Leading children’s author Mem Fox finds it ”heartbreaking” to see small children left alone with smartphones and tablets to entertain themselves, saying an increasing reliance on technology to teach children how to read could inhibit their empathy and social skills.
Fox said parents must keep reading books – either paper or ebooks – with their children to interpret the characters and help the child comprehend the story.
”One of the things that bothers me most is that people seem to think that kids can be left alone with technology, [but] they would be less likely to leave the child alone with a pile of books at the age of two or three,” she said.
”It is the aloneness that is heartbreaking.”
Fox said she was also sick of parents boasting about a child’s ability to use technology while ignoring the child’s concentration skills or ability to handle a book properly.
She is preparing for a national tour to promote her new book Baby Bedtime and her comments were echoed by children’s literacy and technology experts.
Fox said sales of her paper books were still strong in Australia, while royalties from ebooks suggested they were not selling at all. While Fox admits to loving technology and occasionally using it to occupy her own grandson, she feels too many parents have replaced parenting time with technology.
”Really, why do we have children if we can’t spend some time with them? It is just not right for the child. If we can’t spend time with our kids, we shouldn’t be having them.”
Apps had no beginning, middle or end, and did not describe forgiveness or courage in adversity, the author of Possum Magic and Where is the Green Sheep? said.
Emotions like empathy were only developed if adults helped children see when sad, scary or nasty things were done to characters in a book or an app, she added, citing concerns with apps such as Tom the Talking Cat, which encourages players to punch a cat.
Macquarie University lecturer in early childhood language and literacy Emilia Djonov said the real benefit of parents or teachers reading to children was the adults’ ability to encourage children to relate the story or images back to their own life. This helped children’s comprehension of what they were reading and was missing when technology took the place of an adult.
Kate Highfield, also a lecturer at Macquarie University’s institute of early childhood, said interactive books could distract children who were learning to read because the books focused on animations and sounds rather than meaning.
”While this adds some ‘fun’, it’s important that ebooks are just one small part of a child’s time with text and for this reason, we really need to ensure that children still have access to quality books and shared reading with a traditional book,” Dr Highfield said. She also warned against leaving children unsupervised with devices for more than a few minutes.
”I suggest that parents think of tablets and mobile technologies as a digital playground and, just as you wouldn’t leave your child in the park alone, we shouldn’t leave them alone in the digital park.”