This week, 120 parents turned up at a northern suburbs primary school in Melbourne for a consultation evening about technology in the classroom – and many voiced a question routinely asked at schools across the nation.
Will a tablet ruin the mind of your five or six-year-old child?
The public school, which we’ve been asked not to name, has proposed a one-to-one, BYO iPad program and is in a consultation phase with the school community.
Some parents raised the issue of equity: how will this impact the children of low-income families who can’t afford a device? The school, as many do, will have a small pool of iPads for the use of such children. But won’t they feel stigmatised because they can’t take their device home like the other kids? So that’s one issue that can be argued back and forth for eternity.
No long-term evidence of risk
One of the mothers from the school, Chloe Adams, says she isn’t anti-technology, and accepts that tablets and laptops have a place in the classroom – but is concerned there are no longitudinal studies that affirm the safety of regular use of a device by a small child.
She points to recent research that found device use rewires the teenage mind – and the growing opinion that social media technology is causing depression and anxiety in young people. There’s also, she says, the issues of myopia (short-sightedness) from staring at a screen for too long,
“When your kid is six years old it seems like there’s too many risks” she said.
Do kids need a device to learn how to get along?
“I’m not convinced the research shows there’s any significant benefit that an iPad for young children … especially if it’s for many hours at a time. There seem to be too many for the sake of learning creativity and collaboration … things that can be learned without devices,” Ms Adams said.
These issues have been a source of anxiety for parents for some years now – to the extent that some schools offer an opt-out option for students, when parents become concerned about the their child’s privacy.
But talking to early childhood education experts reveals two things. The first and most obvious is that the horse has bolted: these technologies are now a staple of classroom life, and there’s no going back. Secondly, sceptical parents will be assured that some of their concerns are reasonable – but confronted with the challenge of getting with the program anyway.
Children mimic parents, so maybe safety starts at home
Dr Maria Hatzigianni is a former teacher, an early adopter of computing technology in young classrooms, and a University of Melbourne researcher with a focus on the implementation of digital technologies in early childhood, and the use on new technologies by young children and the impact on their self-esteem.
She said Ms Adams was right to be concerned: “We don’t know the impact on young brains. Or even babies. Or older brains. Researchers are trying to establish that. But having said that, it’s how we use the medium that matters. Teachers know which apps are appropriate, they know how long to use it in the classroom.”
Regarding the issue of equity, Dr Hatzigianni said public schools had an important role in providing digital opportunities to children from poorer families. She said that in younger classes it was important to teach children that devices were social instruments.
“They need to learn to work in groups,” she said.
Dr Hatzigianni said there was evidence that children mimic the use of technology by their parents – and that healthy digital practice starts at home.
While not exactly knuckle-dragging …
Nicola Yelland is the professor of Early Childhood Studies in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.
Responding to questions by email from the United States, Professor Yelland said: “I believe that children from prep should have a tablet or Chromebook-type device. Personally I would start with an iPad and move on to a Chromebook once internet-searching as an activity is more prevalent around year 4.
”I am so over the debate about screen time as hours – as opposed to quality … So much of our judgement about technology [and schooling] is based on our out-dated experiences.”
She went further: “For parents who want to deny access – would you restrict their use of pencils and access to the library?
“I use that as a metaphor to show this has not been thought through. Parents tend to want their kids to have the same skills that they had a generation ago – and in doing so don’t seem to realise how this disadvantages their kids in the 21st century.”