Digital Life

iPads helping or hindering infants?

A toddler sits with a glossy magazine in front of her, sliding her small fingers across the pages then waiting expectantly for them to transform at her touch. It is clear from the video that the girl believes the magazine is a touchscreen - she thinks it's an iPad.

The next part of the youtube clip shows the girl comfortably playing with an actual iPad. It ends with a message from the girl's mother: ''For my one-year-old daughter a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so her whole life.''

For infant and child development psychologist Jordy Kaufman, the youtube video is not surprising. But what he did find interesting was the strong reaction people had towards it.

''The comments were very telling in terms of the feelings people have towards kids using touchscreen devices,'' he said. ''Lots of people think it's really funny, really cool. And there's a lot of people who get the heebie-jeebies from it and think 'What are we doing to our kids?' ''

Dr Kaufman said the effects on children's brain development from iPads were still largely unknown. How beneficial were they? Should their usage, like television, be restricted?

At a time when the popularity of touchscreen apps targeting infants and toddlers is exploding, Dr Kaufman, the founder and director of the Swinburne Baby Lab, decided it was time specific research was done.

''There's a lot of hype, a lot of claims and a lot of worries about children using these devices, and really any new technology, but it seems to really have hit a new crescendo with these new devices,'' Dr Kaufman said.

Most research and warnings concerning children's use of iPads has been based, so far, on research involving television viewing. ''There is enough research showing television, especially some types of television, can have a detrimental effect on children. But to assume it's bad for all sorts of devices seems to be painting with an overly broad stroke,'' he said.

The project is one of the key studies being undertaken by Swinburne's Baby Lab, the nation's first research centre for infant cognitive neuroscience.

Dr Kaufman said the study, which had so far tested 46 children aged four to six, involved examining the attention and problem-solving capabilities of children after using an iPad compared to using real toys. For example, as part of the study, children are being asked to solve a problem using a physical wooden model. They are also asked to solve the same problem using an iPad app. After they have played, they are given a test to assess their attention.

Dr Kaufman also gets students to participate in drawing, colouring and block building, both physically and on iPads. So far preliminary findings have shown that for some children, touchscreens appear to motivate and enhance learning rather than hinder it.

Dr Kaufman also said results were indicating that calm, creative activities on the touch screen [such as painting] are similar to their ''real world'' counterparts in that they ''do not seem to adversely affect children's behaviour or attention in the short term.''

Dr Kaufman hoped the study, which has been financially backed by Google and is due to be finished next year, would help parents make more informed choices.