Children and technology: Which products, what cost and what age to start?
Despite my shock, it got me thinking. My own children are five and three. Should I be introducing more technology into their lives? Do I really have to spend a fortune to do so? And what are the advantages anyway?
There are three things that have put me off so far. First, I'm not very techy myself. Second, my kids haven't (yet) been the kind to beg for handheld technological devices of any description. And third, we live on a pretty tight budget.
Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in child development and author of the Good Toy Guide, thinks I'm right to put finances at the heart of my decision making process.
"If you can't afford the technology, don't buy it. It sounds obvious but many parents spend out anyway because they think they should. In any case, in this age group, you need to be prepared for things to get broken and there are also values to think about.
If your son gets an iPad for his fifth birthday, what's he going to get for 16th?
"Even the £100+ required for a child's tablet is a lot of money – you could get a lot of other toys for the same amount."
That said, there are ways to keep costs down, she admits. Consider an iTouch instead of an iPad. Use child-focused games on websites such as CBeebies instead, which are free.
If you have an iPhone or iPad yourself, get some apps for your kids on there rather than buying them a dedicated device.
"Most kids' apps have 'lite' versions that are free so you can check them out," adds Tom Stewart, child psychologist.
"This is important because some apps don't keep their appeal for long whereas others are big favourites for several years."
There's another reason this is important – many apps are downright rubbish. At best, they can be a waste of time and money; at worst, they can be detrimental, for example by confusing children with American pronunciations of phonics.
But talk to most education experts and they'll assure you that others have clear and proven benefits, with many making a major contribution to children's development.
Funimal Phonics is a good example. This stylish flash-cards app gives the discipline of phonics a friendly animal face and works wonders in getting kids interested in learning.
Meanwhile, Little Digits gets your child to count by placing fingers on the iPad's touchscreen, with cartoon numbers appearing, depending on how many fingers are pressed. Simple maths tasks give it an educational angle too.
If you have a child who is just becoming interested in geography, Barefoot World Atlas is a digital globe with music and animation, drawing kids in to the meat of its text and photographic entries on countries, people and nature. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
No wonder experts advise parents to take time to research the best apps.
"Blogs and parenting magazines and websites are a great place to start and reviews can be really helpful to guide you in the right direction," says a spokesperson for John Lewis.
Most of the national newspapers regularly publish features on top apps too, most of which you can find online.
"We did a global study at the beginning of this year and found that 71% of app purchases for children in the preschool bracket are based on recommendations from other parents," adds Gary Pope, co-founder of Kids Industries. "It just goes to show how important word-of-mouth is, so do talk to other parents."
Think twice before investing in big brand apps, he warns. "I believe that many take the licence money and don't think too much about the education value of the electronic experience."
For parents who want not just child-focused apps, but child-focused devices, children's tablets are becoming increasingly popular. At Toys 'R' Us, the three biggest sellers are the Leapfrog LeapPad (£89.99 age 4+), Kurio Personal Tablet (£149.99 age 4+) and the ChildPad (£999.99 age 6/7 +). Meanwhile, Early Learning Centre adds that the Innotab (£84.99) is also taking the children's market by storm.
Their list of features is impressive. The LeapPad can be easily expanded as they get older. It's fun and easy to use and it helps children to build reading skills, practice writing and be creative.
The Kurio's neat features include a built-in mic, Wi-Fi and Flash 1 support, an HD video player, an e-reader and an impressive memory, whilst the ChildPad is equipped with a speedy processor, as well as enabling kids to jump from one application to another easily and allowing them to send and receive emails and chat with their friends.
The Innotab also has a focus on fun, enabling children to develop core skills in reading, spelling, maths, logic and creativity.
"Children's tablets can be great for developing your child's confidence with technology and are particularly useful if you have reluctant learners who don't want to sit and do worksheets," says Gummer.
"They really engage with cognitive development and can bring all kinds of learning experiences alive," she adds.
But Pope disagrees. "The kids' tablet market is nonsense. You pay a lot of money for what? A cheap, relatively unresponsive screen and low-quality graphics. Sure, you could argue that kids don't need great graphics, but they do need well-thought through ones that are clean and well-organised."
Dr Nicola Yuill, a psychologist specialising in technology and teaching, is also sceptical. "Typically children will be interested in things they see adults heavily engaged with – in other words the real thing, not a cheap copy."
If you're still keen to get one, look out for ones that have a selection of activities embedded so that your child can move from activity to activity such as games to listening to reading, advises a spokesperson for ToysRUs.
Meanwhile, John Lewis warns against easy mistakes such as buying tablets which are designed for children slightly older than your own, so that they can be enjoyed for longer. In reality, this can prevent your child feeling engaged. Ensure the product is durable and robust and don't assume the most expensive product is the best for your child. Most importantly, find a product which has the features your child needs.
When Apple unveiled its iPad in 2010, the idea of handing over a touchscreen gadget costing around £500 to a sticky-fingered child seemed ridiculous. But this summer, Disney commissioned a survey of 2,000 British parents who owned an app-capable device and found that 75% share them with their children; 56% said they had downloaded an app at the request of their kids; and 37% considered apps to be an 'integral' part of their family life. Major retailers say kids' tablets are also selling like hotcakes.
Personally, I've decided on a 'try before you buy' approach, seeing what my offspring make of other children's tablets and testing out a few 'lite' apps on my own smartphone before I consider my next step.
But in the meantime, if I see little Harry with an iPad next time I go in the cafe, I'll be sure not to let my jaw drop.
What do you think?
Does your child enjoy apps on your phone or ipad?
Or have you bought devices specifically for your child?