The overuse of tablets and touchscreen smartphones in children’s early years is said to be preventing them from having enough opportunity to develop hand strength and dexterity through play.
“Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” says Sally Payne, head paediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust. “They don’t have the fundamental movement skills.”
Payne says children need “lots” of opportunities to develop the fine muscles in their fingers because the movement and grip of a pencil requires strong control. And scrolling on an iPad isn’t doing the trick.
She explains that many parents are choosing technology over traditional play: “It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encourage them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes.”
Barbie Clarke, a child psychotherapist and founder of the Family Kids and Youth research agency, says that children who aren’t learning to use both technology and pencils are at a disadvantage when compared to their peers: “We go into a lot of schools and have never gone into one which has embraced teaching through technology which isn’t using pens alongside the tablets and iPads.”
So what can parents do if they are worried about their child’s development and use of technology?
Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children, tells HuffPost UK that you need to address the balance of your child’s play versus their use of technology. Not necessarily cut one in favour of the other.
“This is not so much worrying about the number of hours that children spend on their technology, but look at what they are doing whilst on it [watching YouTube vs. using more creative drawing and play apps] and also look at what they do when they’re not using their tech [are they just watching television].”
Are there worrying signs parents should pay attention to?
Gummer says that it is a wider issue of technology taking over their life and leaving little room for other things. “Watch out for anything that stops them being an engaged member of their family or friendship group,” she said.
“If they’re missing meals, not joining in with activities they used to enjoy, or not communicating well, you might want to look at restricting access.”
So how can I help my child spend time away from technolog?
If you think that your child would benefit from using technology less, then take a collaborative approach: “Agree rules around reasonable tech usage - either in total amount of time per day or scheduled hours which are screen-free,” says Gummer. “There are lots of apps that help parents manage this.”
What alternative activities will help my child develop the muscles needed to grip a pencil?
If your child is struggling to hold a pencil correctly, Sari Ockner, an occupational therapist at Kidz Occupational Therapy, recommends getting your child to use smaller pieces of pencil (shorter) or smaller crayons, which will strengthen their hands. Alternatively you could get a pencil with ‘pencil grips’ that will hold their finger in the correct position, ntil they’re used to it.
Also ask them write on surfaces like an easel or chalkboard, to challenge them with vertical surfaces.