Do Toddlers Need iPads?

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If there’s one toy guaranteed to captivate toddlers this holiday season, it’s the iPad, notes Rachel Saslow in the Washington Post:

“What’s more appealing to a tot than blinking lights, fun sounds and touch screens that allow them to move things with the swipe of a tiny, sticky finger?

A 2011 survey of parents by Common Sense Media, an organization that provides media education for families, found that 39 percent of 2-to-4-year-olds have used digital media such as smartphones and iPads. James Steyer, chief executive and founder of the group, is confident that number has risen in the past year.

But Steyer has stern advice for adults considering buying toddlers their very own iPads this Christmas: ‘No. Ridiculous idea.’

Among parents and experts, the idea of giving a toddler an iPad is a fraught subject. There are some obvious drawbacks. For one thing, they’re expensive – as much as $829 for the most recent version. They’re also fragile. But the science on how the iPad affects young children isn’t yet clear, and while some experts see them as developmentally inappropriate, others see some benefits to the technology—and not just in keeping a parent’s sanity (if not guilt) in check.

The iPad has only been around only since 2010, so there hasn’t been enough time to observe its long-term effects on kids, according to Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Rich, who runs the online advice column Ask the Mediatrician, says that apps on iPads and smartphones are limited as teaching tools since they typically focus on one type of learning—’skills and drills,’ which teach children to correctly identify the ABCs or to moo when they see a cow on the screen.

‘What’s more important at this age is learning how to learn rather than mimicking something,’ Rich says.

Moreover, studies show that kids don’t learn anything substantial, such as language, from screens—television, iPads, computers—until 30 months of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents hold off on any form of screen time until their children are 2.

A 2004 study in the journal Pediatrics showed that children exposed to television at ages 1 and 3 had decreased attention spans at age 7. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, though.

‘You can see how a kid who already has difficulty paying attention is put in front of the television to chill him out,’ Rich says. ‘It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

Toddlers also sometimes struggle to translate what they see on two-dimensional screens to the three-dimensional world. ‘Kids learn by doing, not by watching,’ says pediatrician Howard J. Bennett of Chevy Chase Pediatrics. ‘People once thought videos like “Baby Einstein” were good for kids too, and that’s out now.’

Allison Mistrett, the founder and director of Leaps and Bounds, a Tenleytown pediatric occupational therapy practice, says she has seen children master ‘Where’s Waldo?’ on an iPad but struggle to find their shoes in a crowded room.” (Read more here.)

I love that last comment—it’s so true that “skills” developed on the computer don’t always transfer to real life.

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3 Responses to “Do Toddlers Need iPads?”

  1. For more details on the research on children under 30 months and follow-up studies (a couple of which contradict the 2004 Pediatrics article), readers might be interested in Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child, which came out in paperback last year. I spent a lot of time talking with the researchers for the Pediatrics study as well as other child development specialists, and the results of experiments are in many ways surprising for children around 22-24 months of age. I’m looking forward to finding new ways to talk about technology that do not make it a monolithic entity. So far we’re learning that it’s the content within and the context around the iPad (and around anything else for that matter) that makes an impact on learning.

  2. anniempaul says:

    Great point, Lisa. Readers, you can find out more about “Screen Time” here: http://www.lisaguernsey.com/screen-time.htm.

  3. The context is critical,including the social-emotional ambience. When parents use technology to comfort a child–as I see more and more–the results are decidedly mixed. To wit, an infant at rush hour on a NYC subway train was soothed by some bright graphics on an iPhone, while a toddler at a seaside cafe in northern CA descended further into meltdown mode as his mom fumbled frantically with her iPad, in search of a video to distract him.

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