Recently on TikTok, a discussion emerged surrounding ‘iPad kids’, and whether technology was irreversibly damaging the neurological development of children. From the videos, the topic spiralled into comment sections, and video essays, with both sides becoming aggressive on the subject of whether children, especially primary-school aged children and younger, should be using iPads or other similar devices. 

The concern around touchscreen technology mirrors what I remember my parents thought would happen when they switched to Wi-Fi from a dial-up modem. It seems that with every new piece of technology, from television to radio to telegraph machine, there’s always ‘the early-up-takers’, ‘the followers’, ‘the sceptics’ and ‘the can’t-afford-it-right-nows’. But, what actually is it that makes people so against the use of technology by children today, when ‘new technologies’ have been with us for generations?

It seems that the biggest problem is the amount of screen time in the lives of infants. As someone born in 2002, by the time I was nine or ten years old, I was allowed an hour or two after school to use the family desktop, and I didn’t have a touch screen phone until I was thirteen. For the most part, I had to find ways outside of technology to entertain myself. I played pretend, or with dolls, or I read a book, or forced my younger brother to play a board game with me. If I told my mum that I was bored, she would suggest all the household chores I could help her with…and suddenly I wasn’t bored any more.

By contrast, it seems that young children today are not allowed to find their own ways of coping with boredom. If they start to show any signs of disinterest in whatever situation they are in, immediately an iPad or touchscreen device with some sort of game is placed in front of their faces. They are subdued by the flashing colours and fun songs, and the parents can continue what they were doing without interruption. The issue is not that the flashing colours and fun songs exist, but that they saturate too much of a child’s exposure to the world. Ironically, to spare them the possibility of boredom, attention-grabbing interactive apps have resulted in a generation of children who are bored by reality. Walking into a McDonald’s last year, I spotted the kid’s table with eight or so built-in touch screen tablets, a hive of silent children, their eyes glued to the displays, their thumbs tapping frenetically; all while the tear-off colouring sheets remained dejected and abandoned in the corner. 

Yet, perhaps the most problematic effect of touchscreen, portable technology, is that it greys the separation between learning and distraction. This is shown in studies such as “Type of screen time moderates effects on outcomes in 4013 children: evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children”, published in 2019 by The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Activity using data collected between 2010 and 2014. (A link to the survey results can be found here). The different sorts of screen time were often made distinct by the devices used. Educational screen time could be on a family desktop, interactive time could be playing games on an iPad, and passive time could be watching terrestrial TV. While the study noted that passive screen time was associated with worse social development and results in school, it also found that screen time associated with education appeared to have any positive effect on child development. However, the only aspects that educational screen time positively impacted were school achievement, and persistence, whereas other areas such as low reactivity, prosociality, emotional conduct and quality of life did not improve. In all of the other types of screen time, on average these aspects deteriorated throughout the survey duration.

Furthermore, the separation between types of screen time becomes harder when everything is contained within one device. The trends in recent years show that fewer and fewer children are watching live television, which is reflected in corporations moving their programs online to favour the rapidly growing ‘streaming on-demand’ demographic. Even the BBC announced that their child-focused channel, CBBC, would be coming off-air within the next few years, and moving solely to the internet. It seems clear that there are some educational benefits to iPads and similar products, but at what point does it become too much? When ‘educational’ apps or videos are just being used passively for a distraction, can that still be called learning? When the bright colours and sound effects are designed to be as addictive as possible, is that not prioritising app sales over education?

As the saying goes, you are what you eat, and the mind is no different. However, it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat that truly matters. Indeed, bananas are very good for you, but if you eat four hundred of them, your heart will stop from potassium overdose, and in some ways, is technology not the same? Some react to the advances in technology by just banning their children from using it, but then this denies those children the positive effects that technology can have on their development. Simultaneously, those that become gluttons for saturated colours and sound effects become as equally disadvantaged as those that are starved of that exposure. In reality, the way forward is to find a balance; to be able to recognise the value of screen time, yet also the value in letting ourselves find other outlets to entertain or learn new skills. And so, while connecting to technology continues to be important, we must remember that disconnecting from it too is just as important.