By Latika Gupta
It is a common sight these days at Indian homes to see four-five-year-old kids engaged with smartphones 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 exciting images and sounds, several parents have taken to a mobile handset as a babysitter.
The parents feel a sense of relief when their baby remains engrossed in a touch and response activity over a game or a video while 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/her hand.
The 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 the child alone with the mobile, they lose interest as well as a desire to know what is it that the child is busy with. Even if some of them 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 the child is doing, a simple touch can alter the information. Soon, it feels impossible to check and regulate what the child gets exposed to and a 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 truly 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 felt by most people.
There are serious 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 realise that cartoon programs use adult themes and imagery but their reliance on 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 is able to learn things that 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 few English words doesn't amount to using any language meaningfully and fluently leave alone an academic variety of command.
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 that too 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 mobile or gadgets like Alexa or Siri has emerged as a frequently done 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 kind of 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 conducted by the School of Clinical Medicine, Cambridge University, has established that routine communication with artificial intelligence (AI) based mechanised voices adversely affects children's social and cognitive development. It hampers their ability to feel emotions for others, be compassionate and also, limits their critical thinking skills. Siri's or Alexa's responses are a collection of millions of sound bites fed into it.
They do not come out of the human mind's thought based on morality, need of the immediate setting, concern for each other and an attitude of parental or peer culture. They come out as task specific complaint replies. A 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 gadget can never say to a child, what do you think? should you be spending so much time watching these entertaining videos?
This is where parents need to realise that the use of 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 developing interest by 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 does not pose any 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 excessive use of mobile as a babysitter. Sadly, schools are also uncritical users of mobile apps in the present times. (SJ/IANS)