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Renowned educator, Maria Montessori once said, “The hands are the instruments of a man’s intelligence.” Given that she lived around the turn of the 20th Century, it’s safe to assume she wasn’t referring to using one’s hands as the instruments with which to operate touch screens. However, as touch technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, and even more so in the lives of our children, it is worth exploring why children are so drawn to it and the impact it has on their intelligence – both academic and social – as well as their safety.
We’ve seen big growth among the eight to 12-year-old segment and I believe this is driven by children’s demand for touch screens. Michael Cohen of UK research consultancy, the Michael Cohen Group says the rise of the touch screen has been incredible – the most rapid introduction of a technology he has witnessed. His research found that in the UK more than two thirds of children live in homes with smartphones, and just over half have access to tablets. They also increasingly have their own device. Of course, African figures are likely to differ slightly, but given the significant mobile penetration and the constant development of affordable technology across the continent, it makes sense that we will follow this trend.
The question is why children are so drawn to this technology. Besides that as digital natives they incorporate digital technologies into their lives with ease, the answer is that touch screens in particular are intuitive. Using a mouse or a remote control is a symbolic action and young children might need to be shown the connection between what they are doing with their hands and what is happening on the screen. A touch screen makes this connection obvious – a gesture results in logical action; swipe to the right and whatever is on the screen moves in the same direction.
The ease with which children use touch screens means they enjoy a variety of online activities, from watching videos and playing games, to searching for information, doing their homework and socialising. A study by the London School of Economics and Political Science quotes research which found that apart from the obvious enjoyment children experience will partaking in these activities, this engagement also helps to develop digital literacy, as well as support future academic achievement and social interaction.
Of course, there is some trepidation among parents related to their children’s lack of skills to assess the risk associated with interacting online, and what they may be exposed to. There is also the fear that children may become addicted to the virtual worlds they interact with, impacting on how they function as part of a family, with their peers or in broader society.
However, authors of “Tech-Savvy Parenting”, Nikki Bush and Arthur Goldstuck believe that these risks can be curbed by active parenting, which starts by learning about the technology your children are using and how to keep them safe. It also involves thinking about how to assimilate this technology into family life while keeping the family at the centre. She suggests that technology shouldn’t be an alternative to family time, but is instead a useful tool to up skill our children to be resourceful and resilient in the future.
There is no denying that children’s lives are filled with media and technology at younger and younger ages and the uptake is rapidly increasing. The growth of the eight- to 12-year-old segment in our business is evident of that. With this in mind, it makes sense to think about what technology like touch screens can offer them and how to mediate screen time not to cut it down as much as leverage its benefits.