Children using smartphones and tablets from an early age can have both troubling and positive consequences, a leading academic says.

A Sanitarium survey last week found 78 per cent of parents of children aged five to seven said their child could use a cellphone and 89 per cent had mastered the remote, but only 29 per cent could make their own lunch.

It followed reports last year that some children were starting school without the ability to speak in sentences - prompting Education Minister Hekia Parata to call for an investigation and question whether increased screen time in front of electronic devices and fewer parents reading to their kids were part of the issue.

But Professor Stuart McNaughton, director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education, said what impacts technology had depended on a range of factors.

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These included whether the screen time was appropriate or excessive - and what else the child could be doing otherwise to learn.

McNaughton, the Government's first chief education scientific adviser, said there was some international evidence to show that use of technology could have harmful effects on childrens' development and social behaviour.

While multi-tasking was common in digital environments - working on several open windows - these can have costs for brain development in terms of efficiency and accuracy of performance, especially for younger children whose attention systems and executive functions were immature.

On the flip-side, similar tasks could benefit the brain if they were appropriate to their development and guided by teachers, McNaughton said.

But increased access to digital technology was have also been associated with changes in aspects of psychological well-being, especially with anti social use such as cyber bullying.

"More specifically, higher amounts of use of digital devices for younger children have been associated with increased distractibility and for older children addiction-like behaviours or pathological engagement."

What the studies show

The link with anti-social use of social media was suggested in a study in the UK, with an increase from 2007 in young women aged between 16 and 24 years with common mental disorders was linked with increased time on the internet or using social media.

A 2009 United States study found that as technology played a larger role in our lives, skills in critical thinking and analysis had declined, while our visual skills have improved - and learners had also changed as a result.

McNaughton said digital platforms could meanwhile have positive effects, increasing "intra-personal" skills, like self-control, and "inter-personal" skills, or interacting with others, as well as cognitive development including language.

"For example, adding well-designed games to business as usual in the classroom can be associated with increased skills."

Yet, he added, there were so far very few experimental studies that looked directly at outcomes, "and with digital interventions to increase self control, there may be limited transfer from constrained or artificial digital tasks".

"All of this increases the need for schools to be very deliberate about promoting social and cognitive skills which enable then to mange their and others' interactions online."

In New Zealand, there was some experimental evidence to show well-designed programmes drawing on devices could bring "very significant growth" in educational achievement.

The 12 Auckland schools in the Manaiakalani cluster had already developed and tested ways of learning that came with using technology, he said.

McNaughton saw a pressing need for more research on the links between childrens' technology use and learning, cognitive and social skills.

"This research is especially important in light of research evidence suggesting that children need enhanced skills in each of these areas if the negative effects of digital environments, the internet and social media are to be prevented and if we are to capitalise on what the new digital resources enable us to do."

Kids and technology

• A Sanitarium survey last week found 78 per cent of parents of children aged five to seven said their child could use a cellphone and 89 per cent had mastered the remote, but only 29 per cent could make their own lunch.

• This followed a similar survey by AVG which questioned more than 6000 parents in 10 countries and found 58 per cent of New Zealand children aged 3-5 were fully capable of operating a smartphone or tablet, but only 8 per cent could tie their own shoelaces.

• A Government investigation was launched last year following reports some children were starting school without the ability to speak in sentences - something Education Minister Hekia Parata said could owe to too much screen time on devices.