1082-460-TechnologySo, you have just bought your child his or her first laptop, a small, simple system from http://www.ebay.co.uk. It’s ideal for surfing the web and using some simple software, as well as watching the occasional movie or playing some games.

But how will it, and devices like it, influence the way your son or daughter learns? We’ve all struggled with the childproof lid on a bottle of vitamins, only to have a four-year-old effortlessly pop it open. And the same goes with smartphones: children seem to pick up and figure out in moments what normally takes adults days or weeks of trial and error.

Some experts warn that too much screen time too young can be detrimental to kids’ development, yet others are convinced there is little to worry about, and that devices such as tablets and smartphones can actually enhance learning in the very young.

Here are the opinions of some of the leading researchers into the relationship between young minds and the technology that could be helping to shape them.

The pros

  • Heather Kirkorian is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. She found that children aged between two and three are more likely to respond to a touchscreen than to a video screen that required no form of interaction. The more interactive a display is, the more familiar it feels to a two-year-old.
  • Kirkorian also found that kids who interact with screens make fewer mistakes and pick things up faster. In this BBC website feature, she says touchscreens could help toddlers learn more quickly.
  • Schools are using tablet devices to help children absorb information more easily, and to facilitate new ways of learning. As that same BBC feature notes, Helen Moylett, president of the teaching charity Early Education, says that smartphones and tablets “can be really helpful and interesting tools if used in the right place to help us learn”.
  • Jackie Marsh is a professor of education at the University of Sheffield. She thinks that devices and high-quality apps and software can help children with learning difficulties develop the skills they might otherwise be missing.
  • Prof Marsh also thinks online environments can help children learn and experiment in confidence, and that children under six years old should spend no longer than two hours per day in front of a screen.
  • Dr Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco who specialises in the psychology of parenting, suggests that technology and the Internet help children to “scan information quickly and efficiently”.
  • However, in his article on the Psychology Today website, he cautions that technology “can be both beneficial and harmful to different ways in which children think”.

The cons

  • Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman advocates curbing screen time among the very young. He says the average ten-year-old has access to five different screens at home, and that by the time a child born today is seven years old, they will have spent one full year in front of a screen.
  • Dr Sigman also thinks too much time in front of computers and other devices could lead to addiction and depression.
  • Research suggests screen time longer than about two hours can start to have negative effects, such as reductions in attention span, as detailed in this BBC piece.

Who do you listen to? Perhaps we should just accept that toddlers are very curious, and that a glowing screen that reacts to their touch could be a great aid to their development – in moderation.