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Too much too young?

In this digital age, where everyone bar the very elderly and the babes in arms seem to know what to do with a mouse (and also know that they’re not just furry small creatures), when is the best time to introduce your child to a computer?

I found myself asking that question after witnessing, on a recent visit to a friend’s house, a three year old navigating his way around YouTube. Admittedly, this was to watch past episodes of Mister Maker – don’t worry if you don’t get the reference; you’re not missing out!

Over a coffee, my friend launched into a stream of tales of her son’s peers – three year olds with smart phones. Not to make calls, she hastened to add, but to play games and explore the apps. Is it me or does that seem very young? I get the point of toy computers and phones. At least I think I do. There’s a part of me that thinks if they’re going to play with the toy version then why not give them a head start and introduce them to the real deal. However, if I’m really honest, it all seems a bit pointless to me at that age. So the question has to be, does it do them any harm?

In 2008, it was recommended that children as young as 22 months start using a computer. This idea was decried by a group of psychologists and childcare specialists, who claimed this motion was ‘subverting the development of children’s cognitive skills’.

One of the UK’s top psychologists, Dr Aric Sigman, called for a ban on screen technology for all children under the age of nine in 2010, citing the lack of cognitive demands that comes from inhabiting the virtual world presented by computers as the most damaging factor. His argument was that children need to ‘hold, feel, rub, taste, see and move real things to educate their neurological and cognitive structure with a basic understanding of the real world’. This loosely translates as, in order to aid development, children need to have real sensory experiences.

Research has shown that there has been a 40 per cent increase in the sale of computer games for pre-school children during the past year compared to less than 10 per cent in other areas. More and more children have access to at least a personal computer in the home, if not a mobile phone or tablet device, and games based on television characters continue to corner the pre-school market. Games developers are happy to feed this habit with age groups as young as nine months being targeted.

Besides too much screen time preventing full cognitive development there are other more obvious health risks to be considered here. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain and lack of fitness.

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle at this stage but you can opt for some balance. If play time is being replaced regularly by any type of screen time – whether it’s television or computer – it’s not a good thing. There’s absolutely no reason why children as young as two shouldn’t have a try at technology and make themselves a little familiar and there’s a lot of good educational software out there but moderation is key. As in most things in life, you just need to apply a little common sense and make sure the screen plays second fiddle to the park and not vice versa.