Using an iPad could be as good as for toddlers as traditional toys, according to researchers who found that children are adept at handling touchscreens by the age of two.
Toddlers can swipe, unlock and search for apps on smartphones and tablets by an average age of 24 months, a study which argues this could help them learn, has found.
Interactive games that teach toddlers about colours, letters and shapes should not be condemned alongside mindless cartoons, and parents should take time to play them with their children, scientists say.
While there is no official NHS advice, US guidance says that children under two should spend no time in front of a screen, citing research linking it to problems with attention span and reasoning skills. However, this guidance was issued before the advent of smartphones and tablets, and doctors now say a fresh look at the use of technology is needed for the rising generation of “digital natives”.
Irish researchers questioned 82 parents, finding that 71 per cent of them regularly gave touchscreen devices to young children to play with, for an average of 15 minutes a day.
By 24 months, the children could swipe and unlock the screens and at 25 months they could identify features and apps, they reported in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
“It surprised us how frequently parents were handing over their devices to children who were only one or two years old,” said Deirdre Murray of Cork University Hospital, the senior author of the paper. “Half the time children spent playing with traditional toys has moved over to touchscreen devices. We don’t know what the long term effect will be.”
She said that rather than assume that this was bad, parents should consider how screens are used. “If you’re using a touchscreen just to watch fast-moving cartoons, that’s probably bad. We know that passive watching of fast-paced cartoons is bad for children. The difference with touchscreen devices is they can be interactive. Children can play games and achieve goals.”
She said these games were “more akin to traditional play”, arguing: “This could be a force for good but we need to use it properly.”
Dr Murray advised parents: “Children can learn from 2D images. But they learn more quickly if parents are there interacting and discussing what they’ve seen. So the potential is there for them to learn from touchscreen devices, but it should be interactive, slow-paced and ideally adults should be doing it with them.”
Professor Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “There is evidence that suggests excessive time spent in front of any screen – whether that’s a television, iPad or mobile phone – promotes obesity and interferes with normal sleep patterns in children.
“However, our children are digital natives in a way no previous generation has been before, so it’s unclear whether the use of these new devices improves cognition and coordination for children under the age of two. Therefore more research is needed on the benefits and harms of different types of screen use. Only then can we really be sure what screen time recommendations we should put in place for young children.”
A separate survey for the NSPCC and O2 suggested that half of parents are thinking of buying a smartphone or tablet for an under four this Christmas.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “Just as you would set up your child’s new bike before wrapping it up, we want to encourage all parents to do the same with their child’s new tablet or phone. Once the parental controls and privacy settings are in place, help them to learn how to use it.”