Are iPads rewiring our children’s brains?

iKids ... Will today's children be permanently altered by the technology they're using at a young age?
iKids ... Will today's children be permanently altered by the technology they're using at a young age? 

Like so many preschoolers today, my daughter started using an iPad well before her first birthday. She’d watched her parents use one from birth, so it was only natural that as soon as her tiny fingers could swipe a screen she would imitate this behaviour and learn how to operate one herself.

And it’s only natural that, as time-poor parents, we would download age-appropriate apps for her, reassuring ourselves of their educational benefits while enjoying the free babysitting service for a while.

It’s win/win, right? This generation is learning early, they’ll be tech-savvy geniuses by the time they’re 10. We’re doing them a favour. It’s not doing any harm. Right?

Well, no-one really knows.

It turns out that this generation of toddlers, who have been exposed to iPads since birth, are guinea pigs. Studies on how the device affects the development of young children are still years away. However, there are plenty of child development experts who are already concerned.

Unfortunately a lot of the real-life experimentation is going to be done by parents who now have young kids

"Unfortunately a lot of the real-life experimentation is going to be done by parents who now have young kids," Glenda Revelle, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Arkansas, told The Wall Street Journal in May this year.

Children’s screen time is already worryingly high, with the iPad’s popularity expected to increase that amount. According to UK psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, by the time they’re seven years old the average child born today will have spent one full year of 24-hour days watching screen media. And he believes this over-exposure is leading to a generation of children who are developing a lifelong dependency on small screens.

Most worryingly, Dr Sigman says that playing computer games for so long could lead to long-term changes in the brain – changes that resemble the effects of substance dependence.

Michael Rich, director of Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health, says that the brain chemical dopamine, often associated with pleasure, is released when kids play games. Many apps are designed to encourage children to keep playing by offering rewards or exciting visuals at unpredictable times – which, Rich says, “gives a dopamine squirt".


That dopamine rush is the same effect triggered by playing the pokies, which we all know can lead to serious addiction and devastating consequences.

As a parent who has confiscated the iPad after too much use and then had to deal with the resulting meltdowns, I can attest that the addiction is already forming in my kids. So these findings had me fairly horrified.

Yet the worst was yet to come: I came across the Newsweek article ‘Is the web driving us mad?

“The current incarnation of the internet ... may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.”

The article quotes some truly frightening research, including this: “Chinese researchers found ‘abnormal white matter’ – essentially extra nerve cells built for speed – in the areas charged with attention, control, and executive function. A parallel study found similar changes in the brains of videogame addicts.

“[This came] on the heels of other Chinese results that link internet addiction to ‘structural abnormalities in gray matter’, namely shrinkage of 10 to 20 percent in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information.”

Clearly, most of us aren’t allowing our preschoolers to become truly addicted to Facebook and Angry Birds quite yet. But are we introducing them to something potentially dangerous at the most crucial time in their brain development? After all, a child’s neurological pathways are formed within the first three years, with the results affecting their entire lives.

It certainly sounds very doomsday and plenty of people will argue against such fear mongering. My husband is one of them; he sees no difference between our six-year-old’s obsession with Minecraft and his own childhood Lego obsession, saying that both involve building and creating.

It’s true I’m often incredibly impressed with my son’s creativity at Minecraft, and agree it has lots of benefits. However, Lego is dexterous and encourages group play, whereas Minecraft is solitary and inspires a trance-like state in our little boy.

(In Minecraft’s favour, the cities he creates online are limited only by his imagination, while his Lego worlds are limited by Lego being ridiculously expensive.)

My husband isn’t overly worried about our children’s iPad use, arguing that they need to keep up with technological progress, and that if there’s any negative consequences a whole generation will be in the same boat. That’s an argument I don’t find particularly comforting.

However, there are certainly positives for young children using iPads, with psychologists reporting fantastic results in their use with autistic children. And perhaps those kids who don’t have parents reading and interacting with them at home will be able to partially fill that void with their own iPad as the technology becomes cheaper and more readily available. A parent reading to their child will always be ideal, but an e-book reading aloud to a child is certainly better than nothing.

As with everything else, moderation seems to be key. I admit that on our recent eight-hour road trip there was no moderation to be had; our iPad might as well have been gold plated for what it was worth to me that day. But after reading these reports I will be keeping its use in check – for my children, at least. My brain’s obviously already fried, so why stop now?

Plus, I may need a few of those ‘feel good’ dopamine squirts after I break the news about the new iPad time limits …

Do you impose time limits on technology use for your kids, or do you think there's nothing to worry about? Have your say in the Essential Baby forum or comment below.