Babies 'benefit from iPads at a young age': study

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 Photo: Chad Springer

Scroll through any parenting website or pick up a parenting magazine and chances are you'll come across an article about screen time and technology.

More often than not, you'll read that screen time for children should be kept to a minimum - and the advice for babies is that they should not be exposed to technology at all.  

But some scientists are now challenging this way of thinking.

Newly released research from the University of London found that babies who are given iPads, rather than books, are better stimulated.  

In an experiment with a small group of babies aged between 6 and 10 months, scientists found that the children had a better recognition of numbers on an iPad over a book. The babies were also more attracted to the visual movement of the screen.

Contradicting all previous findings, lead researcher Professor Annette Karmilofff-Smith now recommends that all babies be given tablets from birth.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, she said, "It is shocking how fast they learn - even faster than adults - to do things like scroll up and down text."

"Books are static. When you observe babies with books, all they are interested in is the sound of the pages turning. Their visual system at that age is attracted by movement."

The professor also thinks tablets could benefit babies physically as well as mentally.

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"They might put a corner in their mouth, they will then explore it physically, [but] then they will use it to do things. Everything we know about child development tells us that tablet computers should not be banned for babies and toddlers."

Try telling that to the Australian government.

Current Australian guidelines on screen time for children recommend that children aged from two to five years have no more than one hour of screen time a day. Children aged between five and 18 should have no more than two hours a day.

It is recommended that children under the age of two have no screen time at all.

So what do Aussie experts think about this new research?

Professor Stephen Houghton, from the University of Western Australia, has been involved in many studies on children and screen time. He questions the limitations of this research.

"I think that this study may have been released by neuroscientists who are focusing on neuroimaging," he explains. "Their work tends to focus on the areas of the brain that are activated when children do certain tasks and so, from this, they are gauging that activation equals learning."

Even if this is the case, Prof Houghton is not convinced that babies should be given iPads.

"Most of the research that has been conducted clearly shows that, as well as positive affects with limited screen use, excessive screen use results in adverse physical and mental health," he says.

"The guidelines state that babies under two shouldn't be exposed to screens and these are guidelines which have been around for a long time and are based on sound research.

"Giving babies iPads is not something I personally would recommend."

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer agrees.

"I think we need much more rigorous research on babies before we hand out very expensive technology to replace foundational skills, not academic ones, that have been learnt offline for generations," she says.

While there are is a huge range of activities that digital technology can provide, Brewer says that developing brains don't necessarily need these to do what can be done by using blocks and physical objects.

"I'd be concerned that we are more focused on learning than we are on playing - which is, in effect, a process that leads to learning," she adds. "There are also a range of foundational skills that can not be learnt with technology, like kicking or throwing a ball or using paints or climbing and running."

Brewer believes that the key is balance and understanding that technology is a tool and not a foundation. She also says that children don't need to be stuffed full of 'learning' from the minute they take their first breath.

"Too much technology on young brains looks like high engagement, but in some cases is purely a mental 'sugar high'," she says.

However, not all experts agree that iPad usage by babies or toddlers is always negative.

Pyschotherapist Annie Gurton says that in the instance where Mum is making dinner and Dad is at work, the next best thing for stimulation could be an iPad.

"It requires interaction and it demands thinking, so it's not as bad as some people may think," she says.

Gurton highlights that it's a better option than TV, which demands nothing except a passive viewer.

"I wouldn't fuss about 10 minutes here or there but, as a regular babysitter, the TV is really quite negative. An iPad, on the other hand, can be loaded with early learning software that educates, entertains and stimulates."

"So although the thought is quite shocking - and humans are by far and away the preferred choice - iPads aren't as bad as TVs for education and entertainment."

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