Initial training for early years professionals should include guidance on how to use tablets effectively and how to choose apps suitable for under-fives, says a study of pre-schoolers' use of apps.
Parents, too, need further guidance and support on choosing apps for young children, and family digital literacy programmes should be developed which can be offered by early-years settings and schools.
"All the evidence tells us that the right age-appropriate apps can promote play and creativity in the under-fives and help them build a broader range of skills and knowledge such as problem-solving, prediction and logic: all skills important for science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects," explains Professor Jackie Marsh.
Currently, a quarter of pre-schoolers have no access to tablets in their homes. And, in a survey of 2,000 parents of under-fives, only three per cent of parents reported that their children had access to a tablet when at school, nursery or in their childminders' home. "Clearly there's a danger that these children will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide," says Professor Marsh.
But survey findings suggest that simply ensuring greater access to tablets is not enough. "We found pre-schoolers were using tablets on average about 80 minutes a day, but were surprised by how much they were using apps such as Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Temple Run, which are not appropriate in that we observed that they foster little creativity and learning when pre-schoolers use them," she explains.
Moreover, some parents did not monitor under-fives' app use sufficiently well. Safety settings to ensure safe access to the internet were not always employed: nine per cent of parents admitted their children had been exposed to content that made them uncomfortable and 10 per cent of children had made an in-app purchase by accident.
"Age-appropriate apps have a range of benefits for young children, but we can't just leave them to it," she insists. "Given the extent to which young children who live in households with tablets use them, we would recommend much more support and guidance for parents offered by health visitors, parenting organisations, childminders and early-years settings on how to choose apps for this age group and how to support children in using them.
"Also, while more early years settings need to ensure pre-school children have access to tablets, early-years practitioners also need more training in the use of apps to support creativity and learning."