Why the first five years of a child’s development are the most important

Why spending too much time in front of a screen can limit on your child's development, language and social skills.

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Every year of a child’s life is precious, but when it comes to development, the first five are the most important. This is when a child becomes the person they are going to be. It is when they learn appropriate behaviour, boundaries, empathy and many other important social skills that will remain with them for life.

Unfortunately, many children are missing out on these vital skills because they are not going through the steps needed to learn this behaviour. And one of the main reasons, according to Dr Madeleine Portwood, an educational psychologist and head of clinical services at the Dubai-based consultancy Ebdaah, is that technology is replacing human interaction.

Portwood, a psychologist for 25 years, says she is seeing significant changes in language development and social skills of school-age children and it’s the result of changes in early childhood experiences. “What I’m seeing is children’s language skills suffering because of the introduction of IT. Parents are often convinced that because their child can sit for two hours and do a complex game, then that is educational. That in itself is evidence of the importance of early years learning and the experiences a child has,” she explains.

One of the implications is a sharp rise in the number of children with autism spectrum disorder. “Twenty years ago it was deemed to be one in 1,500 children. Now it’s one in 63. It’s a huge increase and it can’t be some genetic mutation. It has to be in large part environmental,” says Portwood.

Interaction with people affects a child’s development and when this is largely replaced by exposure to technology, such as a tablet computer or smartphone, they are not interacting. “For example, a child learns to develop conversational skills – you ask a question and somebody answers and then you develop it. If you don’t have these opportunities because you’re keyed into an iPad or computer game, then you don’t learn this reciprocal to-ing and fro-ing and children’s communication skills become limited, and that affects social relationships,” says Portwood.

The language skills of children of school-starting age have been in gradual decline over the past few decades. However, Portwood says there is evidence of a much more rapid deterioration in the past few years. “Staff in schools have complained more vociferously in the last five or six years about children being less well-engaged when they start school. They have increasing levels of hyperactivity and inattention, they have more behavioural difficulties, language development isn’t as it should be and there are major problems with social skills.”

The Apple iPad launched in 2010 and it, along with other brands of tablet computers and smartphones, has become commonplace. Many children starting school this year do not know a world without this type of technology.

“I was at a restaurant for lunch recently and there was a table with parents, grandparents and children – one was 4 and one was 2,” says Portwood. “The 4-year-old had an iPad and the 2-year-old had an iPhone. Neither one said a word through the duration of the meal. The parents and grandparents were saying: ‘Aren’t they marvellous, aren’t they great’, as they were having an adult conversation that was above the level the children would key into and so the children weren’t learning anything from it.

“Before the introduction of iPhones and iPads, the parents and grandparents would have engaged in child-oriented language and sentences like what are we doing after this? What have you been playing with your sister? What do you want to eat?, and developing the children’s language skills. It’s no wonder they’re having problems nowadays and it’s perhaps because parents don’t appreciate the importance of the experiences a child has,” says Portwood.

The experiences in the first five years are crucial to the development of social skills, personality, cognitive skills, thinking skills, decision-making, ability to concentrate and behaviour, she says.

Another area of development that is suffering as a result of the growing reliance on technology is movement skills, which, according to Portwood, is fundamental in developing connections in the brain.

“Children who engage in fewer movement skills are more prone to having difficulties later on. If parents know that, they can encourage movement,” she says.

“Playgrounds nowadays are deserted, even at weekends. Parents – and children – are choosing the exciting, quick-response video games that are very visual, and children up to the age of 5 translate their environment from the things they see rather than the things they hear, so they watch – it’s very difficult for a book to compete with a video game.

“But, however exciting a game is – video, iPad or whatever – a child will always prefer to have their parents’ time.”

And this is something parents can tap into by investing their efforts in interacting with and engaging their children, whether it’s reading books, having conversations or playing games.

“Children love to experience stories, read by their parents, particularly if they can be involved in pointing to the illustrations and questioned as to ‘what do you think is going to happen next?’ This is a great way to improve communication skills and it teaches the child appropriate listening skills,” says Portwood.

“It is also very important that mealtimes provide an IT-free environment where children and adults can talk. This is not just at home, but when children are taken out for a meal, too. It seems increasingly the case that the adults talk and the children are focused on a small screen.”

Portwood advises parents to limit their children’s screen time to no more than an hour a day, and preferably spend that time engaging in screen time with them, whether that be watching television or playing an interactive game. This will reduce the amount of time the child spends in solitary play. “In their early years children are visual learners and find IT display screens extremely attractive and it is easy for them to become engrossed in an isolated pursuit that hinders development of their communication skills,” says Portwood.

“IT games are fun and can encourage, for example, children to learn nursery rhymes or perceptual skills. ”

But interaction and engagement with others is an important stage of development for children, especially as they learn the concept of boundaries and acceptable behaviour.

“A child knows at the age of 4 that they shouldn’t be doing something. They will test you out and that’s when boundaries need to be secure. But for the child, if they don’t get to test the boundaries they don’t learn from the experience.

“It’s about testing relationships too, so they learn if they are unkind to another child and take their toy, that child won’t like them and won’t play with them. All of these fundamental building blocks for social relationships are placed in the early years and if they are not, it is very difficult to establish those skills later on.”

Modern technology may be getting in the way of our family time, but refocusing attention and energy on our children is all it takes to fix that glitch.