Feb 052012

ipad tablet & child development

My toddler with iPad at 18 months

Is that iPad making your kid smarter or dumber? For the moment, no one really knows. Impassioned opinions are readily available on both sides but rigorous scientific studies have yet to be published. Are tablets+kids our generation’s developmental thalidomide or merely another fluoride, beneficial in measured doses but harmful when free-based? Today’s kids are guinea pigs in a massive uncontrolled experiment to find out and I worry about my toddler. I love technology. I believe in the ability of tech to empower individuals, connect communities and unite our species. I believe this deeply. Yet I would turn into a born again Luddite in a heartbeat if I thought technology was harming my child. Two things I care deeply about appear to be in mortal conflict and I need an actionable answer NOW.

There is a study, “Young Children, Apps & iPad” (pdf), funded by the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn initiative, which looked at kids 2 to 8 years old and their engagement with iPads. Read into the study though, and you’ll discover it was based on briefly interviewing and observing 60 kids over a very short period of time. It contains such insightful findings as, “Children’s initial reaction to touch screen devices is characterized by fascination and immediate engagement”. Yes, the same could be said of Twinkies, but it doesn’t mean Twinkies are beneficial. In short, there is little in the study that will be surprising, or even informative, to anyone that’s spent much time with kids and tablets. This study can shed a little light on how kids engage with tablets but tells us nothing about whether their development is being stunted or accelerated.

In the other camp, we have the semi-luddites. The best of the bunch may be the book, Simplicity Parenting, which proposes simplifying your child’s life. A central tenet is cutting exposure to technology and media. Much of the advice seems commonsensical and it turns out our family is already doing most of it. Keeping a consistent schedule, cutting the number of toys and more imaginative play are good but banning tablets? Is that going to far? While it “seems” to make sense, and one may certainly feel superior for enforcing a zero tolerance tablet policy. Is it actually right? There’s no empirical data yet to support that conclusion.

Are we guilty of slapping our preconceived notions of “proper education” onto a generation that will live in a world vastly different than today’s? Conventional wisdom from educational groups like HeadStart and First 5 will say there’s little else as good for your child as sitting down with them and reading a pulp and glue book. Intuitively this seems correct, yet the contrarian in me imagines Johannes Guttenberg’s kids, around the year 1450 or so, being caught up in a debate about these new-fangled printed books being educationally inferior to existing hand-scribed parchment. While the things we define today as tablets may not exist in the future our kids will occupy, they will certainly read almost exclusively from electronic media. Reading from a static page incapable of moving, reacting and interacting with the reader will seem as alien to them as movies on shiny discs. Is tablet-based interactive media simply the literacy of their era? I believe that iPads can be good for our kids but it’s essential we apply this technology in the right ways.

< continued in part 2: 5 Rules for iPads & Toddlers >

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