As with everyone, pre-schoolers are susceptible to the surge in dopamine – the feel-good chemical produced in the brain – that smartphone apps produce. “The body seeks to recreate more of these good feelings, and this is one reason why a child will want increasing amounts of screen time,” says McDowell.
She stresses, however, that the main reason very young children want to play with iPhones is to copy their parents’ behaviour: “In previous times they might have wanted to play tea parties – now it’s TikTok.”
And, of course, the simple layout of smartphone apps makes this easy, as Hugo, still at nursery, discovered. An avid geography enthusiast, he decided to find out more about Saudia Arabia – where his family is relocating next year – by typing the first three letters of the country into the search engine Safari. “It didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to spell it,” says Jenny, who runs jewellery company Sharkie & Bear. “The predictive spelling guessed what words he wanted.”
Once, Jenny opened her Facebook page to find she had supposedly posted a link to the city of Hugo in the States. “I thought: Oh, gosh, that must have been my Hugo, looking up his own name,” she says.
On other occasions Hugo has opened the iMovies app, in which users can video themselves, and set films of his family to edited captions. “He’ll make me run round the lounge to create what he calls a ‘film trailyer’,” says Jenny.
She stresses Hugo – who also loves swimming and dancing – isn’t addicted to screen time. “We let him use it in 10 to 15-minute bursts and he always gives the phone back willingly,” she says. “If he got upset, I’d be worried. I know technology can be addictive, but Hugo’s use feels educational.”
Research has shown that areas of the brain involved in attention can be more efficient in children who play computer games, as well as helping to develop visuospatial skills.
McDowell, however, stresses that up to the age of four is a critical stage for brain development, in which skills such as attention, concentration and social interaction are better honed in real life. “Studies suggest that excessive time spent on screens for children between the ages of 24 and 36 months is associated with poorer behavioural, cognitive and social development,” she adds.