No, the research doesn’t say that iPads damage brains

Recent news headlines have many parents of young children in a state of panic.

Some popular news outlets claimed that there was “scientific evidence” that indicated that touchscreen devices were detrimental for young children’s development.

The headlines stated that there was science to support the claim that, “iPads and Smartphones May Damage Toddler Brains”. The headline has now been adjusted to read “Tablets and Smartphones May Affect Social and Emotional Development, Scientists Speculate” (which is a very different tone to the earlier headline).

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But nonetheless the initial headlines caused a flurry on concern amongst parents and educators who are using or considering the use of touchscreen devices with young children.

The problem was that the “research” that the news outlets referred to was not actually “research”. It was a commentary published in the Pediatrics journal. The commentary was based on the researchers from Boston University School of Medicine raising issues about the impact of available interactive media on young children’s learning and behaviour. In particular, they raised concerns about the educational potential of touchscreen devices.

The authors did not suggest that they had evidence that proved that iPads damage toddler’s brains. In fact, the words “brain damage” were not even used by the authors of the paper.

It appears that some of the claims in a press release regarding the commentary were inflated by some media outlets (who later changed their headlines).

So what did the commentary actually say?

I actually think that the commentary raises some important issues that we need to think about very carefully, as parents and educators when it comes to young children and touchscreens.

Given that mobile devices are everywhere and that children are using them at increasingly younger ages, it’s critical that we make careful decisions about how we use them with young children. We also need to be really mindful about how use technology around children.

It doesn’t mean that we need to ban or completely avoid using touchscreens with or around children. Nor do we need to fear them.

But I do believe that we need to pause and think about we use our gadgets with children (and also around children because they’ll inherit our digital habits).

“Mobile devices are everywhere and children are using them more frequently at young ages,” Jenny Radesky, one of the authors from Boston University’s Developmental-Behavior Pediatrics, said in a statement. “The impact these mobile devices are having on the development and behavior of children is still relatively unknown.”

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In the commentary the authors questioned whether touchscreen device use during the formative years, adversely impacted on young children’s social emotional and problem-solving skills. They proposed that device use displaced time otherwise spent engaged in exploration, unstructured play and real face-to-face interaction with peers. “These devices also may replace the hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills, which are important for the learning and application of math and science,” stated Radesky.

And I totally agree. Technology have a displacement effect. When children are using a screen there’s an opportunity cost. They’re doing something else. It might mean that they’re not hanging from a tree and developing physical strength, or perhaps they’re not engaged in imaginative play with a sibling and developing language and social skills. Perhaps their touchscreen time is not allowing them time to draw, crumple and cut (all of which are important fine motor skills).

Children need to be physically active (to develop essential sensorimotor skills that assist with subsequent learning).

Children need real, serve-and-return interactions with people (to develop language, social and emotional skills).

Excessive or inappropriate use of screens can interfere with these essential processes.

So what do we actually know about touchscreens and young children?

Like thex Pediatrics authors suggest, I think it’s vital that we think about the best ways to use touchscreens with children. We need to pause and think about their possible impact on children’s learning, behaviour and development.

We can’t naively assume that these devices are not impacting on children’s learning and development, just because they’ve been rapidly adopted and are widespread. But why do we need to jump to the premature conclusion that they’re harmful (even when we don’t yet have the evidence to prove this)?

Whilst we don’t yet have a substantial body of longitudinal or empirical evidence to “prove” that they’re adversely impacting children’s learning and development, it’s hard to refute the claim that they’re shaping the way that young children learn and develop.

Children’s use of and relationship to technology is shaping their brain architecture (in both positive and negative ways).

Teachers, parents and carers and medical professionals are noting the changes.

And some of the changes are positive, and some are negative.

It’s imperative that we find and ways to leverage touchscreen technologies with young children. These devices are here to stay. But we must also mitigate some of their harmful effects.

The commentary also acknowledged that the existing research corpus shows that children under 30 months of age do not learn as well form TV and video as they do from human interaction, we don’t yet know if this is the case for more interactive forms of technology, like tablets and smartphones.

Whilst we have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the impact on television and videos (passive technology) on young children’s development and learning, the same cannot be said about touchscreen devices (interactive technology). The rapid rate of adoption of touchscreens and the exponential changes in technology means that researchers have been unable to keep pace.

And so we’re conducting a bit of a “living experiment.”

And this is why it’s so important that we take a careful and considered approach to using touchscreen devices with young children. We need to find a balanced approach.

Young children still need plenty of off-screen experiences. They need to interact, play, climb, explore, build, construct and move.

What technology habits are we fostering with young children?

One of the chief concerns raised by the authors of the commentary regards the use of touchscreens as “digital pacifiers”. When we hand over tablets and smartphones to children to constantly help alleviate boredom, or to calm an upset child, then I agree that it’ highly likely that technology’s impacting their social-emotional development. When we constantly use screens to help children self-regulate we’re setting up habits that will last a lifetime. And these may not necessarily be healthy habits.

But when used and touchscreens can support young children’s learning and development. There’s emerging evidence to support this claim (and I’m thrilled to have been able to conduct some of my own research in this area).

Touchscreens, like all technology, are just a tool. They’re neither good nor bad. It really depends on how they’re used.

This is why we have to be so careful about how we use touchscreens with children.

Touchscreens needs to add value to justify their use with young children. They shouldn’t be pacifiers (all the time). They shouldn’t be used as digital worksheets (especially for our youngest children).

Touchscreens need to enable young children do new things, or old things in better ways. Otherwise, the screen-free, hands-on experience may be the better alternative.

As parents and educators we must pause and think carefully about how and why we’re using technology with (or around) young children. It’s why we must use technology in very explicit and intentional ways. It’s also why we need to adopt a balanced approach to using technology. When sparingly and in conjunction with other experiences, it’s unlikely that technology will have an adverse impact on young children. It really is all about balance.

This article was first published at www.everychancetolearn.com.au

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Kristy Goodwin

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology and brain researcher, teacher (and mother). Kristy spent thirteen years as a teacher and is on a mission to help parents feel confident raising their children in the digital age. Learn more about her work at Every Chance to Learn.

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