To iPad or not to iPad, that is the question

Wanna start a brawl? At the next gathering of parents you attend, ask what they think of giving an iPad to a child, step back and watch the fur fly.

One side is sure that by setting Junior up with the latest swell electronics they are paving the way to increased productivity, enhanced creativity, and a lifetime of super visual acuity. There’s a lot of research to support the idea that the wise use of an iPad or iPod Touch (same idea, just smaller, and less expensive) can engage children in brain-stimulating activity, using puzzles, logic games and highly interactive multimedia entertainment that encourages reading and vocabulary development. These parents might also tout the increase in brain activity of a child engaging with an iPad versus one planted in front of a TV. They might even note with relief that the iPad takes some of the pressure from them so they can have an adult conversation with a friend or get some work done in peace, often on their own electronic gadget of choice.

The other side is equally convinced that the iPad is just another road marker on the highway to an electronic hell devoid of human connection, healthy outdoor exercise, the ability to focus on a non-electronic task or process and store information effectively. Not to mention lost childhood and actual physical injury. These opponents often direct their anger at what they see as a stunning lack of responsibility on the part of parents who have substituted gadget-time for face-time. And they too can cite research to support their positions, some of which shows that kids that engage excessively with electronics may not be giving their brains enough downtime to process and store information, diminishing retention and learning, and that the task-switching inherent to these kinds of devices diminishes the ability to concentrate on an activity, oh, say, like homework. No one disputes that sitting still with an iPad in one’s lap does not encourage healthy outdoor exercise.

Given the often heated nature of this debate it might be dangerous to jump into the fray and try to suggest that at least in some aspects, they’re both right. There are numerous ways that the iPad can enhance education, in the classroom and out of it. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of fun apps that promote logical thinking, problem solving, vocabulary development, reading and comprehension for all ages. That said, early childhood education experts are quite clear: there is NO substitute for engaged parenting. All the iPad apps in the world can’t replace talking with and explaining things to children, responding to their questions and guiding their explorations.  And while learning to problem solve and think critically in computer environments has merit, spending downtime in the great out-of-doors, electronics-less, hiking and exploring, building forts and jumping in leaf piles may actually do more for the processing and storing parts of learning than more playtime on the iPad. And while more and more books, from children’s board books to the classics to the latest New York Times bestsellers are available as ebooks, there’s nothing like a book made of paper and a flashlight under the covers.

There is a place for technology in our lives and the lives of our children. It’s our job as adults and as parents to ensure that we and our children practice moderation in this, as in all things.

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