Chinese parents know all too well how handy iPads can be when it comes to keeping kids nice and (educationally) distracted – according to a Fudan University study (via Shanghaiist), 80% of the kids in the families they surveyed are "obsessed" with iPads:
Professor Cao Jin interviewed 100 children and their parents at a kindergarden in Yangpu District, finding that 42.6 percent of parents who owned an iPad bought it for themselves, half of them bought it for their children to use alongside them, and 7.2 percent of them bought an iPad strictly for their children.
… Many adults and children are becoming "obsessed" with their iPads, Cao said, to the point where "They cannot sleep without it," and 80 percent of children "reacted emotionally" when their iPads were taken away. Electronic devices are creating social barriers within the family household, Cao found during the survey. "Dad was playing computer games; mom was watching American soap drama while the kid was sliding his or her fingers on the [iPad] screen. No one talks to others anymore," Cao said. The survey showed that a third of children used the iPad between 30 minutes to an hour a day and 64.4 percent of children used it between 10 to 30 minutes a day.
The debate over the pros and cons of iPads and kids has been going on for as long as the device has been on the market, but no one can definitively say how and to what extent interacting with such devices are affecting children’s brains.
Last year at this time, the Wall Street Journal wrote:
A young child will look away from a TV screen 150 times an hour, says Daniel Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. His studies over the past 30 years also showed children have trouble knowing where on a TV screen to look. A well-designed iPad app is more engaging because often the place on the screen that a child touches is the same as where the action happens.
Many researchers hope this will help children learn. One study using an iPod Touch and sponsored by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found children 4- to 7-years-old improved on a vocabulary test after using an educational app called "Martha Speaks." The 13 5-year-olds tested averaged a 27% gain. A study using a different educational app had a similar result, with 3-year-olds exhibiting a 17% gain.
But further down in the same article:
In many ways, the average toddler using an iPad is a guinea pig. While the iPad went on sale two years ago, rigorous, scientific studies of how such a device affects the development of young children typically take three to five years.
There is "little research on the impact of technology like this on kids," says Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The iPad and similar devices allow children to interact with technology at a younger age than ever before. Tiny fingers not yet old enough to manipulate a mouse or operate a videogame console can navigate a tablet touch screen.
… In the list of parental worries about tablet use: that it will make kids more sedentary and less sociable. There’s also the mystery of just what is happening in a child’s brain while using the device.
The brain develops quickest during the first few years of a child’s life. At birth, the human brain has formed about 2,500 synapses—the connections that allow the brain to pass along signals—per brain cell. That number grows to about 15,000 per brain cell by age 3. In later years, the number decreases.
The more television children watch during these formative years, Dr. Christakis says, the more likely they are to develop attention problems later on. The study was based on observation, not lab research, he says. Other studies haven’t found a correlation. While he hasn’t studied tablets and young children, he suspects the effect could be similar—or perhaps more significant. "One of the strengths of the iPad"—it is interactive—"may be the weakness," Dr. Christakis says.
It’s been over a year since this article was published and the jury is still out on what, exactly, is going on in those little brains as they stare entranced at those touch screens. No doubt those little synapses are firing and fusing as they learn from those apps and interactive stories, but at what point is all that tech-time too much and in fact, counterproductive?
There is nothing inherently bad with exposing your kids to technology at an early age (not too early, mind you) and as the Cooney Study suggests, there are probably very tangible educational benefits – if your 5-year-old wants you to read her an interactive story or play a numbers game on your smartphone, by all means, go for it.
But remember to follow a few simple rules of thumb – keep the brightness settings low and her screen-viewing time well under control (we try to stick with 10 minutes max each time, and never right before bedtime). You should also talk to your child about what stories and games she’s reading and playing – make sure the iPad is truly a learning tool and not just another barrier to communication. And most importantly, set the example yourself – there’s more to life than sitting transfixed in front of a screen – get out of the house and spend due time (at least two hours outside, according to experts) with your kids.