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As parents allow their  toddlers to play with ipads and tablets, experts question the wisdom of allowing them to do so.

By Shobha John


 

Vivek Jain watched in amazement as his son, two-and-a-half years old, took his iPad, put it on his lap, touched the screen and opened various apps with practised ease. One minute his tiny fingers opened an alphabet app, the next minute they flew to an app for nursery rhymes. As he hummed and swayed to the music, his father, a Mumbai-based investment banker, was just glad the device kept the little tot occupied for the next hour or so. “My son started using the iPad when he was two years old,” says Jain. “He automatically knows how to operate it. It is good mental stimulation, as his fingers and eyes are constantly moving. I had previously given him a nursery rhyme book, but he tore it apart.”­
Similarly, Nimi Khanna, a Delhi housewife, gives her tablet to her fussy three-year-old when she is busy with household chores. “Various apps keep my daughter busy. I also allow her to use it during journeys so that she doesn’t disturb others around her.”

Digital impact

While the use of mobile devices such as tablets, iPhones and iPads is no longer a novelty in this digital age, experts are questioning their increasing use by young children. Many of the apps are free, be they educational ones to teach alphabets, numbers and shapes; those with television characters; game apps like Angry Birds or art and music apps.

Parents, in their enthusiasm to get children attuned to modern technology, are allowing them to use their devices, but could be doing more harm than good. A 2013 study by San Francisco-based Common Sense Media found that 38 percent of children under two years use tablets or smartphones, up from 10 percent in 2011. There are concerns about how this will affect a child’s mental and social development and creativity when there is no human interaction and hands-on learning. Is the simulated environment offered by these gadgets as good as face-to-face interaction?

Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents that adolescents should have no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day and children below two shouldn’t be allowed any at all. It said there was no such thing as educational programming for young children. But the fact is that these apps have got children hooked. Colorful apps with animation and audio recording, which leap out of the screen upon a mere touch or swipe, seem so much more attractive than painstakingly building blocks or learning alphabets with paper and pencil. Easy come, easy go.

And toy companies are cashing in on this spurting interest for baby apps. One of them, Fisher-Price, marketed the “iPad Apptivity Seat” and got quite a backlash. It is a cushioned bucket seat with a built-in extension arm and case that holds an iPad inches away from the baby’s face. The visual display is meant to stimulate the baby. But doctors and parents reacted with horror at the company’s disregard for infants’ well-being. Some said babies should be stimulated by human interaction that engages the five senses. Finally, the company acknowledged the difficulty of navigating this brave new world.

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The effects of screen exposure on babies was borne out by studies done by Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain & Learning Sciences at the University of Washington and an expert on the impact of early language on young brains. In a research paper, “Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning”, Kuhl and two others said: “Research has shown that babies learn new language through human interaction and not through listening to audio (through headphones) or watching and listening to TV. The social brain must be active for children to learn new sounds and language.”

Growing concern

It is no wonder that learning apps for babies have invited strong criticism. Fisher-Price’s hugely popular “Laugh & Learn” mobile apps may have been downloaded over 3 million times but that didn’t stop the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), a non-profit group, from filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in 2013. “The baby genius industry is notorious for marketing products as educational, when in fact there is no evidence that they are,” says Susan Linn, director, CCFC. Years earlier, it had filed a complaint against “Baby Einstein”, popular videos for infants by Walt Disney Company, which had to refund consumers who bought the product.

Nonetheless, the market for apps for small kids is there and Indian companies are developing and marketing them. One is Redbytes Software Pvt Ltd, a Pune-based company. Altaf Rehmani, its founder-director, says that every parent desires to make his child smarter. “These apps are another tool in the parenting arsenal. They have been used in developed countries and now, are gradually coming to Indian preschools and nurseries. This technology is environment-friendly and provides for easy interaction. This trend is hard to resist and is here to stay,” he predicts.

Redbytes Software has a brand called Tinytapps, which produces learning content for toddlers. It covers a wide range—from alphabets, numbers and rhymes to safety and environment. The most popular ones, says Rehmani, are nursery rhymes, Arabic alphabet and Panda math. Rehmani says it’s a known scientific fact that 90 percent of brain development takes place in the first five years and this includes the ability to learn and grasp things. Apps aid this process, he says.

Then, there is Chandigarh-based Net Solutions, which too makes apps for children below three years. Rohit Dogra, man­ager, digital marketing & business development, says that more than 50 per cent of kids between 2-4 years have access to mobile devices and even very young children are able to use touchscreen devices with speed and ease.

What makes many of the apps popular, says Dogra, is that they are highly user-friendly. “Touchscreen devices quickly teach children the link between a cause (a touch) and an effect. Therefore, kids take to them easily,” he says. What’s more, they are less cumbersome than a desktop PC as there is no keyboard or mouse.

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Apps by Net Solutions include Talk-Tommy, an educational app for toddlers and WinZilla, a gaming app. Talk-Tommy, says Dogra, is a free iPad App. “When you tap on the pictures, they get enlarged and an audio plays along, pronouncing the name of the object in the picture. WinZilla Trivia is an iPhone-, iPad-, and iPod touch-based app that includes three games developed after decrypting ancient cave drawings discovered in sub-Saharan Africa.”

However, even app developers insist that parents should not substitute real learning for an app. “A right mix of hands-on teaching and an app-based one can help accelerate pre-school learning. Just like soft drinks can’t be a substitute for water, an app can’t be and should not be a substitute for traditional methods of learning,” says Dogra. As prices of these hardware keep dropping, says Rehmani, tech devices will eventually be part-and-parcel of schools.

In the process, will these little geeks lose their human touch?


A for apps

Findings of a study, “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, 2013” by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, among 1,463 parents with children under eight:

38 per cent of children under 2 use mobile devices like iPhones, tablets or Kindle. This was the same percentage two years ago for children 8 years and under 40 per cent of families own tablets; that’s up from 8 per cent two years ago
 

7 per cent of children have their own tablets. Children under 2, on an average, spend an hour a day in front of screens —
watching TV, using computers, viewing DVDs, playing with mobile apps. Children between 2-4 years spent two hours a day, and 5-8 years, spend two hours and 20 minutes

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