Are iPads A Good Teaching Tool for Toddlers?

Dec 19, 2012

A 2011 survey found that 39 percent of 2-to-4-year-olds have used digital media such as smartphones and iPads, reports Rachel Saslow in "Digital devices engage tots, but some experts discourage use before age 2."

While some experts (and parents) see the benefits of introducing technology at a young age, others say the idea of buying an iPad for a toddler is ridiculous and developmentally inappropriate.

Pediatrician Michael Rich and reporter Rachel Saslow discussed the mixed reviews on Wednesday, Dec. 19th.

Hello everyone. There is a Mediatrician in the house! Let's get started.

And welcome to the chat everyone. We're ready for your questions :)

Isn't this question very much affected by "how" media is used? Just like a book, for instance, it's going to be much more useful to the child if the experience is shared, discussed, a social opportunity. It seems that simply shoving a small screen into their hands and a chunk of fruit leather into their mouths and ignoring them (I see this all the time in public places) sadly not only turns what could be shared together time into solitary time, but also encourages the child to isolate from their surroundings and miss observational learning from the surroundings.

This is a very astute observation. How media are used is at least as important, if not more so, than the device. The choice of content that is read or played, with whom the activity is pursued, and especially the interaction between the child and the parent/teacher are critical. It is less ideal, as you observe, to use the device as an electronic babysitter.

Is it necessary for an electronic device (or any toy or media) to actually be educational for it to be an OK thing for a child to use on occasion? Entertaining and harmless in small doses ought to be enough for parents to stop worrying and just take it or leave it.

I think you're right--those types of toys are totally fine in small doses. The line between education and entertainment is very fuzzy for toddlers anyway. The world is so new to them, almost everything they encounter is teaching them something.

Whatever happened to old fashioned childhood entertainment? I live on a farm, and we don't have cable or television or computers. (I came to the local library, 15 miles away, to submit this question, and will come back to this same library to read your response next week). So, are my kids going to suffer for this?

Absolutely not. Many parents worry that if their children do not use media technology early and often that they run the risk of falling behind other children when they get to school, college, and the workplace. There are 2 reasons why this is not true: 1) Put any child in front of a tablet device for about 15 minutes and I guarantee you that they will be doing things that you do not know how to do. Tablets and other interactive devices are increasingly intuitive and transparent in their interfaces, so in many ways kids are better at learning them than we are (less to unlearn). 2) Remember that the iPad is only 2 years old and has completely transformed the way we interact with computers, media and the world itself. The devices that children will be using in the future will be nothing like what they have to practice on now. You actually have an advantage over many families - your children can go outside and learn from the endless variable natural world.

Is there an exception for children with developmental delays? I know of a few parents whose toddlers are on the autistic spectrum and have really taken to the iPad.

iPads and tablets are often very attractive to kids with autism, developmental delays, and learning disabilities because they present much more circumscribed and controlled domains than does the relative chaos of the "real world" even in a classroom setting. There are an increasing number of apps specifically designed for kids on the autism spectrum, but we at the Center on Media and Child Health do not review or endorse specific products because we are too busy conducting and translating the research on media effects on health. There are organizations that do this, however. I would start with the support group for the child's specific issue.

I think it is too easy to say because one type of media has short segments that all types of media will cause kids to have short attention spans. It is up to the professionals to find ways to make the technology a useful tool in educating young toddlers. Just because one approach doesn't work, doesn't mean that others will also fail.

I agree. All screen media are not alike and all screen content is not alike. It is using the devices and content in mindful and directed ways that makes all the difference. Screen media are inherently neither malignant nor helpful, they can be either. They are tools, admittedly ubiquitous and pervasive tools, but like any tool it is how we use them that matters. We give them a positive or negative valence.

I have a long plane ride coming up with my daughter, a precocious 17-month-old. I can sometimes keep her distracted on the plane with goldfish or cookies, but I'd like to distract her with a screen -- iPad, iPhone, whatever will buy me and the rest of the plane a few moments of peace. Is this a good idea? Or will the screen time damage her more than her screaming will damage morale on the plane?

For me, the airplane is the definition of a "whatever works" situation. It's so stressful to travel with a toddler. My daughter, for example, practically eats her body weight in Cheerios when we fly because the chewing keeps her busy (and her ears clear) and buys everyone a few more minutes of sanity. Do I normally feed her that many Cheerios in a sitting? Nope. 

I think the same principle applies for iPad and iPhones. On the plane--go for it. Maybe not for the entirety of a 5-hour cross-country flight (I'm no doctor, but that can't be good for her eyes!), but in between snacks, walks up and down the aisle, reading books, etc. 

Get a grip, parents. *Nothing* you can do for the duration of even a long plane flight--with the exception of physical abuse--is going to damage your child in any lasting way.

Thanks for the thought provoking article. Since iPads are expensive, will this further exacerbate the income-gap differences in early childhood education?

This is a very important question. As tablets have exploded in popularity, many, especially Android devices, have become less and less expensive. Not only are they more affordable, but they are now owned by many folks with lower incomes. In fact, mobile devices like tablets and smartphones have gone a long way toward erasing the "digital divide" originally seen between the "haves" and the "have nots" when broadband connection of expensive home computers was the only effective way of using the web.

People who write guidelines for child development seem to never have children of their own. If you have to be on a cross-country airplane flight, or waiting for 45 minutes at the doctor's office, or you've just had a long day and your spouse is working late and you have two toddlers, then giving a child a tablet for entertainment is perfectly reasonable to me. I don't think my son is learning a lot from playing "Where's My Perry?", but he really enjoys his various games, and he has picked up a few things from these games. More than watching TV, for sure. As an aside, I don't get the Apple focus. There are tablets other than iPads -- we have a Nexus 7 and it's the perfect size for a 3-year-old. It also costs a lot less than an iPad, since he's likely to break it at some point.

