I write these words with a depressingly familiar feeling of guilt washing over me. To get them written, you see, I have employed a digital babysitter to distract my two children: that’s right, they are currently spending their Easter break playing on my iPad.
Given the news this week that infant pupils are increasingly attempting to ‘swipe’ the pages of their school books, as they have become so accustomed to doing with their devices, and that according to Ofcom, tablet ownership among 8-to-11 year old children has risen from two per cent in 2011 to 52 per cent in 2017, alarm bells should, I know, be deafening.
Yet a wave of new research is now challenging the long-held orthodoxy that screen-time is bad for children: some, it suggests, might even benefit them.
According to Parenting for a Digital Future, a report from the London School of Economics published last month, consuming digital media does not always lead to children consigning themselves to their bedrooms with just their screens for company. In fact, they can often help to bring families together, as parents watch films, play video games and use messaging apps with their children.
“We found that parental concern about placing limits on ‘screen-time’ was far higher than concern about the nature of the content their kids were engaging with,” explains Dr Alicia Blum-Ross, the paper’s co-author. “Instead of worrying about a set time-limit, I’d encourage parents to think: are they learning? Is it helping them engage with their world?”
Her view reflects the beginnings of wider change. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics amended its guidance on children’s exposure to screens, abandoning its previous recommendation that children under two should be kept away from them entirely.
What is most important, said Jenny Radesky, lead author of the policy report, “is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”
There is a difference, in other words, between what happens inside your child’s mind while she watches YouTube videos and when she is learning about phonics via an app. For children over two, there is cheering news: studies suggest that their more developed minds can infer all sorts of knowledge about the real world from on-screen activities, whether that is maths and literacy or social skills and behaviour.
In fact, coding has been on the national curriculum for primary schools since 2014 – recognition that today’s children will grow up in a world, and employment landscape, defined by digital media.
Back in 2013, a landmark study by the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science predicted that 47 per cent of all current jobs could be automated within two decades. If we want children to grow up programming the robots, not being replaced by them, we need to school them in digital literacy.
“When I’m feeding our son, I’m thinking about the nutrition he’s getting out of each meal,” she says. “When we approach screen-time for him, that ethos translates. Instead of what’s good for his body, I’m thinking about what’s good for his mind.”
Highbrow functions like Netflix, only with sections devoted to subjects including science, humanities, maths, English and foreign languages, all calibrated to the individual child’s age and developmental stage. You won’t find Peppa Pig on their app. Instead, their ‘content’ is often crafted by teachers and development experts.
Parents, it appears, value that. The company’s subscriptions are currently growing by 27 per cent every week, while Hopster, another British company, offers games, shows, nursery rhymes and books on their app to “help children learn while they play”. It has been downloaded over 1.6m times and, this month, announced a deal to include educational content from Aardman, the makers of Wallace and Gromit.
“Digital screen time is a part of modern life – as much as TV was twenty years ago,” says its founder, Nick Walters. “And the same way as Power Rangers is not the same as Blue Planet, not all digital screen time is created equal. It’s about giving parents the options – and the information to make the right choices.”
My seven-year-old, on the other hand, is glued to OSMO. A games-system for iPads, it consists of a plastic dock and a clever mirror that you place over the tablet’s camera, to reflect its display down onto the table in front of it. The children use pens to draw on a board, before their wonky artwork is drawn up onto the screen to become part of an adventure, illustrated by them.
The technology is designed, say OSMO’s creators, to create a bridge between the digital and physical worlds. And since my children are likely to grow up in one where the distinction between the two is blurred, perhaps that is no bad thing.