With every new wave of technology comes a parallel wave of concern that said technology is bad for kids’ brains. It happened with television, video games, computers, the Internet, and now with mobile devices. As it turns out, each successive technology has proven its ability to facilitate learning when monitored by engaged parents. Given the right circumstances, the iPad can also be a powerful educational tool.
Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS Kids Interactive, is enthusiastic about these devices, citing that iOS has brought about a usability revolution for kids. “For years and years we’ve been trying to develop activities with a keyboard and mouse for kids as young as three. They can master it, but it’s not an environment that is really developed for them.”
PBS Kids recently conducted a study monitoring 90 children ages three to seven as they interacted with the iPod touch for the first time and played with two learning apps. “It was remarkable to us how quickly [they picked it up]. It was just intuitive for them. They jumped right into the gameplay—and therefore right into the learning—much faster than we had seen in the past with kids who were just starting with a laptop.”
Dr. Eric Klopfer, associate professor and the director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade, agrees that the user interface of iOS, Android, and similar operating systems helps kids connect with games and other activities faster. “It is hard for young kids to connect mouse actions with on-screen actions. Direct touching and manipulation is much easier,” Klopfer said.
Several of the parents we spoke to also noted that after getting used to a swiping and tapping interface, kids expect other gadgets to work the same way. “Both of my kids often will touch the screen of laptops, TVs, and monitors, and do not appreciate that they are not touch-activated,” said Elena Murphy.
The PBS Kids study found that vocabulary improved as much as 31 percent after kids played with the Martha Speaks app. Oscar’s Apps founder Andrew Sharpe created an Alphabet Song app for children as young as three, and he says kids who use it can confidently recite the alphabet after a relatively short time playing.
While your child will probably gravitate toward your iPad because it’s sleeker than gadgets explicitly made for children, there’s a reason the latter tend to be bulky. Tech made for adults hasn’t been through the robust product testing most toys receive. Beyond the minimum requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, most toy manufacturers must also adhere to the American Society for Testing and Materials’ (ATSM) standards for toy safety, which are more rigorous. The purpose is to ensure that products can stand up to a certain amount of abuse without breaking and, if they do break, minimize the potential harm to a child.
The question of whether or not the iPad is safe for young kids is up in the air because the device hasn’t been tested for that age range. However, it’s not a stretch to assume that parents should be cautious. “If you don’t know whether [a product is] safe, it’s not a good idea to leave your child alone with it,” cautioned Malcolm J. Denniss, technical director at SGS Group, a product testing and certification company. “Unless somebody’s tested it and verified [that it’s safe], I wouldn’t want to give it to my 18-month-old grandchild.”
The most obvious danger is a tablet’s screen: Should it break, a child could suffer cuts from the glass. Another potential hazard comes from chemicals and components, though a device would have to break pretty thoroughly for the internal components to become an issue. The ASTM standards also check for flammability and toxicology, among other hazards.
There are ways to mitigate the potential dangers of mobile devices, such as special cases. For example, Fisher-Price’s Laugh & Learn Baby iCan Play Case ($14.99) for the iPhone and iPod touch is made for babies as young as six months. This accessory will not only protect from bumps and scratches, but it also makes the Home button inaccessible, keeping children locked into the apps their parents choose. There’s no equivalent for the iPad yet, but robust protective cases offer some security. Otterbox’s Defender Series case ($89.95) is one of the most accident-proof on the market, though it isn’t baby-focused. Fisher-Price may also consider an iPad case in the future, depending on the success of the iPhone version.
However, the best way to ensure that a child’s tablet use doesn’t lead to serious harm is for a parent or caretaker to remain present and engaged with the child whenever they use an iPad or other tablet. Doing this will also help ensure that time spent on the iPad is quality time.