The iPad Mini Will Be Bad For Your Kids. Discuss

If Apple's iPad mini bursts onto the scene on Oct. 23 with a low price as expected, it'll end up in the sticky clutches of millions of kids. To some, this is not good.

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.

The Kids Love 'Em

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.

We also know that schools across the world are leaping to buy iPads, and one private Australian school recently required all kids between 7 and 10 to have their own.

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.

But iPads Are Bad

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.

Unless They Are Good

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.

Everything In Moderation

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]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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25 Comments

  • sudhiir

    Hello these are the first teachers___Yes children learn much quickly on ipad than traditional, don't say that they should live as we do, and don't feel bad you don't have one at those time...

  • Kompia

    Balance is the key of everything. Got a friend's kid at age of 2 years already started to have ability to spell correctly. Asked the secret, he learnt from watching educational channel. However, not every kid will be him. Each has their own learning pattern and way to absorb knowledge.

  • Huggers55

    Everything in moderation is good for our kids. Especially the children who have learning problems. These kids especially would benefit from any type of education programmes on a tablet or computer. Who cares which one.

  • rizdak

    ""iPads Are Bad...Though this paper doesn't explicitly mention tablets"

    That is the crappiest journalistic reference that I've seen in a long time.

  • A. Newman

    Why even let a 10 yr old on an iPad? How does it benefit them in anway. Our family has no iPads, and no HDTVs, and we are just fine. We have one budget laptop and two tube tvs which are relativley small. We make do. iPad≠Children.

  • Zeeshan

    I and my wife as parent agree that we should let kid develop its observation, empathy and social skills and screens like iPads are not very healthy. However there is a new dilemma, our 4 year son feels alienated with other kids who are playing with iPad like experts and he is just looking over their shoulder trying to figure what is going on. So we are seriously considering buying him one so he doesn't feel left one, however with supervision and balance. 

  • Sean Hockabout

    This is perhaps the most ridiculous notion I've heard in a long time. My kids have had access to my iPod Touch, and now a Kindle since they we're age 3 and 5 respectively. Now 7 and 9, they're in running club at school, have gymnastics once a week (though they're constantly doing cartwheels in the living room every day), and having access to handheld touch devices hasn't adversely affected their physical activity. When I was a kid I probably spent more time playing Coleco Football, than they spend with a touch device, and I played soccer, baseball, and football.

    A new smaller iPad, may be easier for smaller hands than a regular iPad, but the iPod Touch is much smaller, yet I don't remember an outcry about the iPod Touch. This just sounds like a story-troll, looking for notoriety.

  • Maniam

    Limiting screen total screen time to an hour or two for a day (all types of screens) may be the solution...If the new generation finds it easier to learn from these gadgets then there is no harm but too much of games, video, disney channel and social networking can definitely be harmful to their health and eyesight which is deteriorating for the kids..More and more kids wear glasses with high power due to more screen time per day

  • nell

    "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."  .....err. I guess you *can* argue that? 

  • Phillipo

    my children use iPads and macbooks in school for a learning purpose only and my childrens grades have excelled from 1 a and 4 bs and the rest cs to 5 as and 5 bs it is amazing but that was only after they started using technology for their learning purpose

  • nell

    The fact is that if kids are on iPads, they're not engaging with the world around them, learning to be observant and understand how people interact with each other. When a toddler is sitting in a cart at the grocery store, for example, he or she is soaking up a ton of information. If they're on an iPad or a smartphone, they're not interacting with other people or observing their surroundings, which means they're missing out on a highly critical period of development. There's plenty of time for tech--even once kids are five or six some supervised iPad time is probably a good thing--but they need those true infant years to grow brains that can understand and analyze that big old world that occurs outside the screen.

  • EDULCET

    Agreed, the technology isn't the problem. It's what the parent allows the children to do with it that matters. Ipads have  plenty of educational apps, and many more apps that could be considered the opposite. The whole issue here lays in the decisions that the parents will make in what the children will be allowed to access.

  • Nathan Zeldes

    I doubt that lumping together TV and iPad ("Inactivity associated with TV and computer watching") is justified. Both may have their problems, but TV watching is 100% passive/vegetative, whereas computer use is interactive, puts higher and different demands on cognition, and since the arrival of social media is even - well - Social, in a novel but very real way. The only reason to speak of a total "Screen Time" is if you think the LCD screen harms the kids' eyes or irradiates their brain or something; otherwise each technology merits its own study.

  • Greg Carney

    Apps are the key, for anyone with a toddler that can learn math and the alphabet before the age of three from Monkey Playschool apps will tell you, there is a huge reason to back tablet devices. Sure moderation is a key element, but anytime you can create something that gets your kids to learn and have fun at the same time, it's tough to tell me that is a bad thing.

  • jameskaiser

    Now kids will only lose you 250-300 dollars when breaking your iPad mini instead of the 500-700 on a full size iPad. Hooray!

  • Brad Zimmer

    Screen time isn't great  for kids - we all know that.  Oddly though, very few adult jobs don't necessitate screen engagement on an almost continuous basis, which is also bad.  Sitting in a cubicle, bathed in that cold blue glow while you're circulatory system attempts to reconcile sedentary  with the years and years of movement that preceded is a "normal."  A rotten, rotten normal.  

    I don't like that my four year old is a fan of my smartphone, our tablet, the laptop and the television, and that moments where we're not actively out and about are a fight to get him to engage with the physical world - "Why don't you play with your legos?  What about your tracks and Matchbox cars?  You want to make a fort out of pillows and blankets?"  Nope..."I want Bad Piggies."Truth told, I'm waiting for a backlash that may never find a catalyst; where people insist that screen based technology be less invasive and present in their personal and professional lives.  If "shiny rectangle time" isn't compulsory (work based) it's a hamster-wheel of questionable utility; there's just not that much content worth consuming.

    Seems trite and less than thoughtful to indict parents for absenteeism here when, increasingly, the world is built this way.  Tried a job search without the benefit of the internet lately?  

    My son's pre-k doesn't allow televisions in the school.  They do crafts, run around like little lunatics, burn through countless pallets of manila paper and boxes of Popsicle sticks.  It's chaotic, wasteful, of questionable quantifiable value, and lovely as hell.  

    Maybe more of the world should work this way.