Despite the hours many children spend glued to screens, experts have said there is no evidence it is “toxic” to children’s health.
However, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health did say if phones and tablets interfere with normal interaction, family life or sleep there is a risk to wellbeing.
This week The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds returns to our TVs with experts studying how children interact with technology. Its results may make you think again…
Most parents know what happens when little kids are left alone with tempting sweeties.
In previous series of Secret Life of 4 Year Olds hidden cameras have shown them battling temptation and their teacher’s “don’t touch” instructions.
The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds shows youngsters engrossed with their tablets
(Image: Channel 4)
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Sooner or later, one of them gives up, snaffles a mouthful and the rest of the class pile in.
But a curious thing happens in the latest episode of Channel 4’s award-winning documentary.
Three girls fail to notice a tray of marshmallows and melted chocolate brought into class.
Pre-schoolers Iris, Na’Shae and Keira are engrossed in their tablets – oblivious to each other, their surroundings and sugar.
“We’ve never had tablets or smartphones in Secret Lives,” says Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a clinical psychologist and resident expert.
“But today’s four year olds are part of a truly digital generation.
“Around 40% of UK children this age have their own tablets.
“We were fascinated to see what impact it would have in the classroom, and to ask, ‘What is it doing to their brains?’
“The image of those little girls sitting stock still, silently playing on their tablets felt very wrong.
“The tech was all-absorbing. Nothing was drawing them out, not even the smell of chocolate that they normally can’t resist.
“It was a classic example of what scares parents about tech.”
Dr Elizabeth Kilbey says today’s four year olds are part of a truly digital generation
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Dr Kilbey adds: “Think of tech like sugar. It’s in everyone’s homes, children love it and every family has a different attitude towards it.
“What we wouldn’t do is give them unregulated access to sugar. That would lead to meltdowns and be very bad for them.
“Tech devices are targeted to keep us engaged. All that beeping and liking hits dopamine receptors in the brain in the same way as online gambling. For children it is instantly gratifying.
“Children may be running around, playing, but a tablet cuts through that in a nanosecond.
“It shuts off all other developmental things they should be doing. When you take them away, the comedown is hard and re-
engaging takes longer. Their brains have to adapt to the far less arousing surroundings of the real world. Those are lost moments of development. That concerns me.”
Dr Kilbey and neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow watched as the children met a robot.
It was a thrill for Arthur, of Cambs, a tech-savvy lad who wants to be an inventor.
He was the only child who treated “Bobby” like a friend.
“You’re really cool”, he said, fist-bumping the robot. When it started to dance Arthur squealed: “This robot is becoming more and more like a person! Do you want to come home with me?”
When the robot crashed into a wall he bandaged his hand and wanted “to help him because he is my best friend”.
And when asked if robots have feelings Arthur said “of course they have feelings. They’re like people and people have feelings”.
Parents of the children tell how the youngsters are truly part of the 21st century generation
(Image: Channel 4)
Arthur’s mum, Ruby, a politics and economics student, says: “He is very much a 21st century kid, hugely obsessed with technology. He’s also incredibly empathetic. So it was very special to see him treat the robot as a friend.
“At home I limit phone or tablet time to every other weekend. I don’t want his soul sucked into these gadgets so that he forgets how to interact with people.
“I see far too many children just disappearing into the screen.”
Dr Kilbey agrees that parents must limit children’s screen use.
She says: “After the girls had their tablets taken away they played together, imaginatively.
“Since the 1970s the average age of the onset of regular screen use has gone from four years to four months.
“What’s crucial for our children is they can balance the lure of technology against the wonders of a play-led childhood. I’m not the Grinch of technology. I want it to help children – not get in the way of development.
“I haven’t got an issue if kids are being curious with tech, it’s the passive experience that concerns me. We are becoming a society of isolated individuals – just me and my device.
“Tech use is also taking over adult time and that distraction is having an impact on parenting.
“I went to a school and there was a sign on the door saying, ‘Parents when you are collecting your child, please greet them with a smile not a mobile phone.
“It’s about boundaries, regulated behaviour and being consistent. Just like you would be with your kids eating sugar.”
- The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds is on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight.
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