It is hard to find an expert who thinks that monitored and considered tablet use is harmful. Even Richard Graham, the doctor who was reported to have treated the four-year-old patient for iPad addiction, does not think tablets are bad for children. Graham, lead consultant for technology addiction at the Capio Nightingale hospital in London, says that that “case”, so eagerly taken up by the tabloids, comprised a single informal phone call with a parent, in which he gave advice. There was no followup treatment. He doesn’t believe that “addiction” is a suitable word to use of such young children.
The difficulty for parents is that the dangers of tablet use for children – if dangers exist – are as yet unidentified. Research is in its infancy. We know little about what is going on in a child’s head while they are using a tablet. “Really not very much at all at this point,” says Kaufman (his BabyLab plans to publish research in the spring). This is partly because it is hard to measure brain activity in someone who is moving, and partly because metal cannot be taken into an MRI scanner. Until we know more, parents can only follow their own parenting instincts. “There is a school of thought that tablet use is rewiring children’s brains, so to speak, to make it difficult for them to attend to slower-paced information,” says Kaufman. Then he adds: “But every thought we have rewires the brain in some way.”
Tablets are designed to mirror the world we know. They appear to operate intuitively, mimetically, responding to, reflecting and re-presenting the user’s touch. Might the way tablets translate our sense of touch create a particularly intense relationship between user and technology?
Rosie Flewitt, of the Institute of Education at the University of London, has published research on how iPads can support literacy in nursery, early primary and special education. She has just submitted a study, looking at tablet use in the light of recent research into mirror neurons, to an Australian journal for peer approval. As part of her research she observed tablet use in a special school, where the children were writing stories and producing book covers on an iPad. “It was a form of mastery for those individuals that hadn’t previously been accessible to them without a lot of help from other people,” she says. “But beyond that there was something about the activities that captivated all the children intensely and motivated them to carry on. We have been trying to puzzle out why. That sent us on a journey finding out about mirror neurons … It may be that what you see on the screen is partially powerful because of the way mirror neurons work.”