Toddlers on the iPad – a good idea?

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Originally written for Gulf News

It can change colour and design at the feather touch of a little finger. It can make almost any sound at all, far more than a favourite toy can. It can turn into a TV, a gaming device or an easel to unleash your creativity on, as and when you like. The iPad, with all its versions, is an amazing piece of technology.

Children, all around the world have been swept away into the digital iWorld, and as we watch our contended young ones poring over their tablet PC’s we wonder if screen time is as bad for children as it’s made out to be. After all, what more could a knackered parent want after a long and tiring day? The iPad is a baby-sitter, a friend and an interactive toy, all at once, and keeps a child happy, engaged and busy for long periods of time. But the question is: Are we hampering the development of our children if we let them engage with such devices at very young ages?

A quick search on the Apps Store for “apps for children” comes up with 15,155 results, and many of these apps are free, some state that they are educational and a large number of them are aimed at babies, and even claim to refine language and fine motor skills. Research from the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), however, suggests that video screen time (TV’s and other screens used in the same way) provides no educational benefits for children under age 2 and leaves less room for activities that do, like interacting with other people and playing. Inactivity associated with TV and computer watching is connected with developmental and health issues. There are also psychological concerns related to depression, disengagement, poor social skills, and damage to a child’s ability to empathise. As one looks into child development study, traditional research and theory seem to confirm the findings scientists have made in recent times. Jean Piaget, an influential 20th century Swiss psychologist, has explained the learning process of babies and toddlers in this way: From the moment of birth onward, information comes into the brain through firsthand experiences with things, people and senses.

On a tablet, however, everything feels the same. A child’s earliest experiences are a very important part of their learning — for instance they discover the difference between rough and smooth, distinguish between light and heavy, and hot and cold, all through their hands. To us, these may seem like trivial achievements, but for a child, these encounters are exciting, and open up a world of discovery and learning. Tangible toys can allow them the opportunity to explore and learn through their own senses. We take all of those rich experiences away when we let our children become passive receivers of stimuli in front a slick, glossy screen.

Research from AAP has also cited concerns about language delays and disrupted sleep in children who are exposed to a lot of screen time. A child busy on an iPad will give up excellent opportunities for developing her social skills, for real time conversations with adults and peers and for physical exercise. Brofenbrenner, the well-known Russian-American psychologist spoke about how important it is for babies and carers to engage with each other. A mother smiles and clicks her tongue, the baby does the same. The mother gives a little kiss, the baby tries to imitate. This ‘ping-pong’, (as Brofenbrenner called it), lays the foundation for later conversation. With children spending more and more hours in the virtual world, chances for such exchange and bonding are lessened.

For a slightly older child, however, the iPad when used in moderation and with intelligence can actually help with learning. A recent study funded by the Department of Education in the US showed that the PBS Kids iPhone app “Martha Speaks” boosted 3-to-7-year-olds’ vocabularies by as much as 31 per cent over the course of two weeks. Besides, mentally stimulating games and puzzles are known to sharpen the mind. We live in a day and age when our children learn how to unlock a touchscreen device faster than they learn how to pick up a pencil. The iPad is here to stay, and will invariably make a place in the hands and hearts of most children who will come across the beautiful device.

It is not uncommon to find toddlers who will do just about anything to retain an iPad or a smartphone — but there are strategies for coping with such behaviour. Experts suggest that rules and limits must be clearly defined to the child so that they know what is expected of them. Adults must remain consistent and be firm yet calm in order to help a child respect and follow rules. And children learn a great deal by observing us too which is why I will sign off — before my little one comments that I have been staring at a screen for too long!


6 thoughts on “Toddlers on the iPad – a good idea?

  1. Hmmmm… not sure what I think, double-edged sword. Funny thing is that a few weekends ago it was the carnival in San José and there were children’s games but none of them knew how to skip which I thought was sad. Activities that get children out in the open air and running around are being ditched in favour of sitting sedately messing around with iPads and the like.

  2. Good post. Personally, I’d always advocate physical and outdoor activities for children. A sound mind resides inside a sound body. But as you’ve already stated, moderation is the key.

  3. Very good post Mehmudah .. and the need of the hour too! Since childhood we have heard “Excess of Everything is Bad”. In my opinion it is not good for toddlers to stay stationery with an Ipod as both physical and mental development requires them to be more active. They are born in a world of computers and will eventually catch up with time.So, lets encourage them to spend more time with their toys, in outdoor games as well as socializing with people around them, something which is very mportant for the grooming of their personality as well as character formation.

  4. An interesting topic, and one that will take its place in history. I wonder how this subject will be viewed in 50 years’ time, or even 10 years’ time. I agree with you and Raheel that moderation is the key and, as with so much of parenting, getting a good balance is probably what’s going to make the difference to a child. There was an article on the BBC news recently about a 5 year old boy who ran up massive bill by playing ‘free’ games on an ipad, that’s quite a worry for parents I would imagine.

  5. Only recently I started to allow mine to the Ipad,but only in the weekends. I know many of their collegues use it daily,but I say no. Even if,it is then tv.Same thing.But they go out too,daily,and this is good enough.

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