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Is the iPad bad for children?
Screen time can be bad for young children, but it's not all terrible news for parents who rely on tablets to occupy their offspring
Tight-lipped tablet time.
Tight-lipped tablet time. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

"I recently watched my sister perform an act of magic," says Nick Bilton at The New York Times. Bilton was sitting in a restaurant with his sister and her two children, ages 4 and 7, and the chattering, fighting kids were keeping the older siblings from conversing. "Like a magician quieting a group of children by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, my sister reached into her purse and produced two shiny Apple iPads," handing one to each child. The kids fell "eerily" silent for the rest of the meal.

This is hardly a unique occurrence. In restaurants, churches, and other public places all over the U.S. (and probably the developed world), harried parents pull out their tablets or smartphones for a spell of peace and quiet for them and any other adults around them. And, like Bilton's sister, many of these parents feel "slightly guilty." Are iPads and other magical child-quieting tablets dangerous for a child's development?

"I did not have an answer," Bilton writes, "and although some people might have opinions, no one has a true scientific understanding of what the future might hold for a generation raised on portable screens." Worse, says Mat Honan at Wired, "it seems like there is simply no way of knowing."

The American Academy of Pediatrics is unambiguous about time spent with screens. It says any at all is bad for children under a certain age.... We made an effort to follow AAP guidelines and prevent her from getting any screen time at all before she was 2. But honestly? On long flights, we've loaded up Sesame Street on the iPad before takeoff. Parenting is hard.... And, really, is there harm in an app? In the age of the educational app, those AAP guidelines seem, well, quaint. [Wired]

Tablet manufacturers are much less conflicted than parents, of course. You can buy everything from a tablet PC made especially for toddlers to a special iPhone case designed specifically so your infant child can play with your portable touchscreen device without breaking your expensive gadget or ordering thousands of dollars worth of apps. And even some early-childhood educators are surprisingly sanguine about tablets for tots.

Three kindergarten classes in Australia are participating in study of "the educational benefits of iPad use for pre-school children," says Matthew Dunn at Australia's The Standard. Specifically, they want to know if using iPad apps to create art, study creative crafts like puppetry, and read e-books can help kids prepare for school. "There have been past studies examining young children's use of iPads and smart phone technology but this is the first to link the use with literacy and numeracy through creative applications," says Sandra Gattenhof at the Queensland University of Technology.

If you want a "long-term double-blind study to prove an interactive smartphone app is different than a TV show," which is probably bad for kids, well, too bad, says Wired's Honan. "The first generation of toddlers that played with iPhones is not even out of elementary school. A child born the day the iPhone shipped would be kindergarten age today. We are all fumbling through this new world, and nobody knows what the long-term implications are."

Actually there has been some potentially relevant research, and it's surprisingly hopeful for iPad-wielding parents, says the Times' Bilton. Assuming, of course, parents pick the right apps.

A report published last week by the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term study group in Britain that has been following 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001, found that those who watched more than three hours of television, videos, or DVDs a day had a higher chance of conduct problems, emotional symptoms and relationship problems by the time they were 7 than children who did not. The study, of a sample of 11,000 children, found that children who played video games — often age-appropriate games — for the same amount of time did not show any signs of negative behavioral changes by the same age. [New York Times]

But experts agree pretty unanimously that, at least at the dinner table, talking (or even drawing with crayons) is better than zoning out over an iDevice, both for developing social skills and even learning to cope with or grow from boredom.

"I have no fear that my child will only be able to form relationships with avatars," says Wired's Honan. Nor, like some parents, "do I think that it's imperative to dunk her in the digital stream from an early age" so she'll be able to swim better as she grows. Like pretty much everything else, "there's some sort of weird balance we have to fumble our way into finding." But here's a cautionary tale:

Last year, we took our daughter to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free concert in Golden Gate Park. We met a few other parents, who had toddlers of their own. Before the band started playing, one began throwing a tantrum. He wanted his iPod Touch, and so he got it. Then the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began to play, and all the children began to dance and laugh and play in the grass. Except for the one who sat on the blanket, staring at a screen, oblivious to all else. [Wired]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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