She can barely talk, but 21-month-old Zahlee Robinson has no problems with her iPad. With sisters Chloee, 4, and Sophee, 5, she is a very early adopter of the touchscreen technology that is revolutionising the way children, as well as adults, connect to the world.

Their mother, Cheree Robinson, admits she gets the occasional disapproving looks when people see her daughters using their iPad and iPods in public, but she’s enthusiastic about the educational apps that are already teaching them how to spell and add up. Not to mention the iPad’s value as a “portable baby-sitter”.

Robinson, who lives in Melbourne, is very familiar with high-tech communication: as a social media manager she’s employed by a shopping centre to post on Facebook once a day. But her toddler is part of generation that is discovering that while laptop keys might be too hard to negotiate, the touch screen — whether on a tablet or a phone — is, well, child’s play.

Even three years ago, the notion of a baby using a phone would have been unthinkable. Even as big players such as Apple and Samsung recognised the capacity for tablets to change to way we access the internet through what the IT boffins call “couch-computing” or “lean-back computing” they may not have anticipated the enormous take-up of these gadgets by children, even toddlers and babies.

In the initial development of smartphone and tablet technologies it is unlikely under-fives were at the forefront of designers’ target market. But with the benefit of hindsight it makes perfect sense. They can’t yet read, spell or type, but putting their fingers on a screen and moving it around is a breeze. They want to be doing what they see their parents doing, and their parents, who may see an educational benefit or at least a break for a while, play along.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers quickly come to grips with and utilise the new technologies. And IT companies will be looking to maximise the market just as they would with any other.

Nick Ingelbrecht, research director at international technology research group Gartner, says none of the companies devising the tablet or phone devices had under-fives in mind as a potential market at the beginning in the late-2000s.

“I don’t think you start out looking at that demographic. I think they would have had in their mind who would actually buy it, tech-savvy people,” Ingelbrecht says.

“So this very young user developed subsequently. I think the drivers of that have been the touch-screen interface, the swiping movements, all of which is intuitive.”

Joanne Orlando, an education lecturer at the University of Western Sydney specialising in the nexus between children’s learning and tablet or smartphone applications, says children see them as just another toy.

“They’re very appealing to children, and by children I mean babies as young as a couple of months old, well before they reach the age of two,” Orlando says.

Appealing, yes, but are they beneficial or detrimental?

The question matters, because their reach is growing. An iPad was one of the biggest selling Christmas presents for kids. Parents justify the $500 expense on the notion it is a bunch of games and activities rolled into one. Ingelbrecht anticipates the price will be down to $360 by 2015.

A US poll taken late last year by Common Sense Media found 38 per cent of children aged eight and younger had used a mobile device: smartphone, iPod or a tablet.

Broken down, the numbers were higher in the five to eight category (at 52 per cent), but one in 10 babies (less than 12 months) had used a device.

Orlando says the statistics might be even more stark, one study finding 60 per cent of children between six months and two years having played with a mobile device, and one in 10 under six months.

“There are two categories of conversations parents have around the benefits and dangers of mobile devices and very young children,” she says. “The first is they wonder what a child can learn from using a device that they couldn’t learn the old-fashioned way, and even the other way, will it hurt their ability to read and write properly.

“The second are the dangers they are exposed to in terms of the physical and social impacts of too much screen time and cyber safety issues.

“These are valid concerns, but if we continue to focus on these things, we miss the great things these technologies offer in terms of children’s learning. Parents need to see the potential value as well as the potential harms,” Orlando says.

She says learning to read, spell, write and do maths can be complemented by technology. It is not the answer, but it can be a positive part of the answer.

“Along with maths, speaking, reading and writing, being able to use the new technologies is a ‘new basic’ in our children’s learning,” Orlando says.

Adolescent and child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, author of Real Wired Child, says there is no difference between a young child learning to scribble using a crayon and paper, or using his or her finger on a tablet.

But parents need to ensure their children are taught moderation.

“Many parents are still digital fossils when it comes to children and technology,” Carr-Gregg says.

“While they are justifiably worried about addiction, predators and porn, the truth is that the iPad is just another educational device. As long as there is balance in their lives, with equal time for play, art, music, dance, sport or whatever, I think most cyber psychologists would be happy.”

Carr-Gregg is quick to note that at a very young age, there are additional dangers.

“Too much screen time can have unhealthy side effects. That’s why its wise for parents to monitor and limit the time their child spends watching TV or using iPads. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age two have no screen time and that kids older than two watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming.”

Orlando, like Carr-Gregg, sees balance as the key. “It’s about being smart as a parent. Not too much junk food, not sitting in front of an X-Box for 12 hours a day. A healthy balance is the key.

“Also using the technology to its advantage in terms of learning, guiding your children to the educational and creative applications rather than letting them be passive consumers,” Orlando says.

Ingelbrecht says we shouldn’t gloss over the potential impact of prolonged screen time, particularly for younger children.

“I agree about the inevitability of the technology age. Whether it’s been the book or the wheel, people will say the sky will fall in. But there are some cognitive neuroscience issues that need to be taken seriously. The way that our digital interactions are changing the way we think and wire our brains, what we are losing in that space. People need to be mindful of that. It’s a 30-year experiment and we’re in the middle of it and we don’t quite know how it will end.”

Ingelbrecht cites the work of leading British brain scientist Susan Greenfield, who posits that profound changes are taking place in the human brain as it is exposed to more and more screen time.

Greenfield argues the time in front of technology increases dopamine levels in the brain, which change behaviour. Shorter attention spans and reckless behaviour are two of the potential effects, she says.

On the other hand, interactive tablets are seen as offering benefits to children on the autism spectrum. Teachers, parents and therapists offer anecdotes that certain applications can help autistic children handle stressful social situations like being in crowds, and help develop fine motor skills.

One thing is for sure — they aren’t going away any time soon. So where is the market going?

Ingelbrecht says the top-selling brands will start making tougher tablets for children — devices that are waterproof and shatterproof. “There are already some of these, but they are a niche product and tend to be expensive,” he says.

As for the apps that are driving the market, parents tend to go for the educational ones, things like first words, alphabet apps and maths apps, as well as more general applications like Toontastic. There will be a proliferation of similar ones. And kids seem to love the colouring in ones.”So should we be tut-tutting the mum in the coffee shop with her wired up kids? Ingelbrecht says no.

“It’s just another iteration of technology. Who says what they’re doing is necessarily mindless. The kid might be sitting there in that coffee shop drawing the next big thing after Harry Potter. Should we be telling his mother to stop him?”

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Source: The Australian –