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Techno-Tots - Is Tablet Technology Changing Our Children?

20/05/2014 16:58 BST | Updated 20/07/2014 10:59 BST

Half of all children in the UK live in a household with a tablet computer or reading device. For pre-schoolers, who were born since the first iPad was introduced 2010, life without tablets will be as unimaginable as life without cars or TV for older generations.

Young children are so used to using tablets that, confronted with a printed magazine, they try to use their fingers to zoom in and flick between pages. As the father who shot the video below says, for today's toddlers a magazine is simply an iPad that doesn't work.

Even magazines for toddlers are now producing interactive digital versions designed for tablets, including Peppa Pig, the UK's most popular pre-school character, whose best-selling printed title sells over 98,000 copies a month, as well as the BBC's cBeebies range.

This is the rise of the techno tots, a generation who will put others' claims to be digital natives to shame. Technology has developed so swiftly over the last decade that parents and educators have little information about how being immersed in the digital world will affect children's long-term development.

The pace of change

In just two years the number of households with tablets rose by 150%, and children of all ages tend to be users when there's one in the house. iPads are popular with nurseries too, as they enable traditional activities like listening to the teacher reading a story to become immersive, interactive experiences.

As a result 61% of three year olds use tablets, and 8% have their own device. Tablet use is now predicted to rise most amongst the under-12s.

What is this creating? Savvy youngsters prepared for the digital age? Or overweight children who lack social skills or appreciation of the world away from the screen?

Could this be damaging our children?

Some parents and child development experts fear that exposure to technology could be damaging to children. There are guidelines on screen time for children, but the research that these guidelines are based on hasn't yet caught up with the explosion in tablet use.

While some surveys blame technology for pre-school children failing to learn skills like tying their shoelaces or swimming, the idea of drawing a line between 'real life' activities and digital ones is itself increasingly outmoded. Adults of today, let alone tomorrow, can get through life without needing to swim, but being technologically illiterate drastically limits employment options.

At a physiological level babies and toddlers playing games or drawing on tablets are developing different motor skills, similar to those that they would holding a paintbrush or playing with building blocks. Now pre-school teachers are reporting that their students lack vital manipulative skills, such as moving building blocks around, as a result of tablet use.

Why are tablets so compelling for children?

Children outstripping their parents when it comes to adapting to new technologies isn't new, but parents and teachers both say that young children seem particularly drawn to tablets.

This might be due to mirror neurons, according to researchers at the University of London's Institute of Education. A relatively new scientific area, mirror neurons are thought to affect our ability to empathise and learn by imitation. Researchers believe that the mimetic nature of tablets engage mirror neurons in young children, making them particularly engaging.

Neurological effects

As the majority of a child's brain development happens during the first three years of life, this raises the interesting possibility that tablet use may be affecting brain development.

While this might seem alarming, Jordy Kaufman from BabyLab, an Australian organisation that investigates the relationship between very young children and technology, points out that even as adults our neural pathways are constantly rewiring themselves.

Collectively, the way we use our brain changes over time. The invention of the printing press meant that it was no longer necessary to memorise ballads and the oral storytelling tradition died.

Now some teachers fear that using tablets will get children so used to instant information and fast-paced activity that they will lose the ability to concentrate and recall information necessary for exams. However, in the digital age being able to find, analyse and use information appropriately are arguably more important skills.

The long-term outlook

With little definitive research to go on, many experts are counselling caution. Besides, toddlers have such limited attention spans they are unlikely to want to just use one toy all the time.

Perhaps, though, to get to a point where a child's uses a tablet so much that it seriously skews their development indicates underlying problems within the family that would manifest themselves in any case.

Ironically, long-term effects of using tablets during early childhood won't truly be seen until today's toddlers are young adults - by which time technology will have moved on.