London – Little Jonah Howarth has a strict bedtime routine. He has his bath and nappy change, clean pyjamas and a warm bottle of milk. Then comes the thing that he”s been looking forward to all day – playtime on Mummy’s iPad.
At seven months, he adores the device, and happily taps away on the screen with his chubby fingers, popping bubbles in his favourite video game, or watching YouTube clips of animals, numbers and animated nursery rhymes.
After 15 minutes, his mother Catherine prises the tablet from his grasp and lays Jonah in his cot, where he instantly falls asleep. Catherine, 32, offers a prayer of thanks to Apple – maker of the iPad – for another peaceful evening.
Like many busy working parents, Catherine has come to rely on the iPad to soothe her son, allowing her and husband Richard, 34, a recruitment consultant, some precious time together in the evening.
“He’s been using it twice a day, for up to half an hour, since he was four months old,” admits Catherine. “It’s incredibly useful in getting him to settle at night, something we’d been struggling to do.
“I’ve nicknamed it the ultimate baby soother. It’s so much better than any of his other toys for calming him down.”
Catherine and Richard are in good company: recently Prince William revealed how 20-month-old George is truly hooked on his parents’ tablet. On a walkabout at a technology event in New York recently, William confessed: “George has been playing iPad games and loves them.”
With apparent seriousness, he added that giving his baby son a hand-held tablet was “a good way to teach him the inner workings of electronics”.
When those comments were reported, what surprised me was the absence of a slightest whisper of concern that a toddler, who hasn’t yet mastered language, has been so exposed to technology he already has favourite computer games.
But that silence is, itself, telling.
Instead of traditional playthings like train sets and dolls, computer tablets are fast becoming children’s favourite toys, and many parents see nothing wrong with it.
These days more babies than ever are being entertained with these devices. A poll by parenting website Babies.co.uk found that half of parents routinely allow infants to play with their iPhone or tablet. One in seven allow their tot to spend more than four hours a day playing with them.
No wonder the term “iPaddy” has evolved to describe the tantrums sparked when gadgets are taken away. Apple’s iTunes store now stocks more than 800 apps for children.
Then there is the growing list of accessories to make sure your little one doesn’t have to spend a moment away from a screen.
There is the iPotty, which allows toddlers to play on their iPads during potty training. Then there is the iTeddy – a holder in the shape of a stuffed toy. For teething tots, there is the drool-proof iPad case.
Jonah’s mother Catherine, a financial analyst from Milton Keynes, says he first showed an interest in her iPad when he was just four months old.
“I was breastfeeding him under one arm, and was holding the iPad in the other, surfing the internet and checking emails,” she recalls.
“I noticed his eyes brightening at the sight of the lights and the different sounds, so I found a baby game for him. He learned to tap and swipe the screen, and I’m convinced it has improved his hand and eye co-ordination immeasurably – he has learned to grab his toys, use his index finger to point and turn pages of his books.
“As he grows up, I will find more advanced interactive games to help with his learning.”
Catherine is a devoted and conscientious mum. But will giving Jonah – and Prince George – games to play on an iPad help turn them into little geniuses?
Certainly, William’s hope that handing his baby son an iPad is “a good way to each him the inner workings of electronics” is as absurd as suggesting looking at the Mona Lisa will give you the skills to paint your own version.
Indeed, many experts would say it simply proves that William and Kate have fallen for the biggest con of modern parenting: that giving children this kind of stimulation in the first three years of life will help them succeed in the future.
Even if Prince George ever needs a job, chasing colourful shapes around a screen with his finger will not turn him into the next Steve Jobs, the late Apple chief who launched the iPad (and who said he never allowed his own children to play with them).
Our little ones are now spending so long prodding the screen that educators say they are turning up at nurseries without the ability to hold a crayon.
Educationalist and literacy expert Sue Palmer has been taken aback by how quickly iPad use for even the youngest children has become normalised since these gadgets were introduced in 2010. Far from helping children develop, Sue believes overuse of tablets can slow their progress.
“I recently visited a well-heeled nursery where a new mother introduced her three-year-old son by saying what a genius he was on his iPad,” she says. “However those skills came at a cost. Although the child could walk, he preferred to crawl. He had the language skills of an 18-month-old. This boy probably had some underlying developmental problem – but I’m sure long hours on the iPad made it much worse.”
“The sort of interaction babies and toddlers need is interaction with real people and the real-life environment. That’s how they develop communication skills and learn to co-ordinate and control their whole body, not just jabbing with a finger at a screen.
“Screen time displaces these real-life experiences and the earlier children discover the quick-fix rewards of a tablet, the more likely it is to become their default activity. What children really need up to the age of seven is real life in real space and real time.”
Research published in the BMJ’s Archives Of Disease In Childhood found that a child born today will have spent a full year staring at screens (tablets, computers, TVs) by the time they reach seven.
For a growing number of tots, books have become little more than iPads that don’t work.
Among children aged two to five, 69 per cent can open a web page browser, yet only 20 per cent know how to swim. Fifty-eight per cent can play a computer game, but only 52 per cent know how to ride a bike.
These are the same techno-literate children who want everything now – because that”s how life works in iPad world.
They never learn to calm themselves down because every time they raise a whimper a parent hands them a device to keep them quiet.
And given the choice between a shiny flashing touch-screen offering endless novelty – and a blank piece of paper and a pencil, what baby wouldn’t make a grab for the former?
But is it really so Luddite to ask why we are encouraging children into a cyber world before they even know there is real one to discover?
Children used to have two educations – one at school, and another they got outdoors from nature.
The young of all mammals learn through physical play. It teaches them to practise the skills they need most. By condemning our children to a battery-hen existence indoors, hooked on screens, we take away their survival skills.
Four years of iPads cannot socialise children – who were reared for millennia to be hunter gatherers – out of the basic need to go foraging, climb trees and build dens.
There is no app in the world that will teach children the skills they need to interpret body language, read facial expressions or empathise with their fellow human beings.
One day, Prince George will be King. I only hope his devoted parents Kate and William – such powerful role models for modern families – will also learn there is no iPad game that can beat play in the real world.