Is technology harmful to early childhood development?

It’s while juggling parenthood with all of the other aspects of a busy life. Your manager needs a report tomorrow morning. The kitchen sink is backing up and now you need to track down a plumber. Your husband’s car has broken down and now you need to drive him to the airport.

It’s tempting to just stick a tablet in your child’s lap in the hopes of keeping them entertained as you handle the latest major crisis. After all, what harm can it do? You’re letting them play educational games, after all.

The proof is in the parenting: many tech executives and engineers actively shield their children from technology when they’re young. When asked whether his kids loved the iPad, Steve Jobs famously remarked: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Many in the psychological world agree with Jobs. Dr Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, believes digital devices are the toy equivalent of crack cocaine. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages child’s exposure to any screentime before the age of 2.

Noted London psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist observes that children who constantly use smartphones demonstrate borderline autistic behaviour: “In virtual environments they don’t have to interpret the subtle cues of real-life environments like when they are playing with children in the woods.”

Founder of CMATHS, Marlene Mouton, agrees with these assessments, and believes that parents should instead encourage more practical skills stimulation: “We have children like Stiaan who start learning mental maths as early as three, and the developmental difference between them and their peers is just incredible. They can solve complicated problems and think much more logically. In my observation, you cannot get that from an iPad.”

Mouton cautions that parents should avoid exposing their children to unnecessary technology before the age of seven, as the neural pathways are still in the process of developing before then. When they are older, tablets and smartphones can be gradually brought as a complement to learning.

“We do use apps as a teaching aid for some of the older children, but only for a few minutes,” she says. “Tablet-time needs to be limited and children should rather be busy doing ‘kid’ things.”

In an ideal world, parents would have followed all of the recommendations from psychologists around technology. As every parent knows, raising a child never quite follows a perfect script. What can you do if your child already prefers mobile apps to homework?

According to Mouton, the trick lies in rethinking the way you view education. Embracing a philosophy of learning through play, she says, will naturally lead to a more balanced approach to technology.

“I don’t think kids will ever put their iPads aside for something that doesn’t stimulate them,” concludes Mouton. “If a child finds school maths boring, they won’t be motivated to seek it out on their own. What parents need to do is find fun ways to help them develop new skills, like educational courses that engage all their senses.”

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