SINGAPORE: Parents these days are using mobile devices as a tool for their children learn everything from mathematics to science to language, so much so that apps for preschoolers and toddlers are the most popular paid downloads in the App Store.
Some experts, however, warn that most learning apps may not teach children anything much. On the contrary, such apps could be making them dumber and not smarter, messing about with their brains in the long run.
Usually marketed as educational, many of these apps are made to work just like games – they use the same strategies and techniques to hook children and get them staying the course for as long as possible.
In Singapore, more than seven in 10 children between the ages of three and eight use their parents’ devices – the highest in Southeast Asia.
A recent study, “Predictors of screen viewing time in young Singaporean children: The Gusto cohort”, showed that among two-year-olds, 51 per cent spend two hours or less on mobile devices. But by the time they reach three, 55 per cent are on their screens for longer than two hours.
That is where the danger lies.
MORE SCREEN TIME, LOWER IQ
When children spend too much time watching any form of screen content, it lowers their executive function skills, cautioned researchers Aishworiya Ramkumar and Evelyn Law from the National University Hospital’s (NUH) Child Development Unit, citing previous studies.
“(When) you’re exposed to all this fast-paced stuff, your brain can’t take it all in at once. It’s using up all its resources,” explained Dr Law on the Channel NewsAsia programme Why It Matters. “So anything that follows, the brain might not be able to do it as fast.” (Watch the episode here.)
Executive function skills refer to a set of mental skills that help a child to plan a task and complete it.
The two researchers met hundreds of Singaporean families to look at their children’s screen habits, and what they found was worrying.
For example, the more time a child spent watching television at a year old, the lower the child’s IQ was at four and a half years of age.
The long-term outcomes of excessive screen time could be a cause for concern too, said Dr Law.
She cited the scenario of a child unable to sit still in class, disturbing his classmates or disrupting the lesson instead, which could “translate into worse school outcomes, poorer jobs, poorer health as well as more crimes in society”.
So while some learning apps promise to supercharge a child’s intelligence, there might be other effects instead, if the child has been hooked on these apps for years.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
The science of how and why can be found in the connections children produce in their brains, called synapses, which allow information to be passed from one part of the brain to another.
“The resulting networks of connections influence (a child’s) abilities to sense, act, communicate, compute and, overall, make sense of and interact with his world,” child development expert Gail Gross wrote in Huffington Post last year.
But if children focus too much on just one thing and do little of anything else, such as talking with their parents or running around outdoors, then many other connections might not be made.
Over time, those unused connections are snipped away, like the branches of a tree. This “synaptic pruning” occurs mostly during early childhood, before a child turns four, and cannot be undone, said Dr Gross.
In the case of children who are heavily reliant on digital devices, they might fall into a passive mode of learning, receiving information in a one-way process rather than relating to others such as their peers, observed Ms Renee Chong, principal of the Safari House preschools.
“(Computer programmes) tend to captivate children’s attention, not through participation and engagement, but rather through the very stimulating and high-intensity graphics,” said Ms Chong, whose preschools do not use electronic devices to teach their children.
“Being over-exposed to computers, the child is not able to cultivate the social-emotional skills that are needed for integrating with the society.”
Added Dr Law: “Neuroscience research shows us that children learn best when there are two-way conversations or communication. So the more time spent on screens, the less they’ll have interacting with the environment, interacting with caregivers.”
WATCH: An experiment done with a pair of 4-year-old twins (3:06)
DO THE APPS REALLY TEACH?
Learning apps have also not been substantiated by research to prove that they benefit children under the age of two, senior consultant Jennifer Kiing from the NUH’s Child Development Unit told the TODAY newspaper in June.
There are as many as 80,000 learning apps for digital devices nowadays. And Mr Alfred Siew, who edits the Techgoondu.com blog and runs a technology and media consultancy, does not buy into the notion that all learning apps are educational.
“I don’t think it’s possible to teach the all-important concepts (just through one game),” said Mr Siew, who has young children too. “You learn more when you engage, rather than trying to memorise all the concepts.”
And a child as young as two may be unable to retain or remember what the app is supposed to teach.
“The worry is that the takeaway won’t be there,” said Mr Siew. “Some things need to be learned by repetition, some things by comprehension. You need a bit of both sometimes.”
When it comes to teaching preschoolers, National Institute of Education researcher and lecturer Nirmala Karuppiah does not dismiss screen devices altogether, but she underlined the need for more research into the long-term impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.
One problem that early childhood experts and parents have certainly seen is children turning into digital addicts.
Dr Kiing, who works with children on a range of developmental issues, has seen preschoolers here who have withdrawal symptoms when they go cold turkey on their digital devices.
It is one of the reasons that she recommends zero screen time for preschoolers.
The single most important predictor of success in school is the ability to delay gratification.
This means, she explained, that if children want something, they must be able to wait for it and work for it. “What the screen time does is that it teaches the brain that you can get your reward now, you can get it many times now, and there’s no point in waiting.”
The “only way” to be weaned off this instant gratification is a digital detox, she added.
Ms Mia Kusen went through that process recently. She had let her twin boys Matthew and Bennett play with the iPad since they were 10 months old, initially as a distraction and then as a tool for educational activities.
But a friend told her that the boys, now four, were getting too much screen time, so Ms Kusen put a stop to it. And that was when she realised something was wrong.
It was so scary because I’d call out their names, and they wouldn’t look up. I’d try to talk to them, and they wouldn’t look at me. They were frustrated … and sad.
After six months of regular sessions with Dr Kiing, the twins, like most boys their age, now seem noisy, playful and sociable. But it has been an emotional roller coaster ride for their mother.
“It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on any parent,” said Ms Kusen.
Watch this episode of Why It Matters here.