WHEN it comes to early learning for your little ones, is the electronic era a parent's friend or foe?
There’s always been a mountain of stuff mums and dads need to pack before leaving the house: nappies, toys, change of clothes, snacks, another change of clothes. But, these days, more and more parents are packing laptops, tablet computers, smart phones and gaming consoles, too.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the digital options for helping raise kids. Dedicated children’s TV stations are only a click away; there’s a huge industry in learning DVDs; and there are so many learning apps that devices such as iPads are being introduced to classrooms.
Professor Catharine Lumby, director of journalism and media research at the University of NSW and co-author of Why TV is Good for Kids: Raising 21st Century Children (Pan Macmillan, $32.95), says electronic entertainment is unfairly demonised when it comes to children.
“It’s a middle-class myth that unless you’re reading a book, you can’t be learning,” she says, adding that strict Australian standards require children’s TV shows to use educational consultants.
Too much can be unhealthy, admits Lumby. But, as with everything, balance is key, and as media grows more interactive, it can offer more for children. “There’s good evidence that kids who do online activities increase their literacy.”
However, others believe technology plays too big a role in an area that should be focused on human contact and organic learning.
Speech pathologist Debbie Yuille can see both points of view. “I think iPads encourage visual learning, but this may be at the cost of language learning.
“Parents know their kids best and can talk to them accordingly. No computer can do that.” And what do parents think? Two mums give their different takes on technology.
With four TV sets, three iPads, three laptops, two games consoles, two iPhones, an iPod and a portable DVD player, the Robinson household is seriously connected.
Robinson, a stay-at-home mum, sees technology as a learning tool. “The kids play Wii Sports, which is good for co-ordination, and SingStar, which is great for their confidence,” she explains, admitting she occasionally gets in on the action.
“My elder daughters have their own iPads,” she continues, adding that Zahlee will likely inherit one when the family upgrades their current models in a few years. “I always make sure to set them on flight mode, so the girls don’t have access to the internet or accidentally download apps or follow links.”
Her daughters’ tech routine includes 10 minutes’ iPad time before bed, to read eBooks or play games.
As well as helping her children learn, Robinson uses technology to help her out, particularly when her husband is working overseas. “If I want five minutes’ quiet time, I can sit them with their iPads and go for it.”
As for TV, she estimates they watch 15 to 20 hours a week, mostly tuning in to the ABC kids’ network for shows such The Wiggles. “We also watch the news together,” says Robinson. “Sophee already knows who the prime minister is.”
Despite their digital-heavy lifestyle, Robinson’s daughters get plenty of time outside to “outweigh the time they spend on their iPads. They love playing in the park.” With TV and the internet often demonised as brain-junk food, Robinson knows her parenting style will attract critics, but she’s confident she’s doing what’s best for her family. With technology being the way of the future, she firmly believes she’s keeping her family “a step ahead”.
It’s a request heard in countless Australian households every day: “Mum, can I have an iPhone?” But when Barb La Ganza’s five-year-old daughter spoke those words after hearing about the gadget at school, there was no question of her mum giving in.
La Ganza believes her daughters are better off shielded from technology such as TV, computer games and mobile phones – though it’s no easy task in a world that, she says, throws technological diversions “in their faces wherever they go.
“I grew up in South Africa, where there was no TV until I was eight years old - and even then it was only on between 6pm and 10pm,” she says. “I don’t feel I missed out on anything. I’m not incapable of anything - I had a really great childhood.”
While La Ganza is uncomfortable with the way gadgets can encourage insular behaviour, she doesn’t think they’re damaging to young minds; it’s just “there are other things to do with their time that are better for them.”
La Ganza is determined her children learn to entertain themselves away from the gaze of an electronic babysitter. “My kids get up in the morning and do puzzles and drawings,” she says. “It’s not as though they have nothing to do.”
Her daughters aren’t totally isolated from technology. They watch TV at the gym creche and the occasional kid-friendly DVD at their grandmother’s place, and sometimes play with the camera on their mum’s mobile phone.
But while many kids might watch a DVD in the back seat on a long car journey, her brood sing songs together. At restaurants, they take along colouring pencils and games, as La Ganza feels this is a more interactive way to beat boredom.
“I don’t want to judge other parents - each to their own - but I’d like to think my kids can entertain themselves at a cafe, rather than look at a screen.”
Still, La Ganza understands that, as Lulu and Tyga grow older, they’ll be exposed to the world in its full digital brutality. Lulu already uses a computer and an iPad at school. Her mum concedes technology in the classroom is inevitable, but she believes her girls gain more from personal learning methods. “If I’m reading with Lulu, I’m engaging her.
“Are they falling behind other tech-savvy kids? Of course you worry,” she says. “But, as a parent, you worry about a lot of things. They’ll be exposed to technology at school and there’s plenty of time for that later.” Outside the classroom, La Ganza is in no hurry to introduce more gadgets into their home. She expects the kids to be exposed to social networking sites in their teens, but as for that iPhone? Eventually, she says, but “not for a long time”.