Monday, May 6, 2013

How Young Is Too Young To Use The Internet?

Is Edward, gifted or normal for today’s child?

For a long time I have overheard discussions and participated in discussions about allowing or not allowing young children to use the Internet and play games. Initially my thoughts were that as a parent we should not do this and instead should encourage our toddlers to play traditional games and experience playtime to allow them to develop and grow. In recent times I have watched and been amazed at the skills and excitement that the use of smart technology has created in a few small children so my belief and appreciation for what technology can give our children has now changed.

I also know that there is widespread debate on this topic. To allow or not to allow is certainly one of personal choice for parents today. My question is;
If we do not allow our toddlers and young children to use and embrace the smart technology of today - are we actually depriving them of the ability to learn the skills that are going to be required to live in their world?
A few years ago it was normal for a 3 year old to be playing in the back yard, doing puzzles on the floor, getting into mischief or maybe watching a little Sesame Street or Wiggles to engage and learn social and fine motor skills.
In fact, just 5 years ago it was almost unheard of that a child under 5 would be using a smart phone or an iPad. It was rare that an adult had one of these items for their own personal or professional use.  Today, technology is changing the way adults and children engage at all levels. Technology now plays a pivotal role in communication, business, learning for adults and children and by default it plays an important role in the development of the young mind and fine motor skills.

Edward is a beautiful, funny normal little 3 year old that is addicted to the iPhone,iPad and the computer. He tells me he dreams about the "puter".

Edward can’t read yet, but he knows exactly what icons to press to get to where he wants to go on the iPad or iPhone, he uses a mouse like an expert on the desktop or the laptop and he knows how to navigate pages on google. He can show you by using an app how to locate his favourite playgrounds. To my surprise in a session where we were playing an ABC game on the iPad he was able to distinguish between the try or buy buttons and knew that he could not go to the buy button because he would need daddy’s card for that one.
Interestingly he knew the pass code to get into the iPhone and the iPad and he knew which numbers to insert into the credit card fields. This is a child that can count to 10 easily but gets wobbly on his abc’s after “f”. He knows the home button on almost any game or application and the exit process and, if you dare to try to help him or move your hand in to assist he flicks you away stating “no, no I do it”.
I decided to explore just what he did and did not know when it came to games or learning modules he may not be familiar with. To my surprise he navigated his way through complex games and token collecting strategy games like a pro. He got it faster than me and refused assistance. His attention span was lasting and his determination to crack the games and get to the finish line blew me away.  

Edward attends pre-school two days per week and his mother tells me that he uses an iPad at pre-school to paint, draw and complete basic ABC/123 learning modules. What was unusual about this was that he completes his tasks without instruction and refuses assistance to guide him from the teachers. So is this a smart kid, or is Edward just an example of the average toddler in today’s world of technology and communication.
The increasing need for Internet access to complete school work, and the increased availability of residential Internet services, have driven a sharp increase in the proportion of children accessing the Internet at both home and school according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009 report.

There are very few statistics on Internet usage for under 5 year old. In April 2009 in Australia, nearly four out of every five (79%) children aged 5-14 years (2.2 million children) used the Internet, compared to 65% in April 2006 (1.7 million children). Home was reported as the most common site for Internet use in 2009 (92% of all children accessing the Internet) followed by school (86%) (ABS 2009). Older children (aged 12-14 years) had the highest proportion of Internet usage in April 2009 (96%). Internet usage was 60% for children aged 5-8 years.

Most Australian children use the Internet
Many (especially older children) also have their own mobile phones - some of which can also be used to access the Internet. These technologies have created a new space in which children can learn, play and communicate. Increasingly, children use the Internet at school for class work, as well as at home. Lack of access to the Internet at home may be a disadvantage from a number of perspectives - school work, social interaction, and future employment prospects. The Internet is a place of both opportunity and risk where children can develop.
Over half of the children with mobile phones used it more to contact family (60%) than to contact friends (36%) and this was especially true for younger children. For children aged 5-8 years, almost all of them (95%) used their mobile phone more to contact family, while for older children (aged 12-14 years) just over half did (52%). Very few children with mobile phones used their mobile phones to access the Internet in April 2009.
In a recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on media multitasking, Claudia Wallis concluded, “New technology sometimes brings change that is so swift and sweeping, that the implications are hard to grasp.” Such is certainly the case with the rapid expansion of media use by children and youth for ever-larger portions of their waking hours. Academics, policymakers, and practitioners show a keen interest in the digital age. And, of course, parents are scrambling to keep up with the preponderance of new gadgets that influences modern household arrangements and communication patterns.

Among very young children (0 to 5) who use the Internet, 23% of parents of children between ages 0 and 5 say these children use the Internet. Of that percentage, 82% use it on a weekly basis.  At age 3, about one-quarter of children go online daily, increasing to about half by age 5. And by age 8, about 20% of 4- and 5-year-old use handheld video games. By age 7, usage more than doubles, to 46%. By the time a child turns 9, well over half of all children are using video games, more than two-thirds use the Internet on any given weekday. Lewis Bernstein, PhD Executive Vice President Education and Outreach Sesame Workshop, Michael Levine, PhD Executive Director, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

Each day, school-age children pack almost 8 hours of media exposure (7:51) into 5.5 hours of time.

By using more than one medium at a time, also known as media multitasking, children can up their media consumption and squeeze more technology into their few non-school hours.

After reading this data and thinking about Edward, it         occurred to me he is probably just normal for a three year old today that has access to the latest technology. It is inspiring to watch him navigate his way around the iPhone and its apps. His tiny little fingers flick the screens from left to right like a pro as he locates what it is that he wants to do. He is enthralled, excited and learning every time he picks it up, which if he had it his way would be 24/7.

What I discovered was that he is a cute normal little boy that loves to run and play. When asked if he would like to go to the playground or play on the iPad he says with excitement “playground first then when we come home I will play on the iPad”.
So, don’t shun the use of technology for our children thinking it will stop them from doing the normal little girl and boy things. Technology is their life moving forward so maybe we need to be providing a reasonable balance of the old Vs the new to allow our children to grow into their world with the skills that they will need. The skills we had at 5 or 10 are very different to the skills our children of today have and need to move forward.

There are 5 billion mobile phone users in the world, over 1 billion smart phone users and this grows daily by the thousands. 

The mobile revolution may seem well underway, but globally it’s only getting started. The number of smart phone users is growing by 42% a year, globally, according to research from Morgan Stanley.

There’s huge room to grow and every day we are growing at a faster rate. Given this, it seems to me that if we deny our children access in favour of more traditional play and learning platforms just because we know them and consider them to be better, are we potentially holding our children back.

Having witnessed the results of letting them use today's technology in balance with activity that we consider to be more appropriate I say, let them play and learn with technology so they are ready for their tomorrow. 

I respect that many people have very different views on this topic and the hard part is knowing what is a good balance of old and new. Is it 5 hours a day, 1 hour a day or is it just that you wing it and see what works best for each individual child.
What are your thoughts on this topic?
Gail Worthington-Eyre