British Columbia

Childhood development expert questions recent UBC iPad study

Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counsellor and expert in early childhood development, is skeptical about a new UBC study saying young children can learn just as well from interactive media as face-to-face instruction.

A recent UBC study found iPad apps teach kids just as well as human instructors

Deborah MacNamara, an expert in early childhood development, is skeptical about a new UBC study which found young children can learn just as well from interactive media as face-to-face instruction. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

An expert in early childhood development is skeptical about a recent study by the University of British Columbia which found that iPad apps were as successful as teaching young children as human instructors.

The study by UBC's department of psychology set up two groups of children aged four to eight. One group played on an iPad, the other was taught by an instructor. After being quizzed, researchers found both groups demonstrated the same level of comprehension.

But Deborah MacNamara, a private counsellor and early childhood expert, is skeptical of the results.

"I think [the study] looks at a narrow range of learning. It was only with a very small sample of children, and it looked at children's recall of factual information," she said.

MacNamara said there are decades of research in developmental science demonstrating the importance of attachment and relationships when it comes to learning.

UBC study author Susan Birch said interactive learning shouldn't replace in-person interactions, but rather enrich and supplement children's learning.

But MacNamara said this would be a hard balance to strike.

"As screen time increases, face to face interaction decreases," she said. "When we know brain development is predicated on face to face engagement with adults, this is a huge concern."

Consider why children are using device

MacNamara said she is not against using tablets or other devices, but noted they are not used in educational ways.

Instead, they are often used to entertain children, put them asleep or distract them, or prevent them from being upset in social situations.

"We always entertain our children with different things. I don't think this is going to end. The question is at what cost?"

She emphasized that adults should be guiding children and helping inform how to use them.

"This is key. We can't let our children lead us here. We have to take the lead."

Current Canadian guidelines discourage any screen time for children under the age of two. MacNamara added screen time should be generally minimized until the age of six.

With files from The Early Edition


To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Expert questions UBC's iPad study

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