By Mark Fairlie

For children born into the digital age, technology is a fundamental part of everyday life. However, healthcare professionals have recently raised concerns that this overuse of touchscreens and tablets is preventing children from developing the most basic skills such as how to write.

Children today “lacking fundamental movement skills”

In order to be able to write, a child must develop their fine motor skills in early life. This is usually done through real-world play, such as painting and playing with blocks.

Sally Payne, the head paediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England Foundation NHS Trust, says

“to be able to grip a pencil and move it, you need strong control of the fine muscles in your fingers. Children need lots of opportunities to develop those skills.”

However, Ms Payne has seen evidence that the extensive use of handheld technology could be stopping toddlers’ muscles from developing the strength they need to hold a pencil correctly.

“Children are not coming to school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” she said.

“Children coming into school are being given a pencil but, increasingly, they are not able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.”

Patrick is just one of those children mentioned by Ms Payne. At six years old, Patrick has needed weekly sessions with an occupational therapist to help him develop the strength in his index finger to hold a pencil in a correct tripod grip.

His mother Laura said that

“in retrospect, I see that I gave Patrick technology to play with, to the virtual exclusion of the more traditional toys. When he got to school, they contacted me with their concerns: he was gripping his pencil like cavemen held sticks. He just couldn’t hold it in any other way and so couldn’t learn to write because he couldn’t move the pencil with any accuracy.”

“The therapy sessions are helping a lot and I’m really strict now at home with his access to technology,” she said. “I think the school caught the problem early enough for no lasting damage to have been done.”

Is technology harmful for young children?

Kids struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech

Matt Leeser, head of buying for electricals and home technology at John Lewis, said that

“children today are part of a digital generation that has grown up in a world surrounded by technology and the internet, and they are using mobile phones, tablets, e-readers and computers on a daily basis.”

There have been arguments in that, for children growing up in today’s world, having computer skills is just as important as learning how to read and write.

“Becoming literate in how the technology world works is equivalent to reading, writing and maths,” says Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, Mark Surman. “We need to look at this fourth literacy as mainstream,” he said.

Back in 2013, Jonathan Maitland revealed on his ITV Tonight programme ‘Too young for technology?’ that 70% of children are already confident in using laptops, tablets and smartphones by the time they start school.

A survey from the show also found that 47% of parents believe it is important for their children to be familiar with technology before starting school; with 17% of under-threes already owning their own smartphone or tablet.

Whilst many argue that growing up with tablets and other devices will better help these children to understand technology in the future, others believe that the nature of play has changed dramatically in the digital age – meaning they miss out on learning the basics.

Muscle building and fine motor skills

“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil,” says Ms Payne.

Occupational therapy lecturer and vice chair of the National Handwriting Association, Dr Mellissa Prunty, is also interested in the connection between tablet use and handwriting skills.

“There are other factors such as spelling and language development, but also how much handwriting children engage with at nursery or pre-school groups and how much writing they do at school.”

She went on to say that occupational therapists are now observing children without underlying problems, adding that “although this is an interesting observation, we don’t know from a research point of view if the technology is impacting on fine motor skills generally and whether that is having a knock-on effect to handwriting.”