be particularly beneficial to children with Specific Learning Differences. Due to the different presentation, or perhaps the novelty value, even reluctant readers are being enticed into reading with the help of ebooks and Kindles.
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Nonetheless, there are lots of concerns: researchers increasingly warn that the bite-size chunks of information offered by the internet, with constant inducements to click to yet a further page, are reshaping our neural pathways, permanently damaging our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time or to lay down “deep” memories.
This is damaging in the long run, causing children to require constant, ever-changing stimulation, which in turn makes the “old-fashioned” activities of reading a book or writing a story appear very dull in comparison. Imagination becomes less and less necessary with the sophisticated interactive technology on offer. Watching your placid children with a tablet, it is difficult to imagine, but some games have been associated with heightened levels of aggression.
So, as with so many things: less is more: Tablets and apps are no substitute for anything, certainly not friends or family time. No matter how tired you are, how tedious the moment is, an iPad should never take the place of direct conversation. Whipping it out at the slightest hint of boredom actively deprives a child of experiences: watching and learning. They have to be looking around to see the beauty in the world. On the other hand, used as a tool or even as a daily reward, in a structured and monitored manner, it is an appliance like no other in opening your child’s eyes to the world beyond.
If it forms such a vital part of your child’s life that he or she cannot go without it anywhere; if it is present at the meal table or when there are many other people around who would be prepared to positively interact with your child - you have a problem. Your child is losing the ability to sit around without electronic stimulation, just enjoying the presence of others; to be curious and observant.
These appliances are addictive. Their constant fast-changing world becomes something a child clings to, requiring the endless stream of stimuli. This may deprive them of social contact, thereby stopping them in the long term from forming solid friendships; it can affect how much time they are spending doing physical activity; it may stop them being able to focus on slower-paced activities such as academic skills, thereby impacting negatively on their ability to enjoy and focus on school-based learning. In the same way as iPads and the like can develop certain areas of the brain, they can also decrease and cause others to diminish affecting certain mental skills. This may be even more significant in the case of the young, developing brain – we simply do not know yet.
So for now:
• Let your children get to know and enjoy what tablet devices have to offer, but monitor and limit use. They should rarely, if at all, be used for “baby-sitting” purposes.
• Allow them a specific amount of time, at regular intervals, not exceeding an hour a day for children under 10; increasing this to up to a maximum of 2 hours by age 14. Should they have other screen time, such as laptops, Playstation or X-box time as well, this amount needs to be reduced.
During a past war a mother, swept up in the cruel events around her, wanted to use her last parenting moments with her child to give her some wisdom. She took her small girl and said: “Remember, no matter what happens, they cannot take away what is in your head. Hold on to your thoughts and memories.”
If our children were ever to find themselves in a situation where the only thing they could rely on to maintain their sanity is the contents of their own mind – what exactly would be there? Do not let it be the image of an iPad!
Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.