Friday, 29 November 2013

Techy Toddlers

I recently blogged about how I let Eleanor watch TV – well, I have another guilty secret. Eleanor is one of the many toddlers who uses touchscreen devices. While she doesn't have one of her own, she does have a fixation with technology.

It started with her catching sight of a photo of her on our laptop, and demanding to see more. It got to the point where we would put a slide show on the screen for her and sit watching it with her. I can't remember how old she was when this happened, but she was under one. I KNOW.

It got to the point where every time I sat near the laptop she would whine until I let her look at the photos. She would drop whatever she was playing with and come over to stare at the screen. After a while I just started to avoid the laptop while she was awake – which was probably good for both of us!

Then came the day last summer when we got caught out in a thunderstorm and took shelter in a public toilet. (That sounds worse than it was, it was a very nice public toilet, the sort with an attendant!) As my husband ran off to fetch the car, Eleanor got bored and so I entertained her by showing her photos on my smartphone.

Big mistake. To this day, she will ask to look at photos on my phone. She can swipe through them, she knows what order they come in, she even knows which icon to press to bring them up. Sometimes, when we're in her room and she's engrossed with her toys, I'll get my phone out to sneakily look at Twitter, but if she sees it she'll leave off her own game and come over demanding to look at photos. It drives me mad!

Then there's the Vtech My First Tablet that a relative bought her recently. Despite the name, it's actually not a touchscreen device – actually the technology is quite outmoded. But it is one of those 'press a button and I'll make a noise' toys. that are invading our children's lives. And it will totally zonk her out. I try to avoid getting it out for her as much as possible but she will still ask for it, and, if I'm honest, sometimes it's a useful distraction if I'm busy.

But last night, the ITV's Tonight programme was looking at the growing usage of technology, particularly touchscreen devices, amongst toddlers and pre-schoolers. It was a total wake-up call.

They staged an experiment with a group of 3 to 6 year olds. They were given lots of toys – and they played imaginatively and cooperatively with each other. Then they were given their devices – and they all went quiet, ignoring each other. Then they were given a choice, and only one child went for the toys. There was a deathly silence as the rest gazed at their screens.

My eyes actually filled with tears.

I recognise that technology is taking an increasingly prominent place in our society, and part of me thinks that Eleanor will need to be able to use these devices to keep up. But does she need to use them now? Or are there more important things her brain needs to work on first? She's picked up the basics of swiping and pressing so quickly, is there really any need for her to learn these 'skills' early on or will she pick them up just as quickly when she's older?

The thing that nearly made me cry about the programme was how the children totally shut off their imaginative and social abilities the moment a screen was in front of them. I want Eleanor to be sociable, confident, imaginative. And those qualities are developed through play, actual play, whether that's indoors with toys or outdoors with nature. I'm not sure they're developed by swiping, pressing or staring at a screen.

So I'm going to put my foot down. I'm going to set limits on how much Eleanor uses her 'tablet' and I'm going to do my darnedest to stop her looking at my phone, even if it means no more sneaky peeks at Twitter. I'm going to encourage her as much as possible to lose herself in imaginative, creative play, not in pressing buttons and swiping screens.

Karen at Let Kids Be Kids recently blogged about the idea of a screen-free day on Sunday 19th January. I was a bit unsure before, but now I'm really keen to get involved. I want to see if we really can make it for a whole day without the TV or any tablet/smartphone/laptop use. It's a scary prospect, but one I think I'll learn from.

So what about you? What are your thoughts and rules about smartphone/tablet/computer usage with your children? And do you think you could make it through a whole day without technology?

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