Should young children use iPads?

Experts quoted in a December 17, 2012 Washington Post article—including Michael Rich, MPH ’97 and an associate professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard School of Public Health—raised doubts about the wisdom of allowing very young children to use iPads. Rich, who also directs the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, questioned the iPad’s benefits as a teaching tool and suggested that, like television, it could lower children’s attention spans.

Apps on the iPad and on smartphones typically focus only on one type of learning—“skills and drills”—such as prompting kids to moo when they see a cow on screen, Rich said. “What’s more important at this age is learning how to learn rather than mimicking something,” he told the Post.

Rich said using the iPad to quiet children could backfire. “You can see how a kid who already has difficulty paying attention is put in front of the television to chill him out,” he said. “It becomes a self-fulfulling prophecy.”

Although children enjoy iPad apps such as finger painting, Rich countered that “the iPad does not give you that great feeling of paint squishing through your fingers. As much of a pain as that is for parents, think how much kids are learning about cause and effect. Not only can they draw pictures, they can make their hair all green and get a real reaction from Mom.” He added that if parents do allow their children to use an iPad, they should sit and play with them. “The fact that Mom hugs the child when she gets something right, the tone in Mom’s voice—none of that can be conveyed by the iPad,” he said.

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Department of Society, Human Development, and Health