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Technology

Touchscreen-addicted children’s hands are becoming too weak to hold pencils, doctors warn

‘It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks … they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 10:13pm

Children are increasingly finding it hard to hold pens and pencils because of an excessive use of technology, senior paediatric doctors in Britain have warned.

An overuse of touchscreen phones and tablets is preventing children’s finger muscles from developing sufficiently to enable them to hold a pencil correctly, they say.

“Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” said Sally Payne, head paediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust. “Now, children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not be able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.

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

When he got to school, they contacted me with their concerns: he was gripping his pencil like cavemen held sticks
Mother Laura

Six-year-old Patrick has been having weekly sessions with an occupational therapist for six months to help him develop the necessary strength in his index finger to hold a pencil in the correct, tripod grip.

His mother, Laura, blames herself: “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 added. “I think the school caught the problem early enough for no lasting damage to have been done.”

Mellissa Prunty, a paediatric occupational therapist who specialises in handwriting difficulties in children, is also concerned that increasing numbers of children may be developing handwriting late because of an overuse of technology.

“One problem is that handwriting is very individual in how it develops in each child,” said Prunty, vice-chair of the National Handwriting Association who also runs a research clinic at Brunel University London investigating key skills in childhood, including handwriting.

“Without research, the risk is that we make too many assumptions about why a child isn’t able to write at the expected age and don’t intervene when there is a technology-related cause,” she said.

Although the early years curriculum has handwriting targets for every year, different primary schools focus on handwriting in different ways – with some using tablets alongside pencils, Prunty said. This becomes a problem when same the children also spend large periods of time on tablets outside school.

But Barbie Clarke, a child psychotherapist and founder of the Family Kids and Youth research agency, said even nursery schools are acutely aware of the problem that she said stems from excessive use of technology at home.

“We go into a lot of schools and have never gone into one, even one which has embraced teaching through technology, which isn’t using pens alongside the tablets and iPads,” she said. “Even the nurseries we go into which use technology recognise it should not all be about that.”

Karin Bishop, an assistant director at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, also admitted concerns.

“It is undeniable that technology has changed the world where our children are growing up. Whilst there are many positive aspects to the use of technology, there is growing evidence on the impact of more sedentary lifestyles and increasing virtual social interaction, as children spend more time indoors online and less time physically participating in active occupations,” she said.