It is common to find a four-five-year-old child engaged with a mobile independently while his/her parents go about their activities at home or outside. Such an independent engagement with mobile involves various activities such as listening to songs, watching cartoons and other material on different apps and playing games. It usually ends up being a long engagement in every episode as the child navigates from one activity to the next and back to the first one after a while. Since children remain occupied for a long time negotiating different apps and their compelling images and sounds, several parents have taken to a mobile handset as a babysitter.
Parents feel a sense of relief when their baby remains engrossed in a touch-and-response activity over a game or a video, and they attend to different chores. They complain with an affectionate tint that the child does not let them do anything unless he is given the mobile in his hands.
Touchscreen technology has significantly changed the environments in which young children are reared and looked after. There are several dimensions to this change. When parents leave their child alone with the mobile, they lose interest and a desire to know what the child is busy with. Even if some retain it, the speed at which a touchscreen works does not permit it. By the time a parent gets into the small screen to check what was the child doing, a simple touch can alter the information. Soon, it feels impossible to check and regulate what the child gets exposed to, and parental concern takes a back seat.
Their child's wrong posture for long hours, the damage caused to the eyes by the screen's light and vision fail to become a matter of worry. Several studies have already reported a sharp rise in the incidence of dry eye syndrome among children. One of the most common reasons for chronic dry eye these days is spending too much time staring at computers, TVs, smartphones, and tablets.
The reality gets further complex when we start wondering how many parents genuinely know which images are inappropriate for children. It is a popular notion that children like cartoons, but whether they play any positive role in children's development is usually not a concern most people feel.
There are severe problems with cartoons as commercial art forms and the kind of ideas for which they are used. A five-minute experience is enough for any parent to realize that cartoon programs use adult themes and imagery. Still, their reliance on the screen as a babysitter probably restrains them from thinking more deeply on these lines.
Several parents may brush aside even feeble attempts to make them conscious about their child-rearing habits as being cynical. They claim that their child only works on learning apps and can learn things they themselves are incapable of teaching. Command over English will figure at the top of such things.
What does not occur to them is that picking up a few English words doesn't amount to using any language meaningfully and fluently, leave alone an academic variety of commands. And learning English words from cartoons that have been woven around adult themes, including violence, rape, sexuality etc., brings its own issues. That cannot be called learning. It can, at best, be called inappropriate exposure and a forced entry of adult life mysteries in a child's life. A child ceases to be a child when s/he is brought up on adult themes as learning experiences without any adult intervention or control.
Children are commonly spotted using them, especially in middle-class families. Giving speech commands to a virtual assistant on mobiles or gadgets like Alexa or Siri has emerged as a frequent activity by young children and even toddlers. Parents often get excited and feel a sense of achievement when they notice their child giving repeated commands and refining them. They consider it as some learning. The response by the virtual assistant may or may not be correct, but it is always a reply with no emotional truth and human complexity.
A recent study by the School of Clinical Medicine, Cambridge University has established that routinized communication with artificial intelligence-based mechanized voices adversely affects children's social and cognitive development. It hampers their ability to feel emotions for others and be compassionate and limits their critical thinking skills.
Siri's or Alexa's responses are a collection of millions of sound bites fed into them. They do not come out of the human mind's thought based on morality, the need for the immediate setting, concern for each other and an attitude of parental or peer culture. They come out as task-specific compliant replies.
Consistent interaction with these gadgets takes away the cognitive ability and the interest in a child to take a no or a complex reply. A device can never say to a child, what do you think? Should you be spending so much time watching these entertaining videos?
At this moment, parents need to realize that using a smart screen only makes the learning activity easier and faster; it does not make the child brighter or even a learner. It does not develop any intellectual habit or ability.
Childhood is a time of growing interest in being in awe of the world and human achievements. Mobile apps and voice-based facilities limit the world of its user as it keeps bringing up only similar and thus limited items. It poses no real and perplexing challenge which is necessary for growth. It only satisfies an urge to watch more and more.
It is high time that the schools take on this responsibility and counsel parents against the excessive use of mobile as a babysitter. Sadly, schools are also uncritical users of mobile apps in the present times.