There's a strong argument to be made, if you follow a certain line of reasoning, that the upcoming iPad mini will be bad for children.
Full-size iPads are already freely used in the home by millions of children, we know. And yet since Apple's tablet PC burst onto the scene three years ago there's been almost continuous worry that engaging with the iPad is damaging to kids' physical and mental health. The iPad mini is set to cost much less than its bigger brother (and it's expected to be announced during Apple's Oct. 23 event), but will come with the same Apple "must have" positive vibe, and will thus find its way into millions more homes—perhaps even one per child. Its portability, combined with its lower cost, will mean it gets taken to places and used more frequently in more widespread social situations. Thus all the worries aimed at the iPad are multiplied many times for the iPad mini.
Let's look at the arguments.
Recent analysis by Piper Jaffray put iPad ownership among American teenagers at 31%. That's a heartening statistics for Apple since with 44% of teens owning a "tablet computer," that means the iPad has 72% penetration in this demographic. But in the bigger picture, when you add in the fact some 20% of the nearly 8,000 teens questioned said they were likely to buy a tablet in the next six months, that means up to two-thirds of U.S. teens will have a tablet PC by the middle of 2013.
And that's just teens owning one. A recent Nielsen study found that in homes with a tablet and kids under 12, 70% of those kids use the tablet, 77% of these for gaming, 57% for educational purposes.
Basically this means that kids the world over are toying with tablets almost before they can walk. The pace of adoption of these devices is astonishing.
In a paper published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, and highlighted in the Guardian, psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman mentions concern that screen use among the very young is increasing. Children born now in the U.K. will have amassed an entire year's worth of screen time by age 7, and by 18 they'll have spent three whole years looking at monitors, TVs, and other screens. Inactivity associated with TV and computer watching is connected with developmental issues, mobility issues, and health issues to do with diet, diabetes, and other issues. There are also psychological concerns related to depression, disengagement, poor social skills, and damage to a child's ability to empathize.
Though this paper doesn't explicitly mention tablets, as a natural evolution of computing and screen technology they are implicitly in the crosshairs for all the same reasons. And perhaps they're worse: They're more portable, and are so multi-purpose they could intrude into more long-established habits, even replacing the old routine of reading a comic under the bedclothes by flashlight.
Similarly Baroness Greenfield, a member of the House Of Lords and a scientist and broadcaster, has been stirring controversy in the U.K. by repeatedly linking kids' use of computers, particularly video gaming and social networking, to all sorts of dire psychological issues, and even linking it to autism. Consider how much Facebooking a super-portable iPad mini could enable.
Ever since the iPad arrived, it seems there's been a debate about whether or not its good to give to kids, from discussions about limiting screen time for the very young, to articles about iPad "addiction" among kids to serious discussions in Psychology Today about whether or not one should give a tablet to a toddler.
The iPad mini would seem to threaten even more of these dangers, presuming it sells like hotcakes and that parents will feel even more comfortable letting their kids play with cutting-edge electronics because it costs so much less than their own "grown-up" iPad.
In softer sciences like psychology there's always the opportunity for research that's in contradiction with the findings of an author's peers, and that's exactly the case with a paper the Guardian has recently highlighted. It points out a strong correlation between mental stimulation at age 4 and enhanced language and cognition skills in the late teenage years. In other words, giving your young child a lot of educational toys at an early age can have a "sleeper effect" educational benefit over a decade later.
One could argue that a tablet PC is a golden opportunity to give kids challenging, imagination-building interactive tasks that are perfect for this sort of purpose. There are, after all, thousands of apps aimed at youngsters that are educational as well as fun. Explained in the right way, even classic casual games like Crayon Physics can have educational messages.
Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist working as an associate researcher at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine is an expert in digital media's influence on our society—how it changes our relationships and even identities. In an email to Fast Company Ito explained her position on the potential of the iPad mini. "This is a somewhat obvious point, but as with all technologies, but particularly highly customizable digital technologies like the iPad, what really matters is how it is used, not the device itself. Because of this, I am always suspicious of studies and fears attached to the negative effects of specific devices or 'screen-time' as a general category, that don't look at specific forms of engagement and use. Like televisions, personal computers, and game machines, portable i-devices offer tremendous opportunities for learning and development. "
It's actually a question of how you use it, Ito argues: "On the positive side of the ledger, these devices are very intuitive to even young children, and can be taken up in diverse social contexts. Rather than turning away from others or sitting side-by-side to face a screen, with iPads you often see multiple people facing each other with the device between them, and this creates new opportunities for sharing and learning." Her argument is that iPads and their ilk can encourage social interaction, perhaps as a 21st century version of baseball cards—instead of a closed interaction with a child playing alone on a games console.
Considered in this light, you can even argue that the greater portability of tablet PCs means kids will rush about while using them, instead of sitting still for unhealthily long periods of time.
Ito did temper her arguments, however. She noted tablets, due to their portability, can show up in social settings where perhaps we had never considered a digital device and, with hindsight, may have chosen not to allow them in.
On balance, she argues that "history has shown us that new devices tend to reproduce the culture, practices, and values that they are introduced to, whether that is the family, or the culture at large." Where families are already orientated toward "more positive learning content, apps, and content" on tablets, Ito expects positive benefits for kids. Perhaps in families that aren't so positively engaged with their kids learning, it's possible tablets will have less positive learning outcomes.
Similarly, as expert and author Lisa Guernsey pointed out, it's not just about using any old apps with your kids. Some 2-D static media may be better for kids than 3-D tabletified digital media because it's better designed. And research into this sort of experience in very young kids is still brand-new. Apple, for its part, is rumored to be pushing iBooks—which has had a hefty educational spin in the past—as part of the mini's launch.
It's all about moderation and carefully planned-out engagement with youngsters. Think about that in a few months when you see a well-used and be-dazzled iPad mini resting on your kids' desk.
[Image: Flickr user Ernst Vikne]