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Screen Captured: Do Tablets Inhibit Children’s Creativity?

For frazzled parents, tablets are a godsend. But is technology helping or hurting kids’ creativity?

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When my first child was born, I had this quaint idea that wooden spoons, crayons and books were all we needed. And then, a year in, we faced our first transatlantic flight, and I learned very fast that Sophie the Giraffe has nothing on an iPhone. Anyone who has watched YouTube videos of gurgling babies sliding their chubby little fingers across a touch screen knows how intuitive it is. With such easy-to-use interfaces, it’s little wonder toddlers take to the technology so easily.

Three years on, we’ve had a second child, purchased two iPads, gone through five iPhones (children love lobbing things) and accumulated enough battery-operated junk to fill a toy shop. It’s not that I’ve abandoned fresh air for free apps, or that my children, now two and four, get Netflix over paintbrushes, but reality sometimes calls for the iNanny. It’s how a lot of parents use the iPad. Just in from the daycare dash, Dad is cooking dinner while Mom is sorting socks and unpacking lunches, and so the sprogs get 20 minutes of show time. Everything in moderation, right?

“Any time there is a massive shift in the tools of life, we don’t know what impact it will have,” says Michaela Wooldridge, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia who is researching how technology affects infant and toddler development. “Because these devices are so new and technology is changing so fast, we haven’t had time to evaluate long-term outcomes.”

Setting screen-time limits, whether it’s on a TV or tablet, is something almost every parent of a school-age child grapples with, but the debate is beginning at younger and younger ages. Many toddlers are what’s called “digit­al natives” – they have never known a world without gadgets. The Canad­ian Paediatric Society’s most recent guidelines, updated in 2013, essentially discourage all “screen-based activities” (including playing on tablets and smartphones) for children younger than two, and recommend two hours or less of “recreational” screen time a day for school-age kids.

Prying an iPad away from a child is familiar territory for many of us. Toronto mom Hayley Chiaramonte sees the creative value of a cult game like “Minecraft” but is concerned by her eight-year-old daughter’s fixation on it. “She’s totally unresponsive when she’s on the iPad. It’s as if she leaves us for another planet,” Chiaramonte says. 

According to Wooldridge, experts don’t yet know whether children born three years ago, let’s say, are destined to be more tech-obsessed than an eight-year-old whose early years did not include multiple port­able devices. “Infants and toddlers have been completely unrepresented in the research because it wasn’t until recently that they were even considered to be consumers,” she says. A child’s character and interests will play a part in how drawn they are to media, as will parental habits.

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A 2013 study from Common Sense Media, an American non-profit that examines the effects of media and technology on young users, found that 38 per cent of U.S. kids younger than two are using tablets or smartphones-possibly even before they can string a sentence together. (This is up from 10 per cent in 2011.) By the age of eight, 72 per cent of children have used a smartphone, tablet or similar mobile device.

Based on reports from families, Wooldridge hypothesizes that parents and caregivers are citing “education” as the primary objective when granting screen time to babies and toddlers. “The reality is that when you ask parents how the devices are being used, it is mostly to occupy or distract the child,” she says.

Some families may limit tablet use to 20 minutes while stuck in the supermarket cart or during a car trip, while others employ them as in-house babysitters for hours at a time. But plonking an iPad in a three-year-old’s lap-without a person there to give the experience instructional value-probably won’t offer much that’s positive, she says. We can praise the latest and greatest apps, but kids still need to be guided.

“The way infants and toddlers develop and learn is through social interaction, and the device itself can’t provide that,” Wooldridge says.

Lisa Guernsey struggled with the topic of technology and what was appropriate for her two daughters, now 11 and 10, so much that she wrote a book about it, titled Screen Time. Guernsey, who works as a journalist and directs an early-education policy program in Washington, D.C., tells parents to look at the three Cs-content, context and child-when making choices. “Instead of simply saying, ‘Is screen media bad or good for our kids?’ we have to consider the content on the screen, the context in which media is used and your child’s own personal needs,” she says. 

With the three Cs in mind, media can be a springboard for conversation, discovery and open-ended play. Guernsey explains that some positive experiences come when you open up a device with your child, learn how it works and engage with it together. This could simply mean asking your child questions about the an

imals in the virtual zoo he’s creating while you unload the dishwasher.

Then come the moments when you want (or need) to pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine and read the newspaper. Giving your child the iPad makes that possible. But there’s no reason a tablet cannot be an occupier at one point in the day and a conversation starter at another, says Guernsey. “As long as we’re maintaining a healthy ratio between moments of non-interaction and interaction, then I think we’re doing just fine.” 

But, as with any other tool, there is a time and place for it to be introduced, based on a child’s developmental capacity. “These devices are not benign,” says Wooldridge. What niggles is the idea that the iPad is replacing a richer experience for our children, like playing chess or climbing a tree. Is children’s creativity being sapped by video games and virtual worlds?

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It’s not an either-or situation, says Jason Krogh, CEO of Sago Sago, a Canadian company that designs apps for kids. “It’s as if the point of comparison is that you’re going to have a conversation with your child as the alternative to them playing with the iPad,” he says. “But we live in a world where that’s not always possible.”

Krogh curates apps for his daughter in the same way he might vet the shows she watches and the books she reads. “A children’

s book can be good or bad, a children’s toy can be good or bad, and the same applies for any technology-based experience.” He advises parents to be wary of apps with grand educational claims, and to focus more on what’s fun and imaginative. “I’m very much of the belief that what kids need more of is play.” Krogh cites one of his daughter’s favourite games, “Toca Tea Party” (from Swedish app developer Toca Boca), as a good example of the app as a toy. “It’s not trying to control the whole experience, but instead acts as a prop for creative play.”

Guernsey agrees with Krogh’s take but would also like to see different types of games and innovative ways of using our devices. “We need to demand media that promotes social interaction and promotes looking up, and not being so zoomed in,” she says.

That zone of concentration is what makes the iPad a perfect device on long-haul flights, daunting car trips and rainy days at home. But relying on it, says Judy Arnall, a Calgary parenting expert, deprives kids of any chance of boredom, and boredom is what inspires and enables creativity. “We need to model to our kids that it’s okay to do nothing sometimes.”

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It does seem to be a double-edged sword. When children are getting antsy in a long lineup or at a restaurant, handing over the iPad is a quick way to pacify them before other patrons start judging us for their whining. Then again, parents also feel like slackers for using technology to solve an age-old parenting dilemma instead of turning it into a teachable moment about practising patience. Without the iPad, says Arnall, your kid might have invented a game for himself or engaged in conversation with grown-ups at the table.

I can’t be the only mother who often falls into the “do as I say, not as I do” school of parenting, as I secretly send a text from the breakfast table. We need to teach our sons and daughters to use the tools of our culture mindfully, and that begins with knowing when to switch them off ourselves. How can I expect my kids to focus on one thing at a time if I rarely do? Technology is part of children’s daily lives, but the way that it’s embedded in their lives is something that we, as parents, have some control over.

“Set some ground rules with your kids,” advises Arnall. “Block off per­iods in the day when there is no technology.” This applies as much to parents as it does to children. “Setting your own boundaries is what teaches kids to set their boundaries.”

“The tools only have the power we give them,” says Wooldridge.