Does my toddler (digitod) need an iPad?

Does my toddler (digitod) need an iPad?
By Patti Wollman Summers

I sat at a computer with my granddaughters one day, trying to locate a website that 4 yr-old Sandy had requested.  A confirmed Mac user, I was having difficulty figuring out a PC. Sandy was waiting politely when her 22 month-old sister Sage uttered the first complete sentence I had ever heard her speak. It was “Grandma, you have to double-click.” That’s when I knew I was in a different universe.

Today’s toddlers are different from any children who have come before them. In the three and a half years since Steve Jobs introduced it, the iPad has changed their ability to learn. Mobile digital devices have, in fact, changed everything.

HOW:  As my colleague Heather Leathers points out, there is no barrier to entry. It is easy for toddlers to manipulate an iPad. By the time they are 12-14 months old, they have all the requisite skills. A toddler can point, swipe, and with a newfound ability to use a pincer grip, he or she can pinch and zoom.WHY:  Naturally, use of the iPad is a prized activity, because one the first things babies see in their environment is that their parents are working on digital devices. So these children, whom we call digitods, are eager to go as soon as they can get their hands on a digital device.

As my colleague Dr. Ann de Sollar points out, there are no conclusive scientific studies about how the use of these devices affects children’s brains, because not enough time has passed for a longitudinal study. But while we are waiting, software developers have produced many applications specifically designed to teach very young children. There are many thousands of these apps, and digitods are loving them. That’s because something has changed in the way children learn.

WHAT: Learning is so appealing to digitods because no one is putting pressure on them to get the right answer. No well-meaning parent is quizzing a child on their letters or numbers and making a disappointed face if the child gives the wrong response.  Unlike a parent, an app doesn’t care how many times you try. Whenever a digitod gets the right answer, the app gives verbal praise (“Great job!”), and often a reward like a digital sticker.

So kids develop an enthusiasm for learning. I have seen many digitods who can’t speak fluidly yet but can count to 20, and name all their shapes and colors.

That is a great way to learn, but cognitive, or intellectual learning is just one kind of knowledge. Children also have to develop friendships, express their emotions and have plenty of time for physical activity.  Without social, emotional and physical growth, our children will not have the requisite skills to be a complete human being.

So what is the best way to help children growing up in an increasingly digital world? 

Don’t forbid the iPad; just control its usage.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. -Limit your digitod’s time on a digital device. If you can, develop a daily routine, such as 20 minutes in the morning or in the early afternoon. (Don’t allow iPad time just before bed: all that brain activity can make it difficult for young children to settle down into sleep. That goes for parents, too!)
  1. -Make sure that children are looking at age-appropriate apps. Our book TODDLERS ON TECHNOLOGY has many reviews of apps which are good for children from 1 to 7.
  1. -After your digitod has enjoyed time alone with the iPad, put it away and get up! You want to make sure your digitods are learning in every area of development by introducing other related activities. If your digitod has looked at an app about animals, for example, then look at photos of animals in a book. Or better yet, go to a zoo! Invite a friend along. Take photos of the animals and see if they look or sound like the ones in the app. See if your friend agrees with you. These “seesaw activities” are crucial to developing a child’s humanity as they balance the digital world and the real one.
  1. -As your digitod grows older, make sure that you include apps that speak to values as well as cognition. There are apps that focus on recycling, helping other people or caring for animals. The most important lesson an app can teach children of four and over is the development of empathy.
The digital world is here to stay. Refusing to allow your young child to participate in its glories and recognize its limitations while you can still guide them is folly. It’s better to figure out the messages you want your digitod to learn and present them in a balanced way, with real-life activities complementing screen time. Let’s all strive to help our children get the most out of this new aspect of life while developing all the other wonderful qualities that make us truly human.

Patti Wollman Summers obtained two masters degrees, the first in English from SUNY Buffalo and the second in early childhood education from Bank Street College. She has been a teacher, director and consultant for over three decades. She holds additional experience as a teacher of parent-child classes featuring an integration of iPad Apps and is a published author.