Parents shouldn't worry about youngsters using tablets — the activity is the important thing

Young children who use an iPad or other touch-screen device can get the same benefits as physical play, new research indicates - although the type of virtual activity is crucial.

As the cost of tablets and smartphones tumble, more parents are allowing their toddlers to use the technology, and iPads have joined playdough and crayons as educational tools at preschools.

A baby bouncer with an iPad holder can be bought from New Zealand websites, and there is even an "iPotty", a training potty with a tablet holder.

But because the technology is so new, there is a lack of conclusive research on what touch screen use might do to a young child's brain.


Now, research at Melbourne's Swinburne University has shed some light on what goes on when young children use the devices.

The director of the university's BabyLab neuroscience laboratory, Jordy Kaufman, said that testing on 3- to 6-year-olds pointed to an important message for parents - the activity is more important than the medium.

"It's probably not going to be about whether it's a screen or not, it's about what the actual activity that someone is doing on the screen is."

A spur for the ongoing research came after Dr Kaufman viewed a YouTube video, "a magazine is an iPad that does not work", that shows a 1-year-old girl who has been allowed to use an iPad subsequently trying to use multi-touch gestures on a magazine.

The clip has been watched more than four million times.

While many viewers found it cute, others were disgusted, and one commented that it showed why "the glorification of Steve Jobs ... is simply sickening".

Dr Kaufman said he was struck by the polarisation between those who thought such technology was a boon for education and those who believed it was "the end of healthy childhood as we know it".

He decided to try to find out who might be right.


The range of activities on touch screen devices meant testing was limited to a handful of applications, and researchers tried to address some of the most prevalent concerns heard about children's tablet use.

One was that toddlers who use the devices might be missing out on crucial learning that is only available in the "real world".

Previous research has shown that physical play helped with a child's problem-solving ability, and Dr Kaufman and colleagues wanted to see if that was the case for similar types of play on the iPad.

"And I think that, overall, we will find, yes, if children learn how to solve, say, a spatial problem by moving virtual blocks around on an iPad, we think that will transfer over to the physical world almost perfectly.

"I think we will end up showing that when you learn how to solve something on a touch screen, it teaches you how to solve that problem in the real world, even for very young children ... of course that's a different question than if they were just playing Angry Birds."

Research has also established that some television viewing has substantial negative effects on subsequent "executive thinking" ability in children - neurological-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation, as evidenced by a successful participant in "Simon Says", for example.

The BabyLab testing has shown that touch screen use, as long as it is a creative activity, does not have the same negative effect.

Dr Kaufman said such research was in its infancy. Despite that, he was comfortable with his own children, aged 3 and 8, using the family iPad - although their access was restricted and depended on what the activity was.

"My son is in school and he uses it to learn Mandarin, and there's no restrictions on it for that, or video chatting with his grandparents."

Tara Fagan, a consultant with Core Education, who specialises in digital learning, said she would not recommend a one-size-fits-all age for the introduction to such devices.

A study by Ms Fagan and a colleague previously concluded that when iPads were used well in early childhood education they could add to the curriculum, but a balance was crucial.

"It's looking at the apps that you're giving children and whether they're open-ended, so whether children can create their own work - their own art on the iPad, or digital story, use their own voice, make their own music. So it's about creating rather than consuming."

Too young?

• The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no screen time for babies under 2.

• But new research indicates that iPad and other touch-screen use should not be lumped in with television.

• It shows that if children learn how to solve a spatial problem on a tablet, this lesson translates into the physical world.

• Indications are that interactive and creative iPad use does not have same negative effects as watching television.

Parents should make sure applications are open-ended and interactive, experts say.

Daniel Mabazza, 2, uses an iPad for the education apps downloaded by his dad. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Daniel Mabazza, 2, uses an iPad for the education apps downloaded by his dad. Photo / Sarah Ivey