Lessons for parents
Many educationalists (and of course the computer industry) would like to see a computer for every child but is that necessarily a good thing? Some say computers stimulate the mind. Others would like to see kids doing healthy outdoor activities instead.
Bernadette Hunter, the president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), generated headlines this month when she crossed swords with Michael Gove at the association's conference in Birmingham. Less well reported were her comments and concerns about the way computers, smartphones and Playstations have become a "digital dummy" used to pacify children. Hunter said children were left in their rooms at night playing on electronic devices which was interrupting their sleep and leaving them too tired to learn, adding "The parents aren't monitoring that and aren't even realising they are coming to school tired".
A leaflet for parents issued by the NAHT advises, amongst other things, that parents should set aside time for talking with their children, without being interrupted by phones, TV, radio, computer. It is surprising that this needs to be spelt out.
Other reports from around the UK indicate that there could be a growing problem of "internet addiction" amongst our children, and in one case it has been reported that a four year old girl from the south east has been given compulsive behaviour therapy after she became increasingly "distressed and inconsolable" when the iPad was taken away from her. The girl was using the iPad for three to four hours every day and her mother said she had developed an obsession with the device. In a survey conducted by babies.co.uk of a thousand parents of young children, more than one in seven admitted letting their offspring use computer gadgets for more than four hours per day.
Some think this shift from real toys to imaginative virtual ones can only be a good thing, stimulating a child's intelligence, whilst others fear it must be a bad thing, causing them to become disengaged from the real world. We shouldn't jump to conclusons based on headline-grabbing anecdotal cases, but the bottom line is that nobody really knows the effect of the child-friendly tablet computer because it just hasn't been around long enough yet to properly measure the impact it has on development.
However, a recent study by the Medical Research Council and the University of Glasgow looking at the influence of that other electronic dummy, TV, gives us some pause for thought. It has followed 19,000 children in the UK born in 2000/2001. It found that those children who watched more than three hours of television, videos, or DVDs a day had a higher than average chance of conduct problems, emotional and relationship problems by the time they were seven. However, children who spent the same amount of time playing computer games did not show this tendency. This unexpected result may be because computer games have become progressively more complex, mentally stimulating and now often involve online communities and discussions whilst TV remains insular and seems to be dumbed down more and more each year.
The topline summary of this research has been cherry-picked by editors around the world. In Ghana, one publication headlines "TV Addiction Turns Kids Anti-Social" whilst in Malaysia, another publication leads with "Hours of screen time not so bad for kids after all".
At Harvard's School of Public Health, Professor Michael Rich has raised doubts about the wisdom of allowing very young children to use iPads and says that as a learning tool, they tend to focus too much on "skill and drill" type teaching of facts such as "cows go moo". Speaking to the Washington Post, he gave a great example when he said that kids enjoy iPad apps such as finger painting but "the iPad does not give you that great feeling of paint squishing through your fingers. As much of a pain as that is for parents, think how much kids are learning about cause and effect. Not only can they draw pictures, they can make their hair all green and get a real reaction from Mom."
The accepted wisdom that computers are essential for education in older children has also been challenged by a study published by the University of California Santa Cruz. This research studied a group of a thousand disadvantaged children and provided 500 of them with computer equipment. The outcome was that it found no evidence that children with computers spent any more time on homework, and it detected no difference between the two groups on "educational outcomes" which means grades achieved, standardised test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions. This raises the question, instead of spending so much money on placing computers in schools, would we be wiser spending that money on teachers, classrooms, and improving the curriculum?
22nd May 2013
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.