MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 23-Jan-14 13:16:24

Apps for babies - too much, too young?

Very young children are now routinely using technology in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. But how much do we know about its impact on their development?

In this guest post, Early Years specialist Dr Jane O'Connor argues for urgent research into the effect of technology on babies and toddlers - and says we can't afford to leave it to technology companies with 'vested interests'.

Do your small children use touchscreens? Share your experience on the thread below.

Dr Jane O'Connor

Senior Researcher in Education, Birmingham City University

Posted on: Thu 23-Jan-14 13:16:23

(11 comments )

Lead photo

Babies and touchscreen technology: "an enormous change in the whole experience of early childhood"

I'm currently potty training my little boy, and we're both finding it a rather challenging time. He is bored sitting there, and I am running out of ideas to encourage him to go.

But wait a minute - there's an app for that! Within minutes, my toddler is being congratulated by a total stranger on his ability to perform a basic bodily function, and being awarded virtual stickers that he can drag over to his high definition reward chart.

My feelings are mixed. Am I being a 'good' mum finding up to the minute ways to help my child reach early milestones, as well as introducing him to the digital world in which he will inevitably grow up? Or am I a being a 'bad' mum, jettisoning my parental responsibilities onto a pixelated piece of programming, a high resolution load of nonsense that adds nothing to my son's experience of life, and potentially confuses his emerging ability to socialise and build relationships?

The truth is that nobody knows. It's in the interests of the technology companies and software producers to aggressively market touchscreen devices and Apps to families with babies and very young children, because they want to ensure that the next generation are securely attached to their products, and will support them for a lifetime. The question of whether early technology use is actually beneficial to children has become lost in the thrill of the new.

But the truth is that children now interact with technology in a way which was simply not possible until a couple of years ago: babies are now given opportunities to drag and tap a touchscreen from just a few months old. This is an enormous change in the whole experience of early childhood - one which is potentially incredibly liberating for the very young, but which is also uncharted territory in terms of their physical, educational, social and psychological development.

Babies are now given opportunities to drag and tap a touchscreen from just a few months old. This is an enormous change in the whole experience of early childhood - one which is potentially incredibly liberating for the very young, but which is also uncharted territory in terms of their physical, educational, social and psychological development.


Research so far has been of questionable quality and usefulness, and seems frequently to have an intrinsic bias either for, or against, new technology. For example, the American 'experiment' in which a group of babies were put in the middle of a room with their mums at one end, and the iPads they had been playing with at the other. The mothers were asked to call their babies over and, guess what: all but one chose to go to their iPads instead. Cue panic-mongering about the terrible effect touchscreen devices are having on children's emotional and social development, and their ability to attach securely to their significant adults.

There must, surely, be a more helpful way to investigate the ways in which little ones use touchscreens without resorting to hysterical 'technology is evil' polemics or, conversely, relying on market research carried out by the very organisations who are trying to shift their products? We need a neutral, rational approach - one which has no other agenda other than to find out what we do not know, and to suggest ways to help parents make informed choices about their children's technological activities.

The 'Technobabies' project, which I am leading at Birmingham City University, aims to do just that, by way of a questionnaire asking the parents or carers of babies and toddlers about their children’s use of touchscreens, and encouraging them to identify any concerns they may have.

Using this information, we can start to map out how families are incorporating touchscreens into their homes and the lives of their children, and what they feel are the potential benefits, and potential problems, that such technology may bring to the very young. We can also identify what kind of advice and information families would like - advice which puts the well-being of their children at its heart, and which is based on academic, and not market, research.

The more parents we can get to fill in the information about their children, the more we can begin to understand the lived reality of bringing up children in a digital age - so if you have at least one child under three and would like to be part of this research project, please take a minute to complete our short on-line questionnaire. We hope to share our findings in the summer, when we'll be launching the next phase of the project, so do watch this space.

By Dr Jane O'Connor

Twitter: @elss_research

HoratiaDrelincourt Thu 23-Jan-14 13:59:12

Done. But you realise how counterintuitive it is to put "Child 1 (youngest child)" ?!

fourlegstwolegs Thu 23-Jan-14 14:05:42

Definitely too young. They have their whole adult lives to sit in front of a computer. I for one have never allowed my 1yo access to iphone or ipad and intend to keep that up for as long as humanly possible (ditto TV).
My DP is a skilled programmer who obviously didn't grow up with such technology and it certainly didn't hold him back.
I know the tech is here to stay but frankly the longer we can keep them playing naturally and outdoors as much as possible, the better.

rockybalboa Thu 23-Jan-14 14:18:23

Dunno but an app for toilet training my almost 3yo would be much better than the bag of Milky Way Stars that I keep eating

ginauk84 Thu 23-Jan-14 14:51:27

Did they replicate the study with a favourite toy as well though? Would be interesting if they picked their favourite toy over mum it wouldn't be any different.

I must admit I don't really let my LO have my phone/iPad but when were out and about and she's getting bored I have shown it her on a couple of occasions for no longer than 5 mins. She only has the educational apps tho and no games - I know a 4 year old who is always playing shooting games on an iPhone, that isn't right.

I'm not planning on encouraging screens when LO is born. I'm certain that whether or not they use an iPad as a baby they will be perfectly capable of using technology when they grow up. Plenty of today’s twenty-somethings grew up without the internet and are hard to separate from online social media/gaming/whatever.
Just from my own personal experiences however, I do suspect that screens provide instant gratification, discouraging patience and the learning of real life skills. They also made me fat as a teenager, ha.

ThingsThatGoBumpInTheNight Thu 23-Jan-14 17:50:16

I think the biggest wish for anyone with dc is for technology that can access the internet but block anything and everything harmful, and send updates to the parents when a child tries to access blocked content

Or we could just sit with them - times are changing. iPads now used in schools, you can't stop the forward march of this stuff just use it to your advantage, in a way and for how often you feel comfortable.

Praise and stickers like in the op are only as good as the parent doing the same..and IMO no more harmful, the pad/app though I'm guessing is more aesthetically pleasing with colours sounds ect..

mrsrachie Thu 23-Jan-14 17:58:40

That test only has validity if the children ran to their mothers when faced with other temptations such as food/toys.

You could put a cruddy dust bunny at the other end of the room and I think my child would prefer to investigate that rather than come to me on instruction!

tchambers108 Thu 23-Jan-14 22:53:44

So true mrsrachie!

My view on it is to limit technology use for as long as possible just so baby starts off enjoying lots of things - I did let my little one, at around 1 year old, play on my iPad/phone occasionally but only a few set games, after a while he would get bored and play something else - now he's 2 and definitely loves apps and YouTube ALOT but just views it as another activity from a wide range of things to do. I find the technology is so easy to pick up that you don't need to worry about immersing your little ones from baby age, they will understand it very easily once they need to smile

iclaudius Fri 24-Jan-14 11:50:37

I'm renowned for this but it's a resounding no from me
My babies will be living their lives in real time not via a glass screen

Sirzy Fri 24-Jan-14 11:55:38

Really interesting topic, I am researching pre-school childrens use of technology for my dissertation and its a real eye opener - mainly because basically we are clueless at the moment about the long term benefits/impacts of it all. There is research coming out into the area now but because of the number of different variables involved so much of the research come to varying conclusions about the benefits/problems.

fourlegstwolegs Fri 24-Jan-14 12:37:24

Hear hear iclaudius!

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