Since I am one of those people who write child development guidelines and I have 4 children, and since many of my coleagues who also do it have children, I am not sure that your perception is correct. In fact, many of us are in this area of research and education because we have children. We are responding to our own parenting needs and curiosity as much as we are pursuing an abstract academic goal. I think that we, as a culture, have slid without noticing  into patterns that use screen media a diversions so we can get dinner on the table or take a shower. Remember, until 1947 when TV was introduced in the US, parents, who often had much larger families than we have today, got dinner on the table just fine. Perhaps we need to think creatively about other activities to occupy the kids rather than default to the screen.

We were early purchasers of the iPad (gift for my wife for all those Thursday nights when I was off bowling). I also have twin sons on the autism spectrum. I was struck by how they interacted with the iPad and it's turned into a good teaching tool. We limit screen time, but I think it's been a plus for my (now) first graders.

My baby likes the iPhone and the iPad, but she also likes to throw it, drop it and hit it against the table. She also seems to think she can fit an entire iPhone into her mouth. How do I encourage her to treat these technological delicacies with a bit more care?

Well, it's a bit comical for me to be anything like an "expert" on this topic, considering that my toddler daughter routinely throws her sippy cups against the floor and toys against the wall.

We have had some success teaching her the concept of "gentle touch." We say the words "gentle touch" and quietly pat her arm to show her what it means. (We were trying to teach our daughter how to pet the dog rather than pull her fur.) Now, if she's being too rough with the dog, we can say the cue words "gentle touch" and she reverently will pet the dog. It's pretty cute. Maybe you can come up with similar cue words? And, of course, praise your baby's positive behavior.

What do you think about the use of TV screens in cars? I see them all the time entertaining kids around town. It's likely that many of these trips are short hops around town, not looooong car trips. All that passive entertainment made me wonder whether these kids would develop the ability to entertain themselves, look out the window and daydream, etc.

This is a very important observation. There is a good amount of research supporting the concept that it is through experiences such as car rides that kids learn 1) to self-calm and 2) to daydream and get creative. Interestingly, while our collective average IQ (which is measured by how quickly and accurately we access information) has been steadily rising with the Information Age, our collective CQ (Creativity Quotient) has gone down. Remember, when Einstein was asked how he came up with the theory of relativity while a patent officer in Switzerland, he said it was because he was bored...

We are a fairly low-media outdoorsy household, although my husband has an iPhone and I recently got a Kindle Fire...I was astonished how quickly our 18-month-old picked up on how to navigate through photos and even push "play" on a video. I try to be mindful of my own screen time knowing she will imitate what she sees us do. (In addition, I am one of those people who is very annoyed at how an incoming text message can supercede the actual conversation you are having with an actual person who is occupying the same space!!!) Do you have any general suggestions for an appropriate amount of parental usage of these devices in front of kids? (None? Some, but make sure it is less than the time you actually spend interacting with your children?)

Children hear 1% of what we say and 100% of what we do, so not only do these devices distract us from them and the verbal and physical interactions with us that are more optimal for brain development, but we are modeling distracted behavior for them and indirectly telling them that what is on our iPad is more important than they are... I don't think that absolute time limits are a good idea for a lot of reasons, so I usually suggest that we think about each media device and the content or connectivity it offers as a tool and use that tool when it is the best one for the job at hand, putting it down when it is not. There are some wonderful apps for learning or just fun that you can do with your children, but it is being with you that is most important to them, so snuggling on your lap as you read a book, or dancing with you to music can often be a far more emotionally satisfying and neurodevelopmentally optimal experience for both of you.

Why is this specifically about iPads and not tablets in general? Are the non Apple tablets not viable teaching tools?

The same pediatric health principles apply to all touch-screen tablets. I didn't intend the article to be an ad for Apple, but since they pioneered the technology, people often use 'iPad' as a shorthand for 'tablet.' I recall the same thing happening a decade or so ago with 'iPod' and 'mp3 player.'

Our 3-year-old wants to be able to play what he sees his 6-year-old brother play. Sometimes he is willing to redirect to something appropriate for his age and skills, but other times he really wants to be able to play the other game, even though he doesn't have the skills to do it. Thoughts on how to address this?

This is a question that has concerned parents from the days of TV only - how to deal with siblings of different ages. In general, people tend, in their prenatal pride, to put most kids, including the older ones, in front of media that their state of normal brain development does not allow them to to take full advantage of. Each child is an individual and parents know their children better than anybody. So if your instinct is that the shared media experience is not optimal for both kids, consider shifting them to an activity that they can both enjoy and interact with at their respective levels. Building with blocks or make-believe play are much more developmentally flexible (in the sense that kids can come to them on different developmental levels in a productive and satisfying way) than are media.

The phrase "tied to his mother's apron strings" used to be literal. Women tied their small children to them so they couldn't crawl/toddle away while they worked at the sink or elsewhere in the home. The species managed to thrive anyway.

Sorry, I get so annoyed when people use that excuse. "In my day, we used to ____ and we all survived!" I don't think that's a high enough benchmark for parenting. I am in favor of parents calming down about their decisions and not worrying that every little thing is going to ruin their kids, though.

Also, I didn't know the origins of that phrase "tied to his mother's apron strings" and I'm very amused by it! 

To quote Homer Simpson: "Everything's perfect about the past, except how it led to the present."

My 2-year-old has been using our iPad since he has been about 8 months old. He knows how to use it well and knows how to go to his favorite aps. We have some educational apps loaded, including flash cards that are teaching him how to speak clearly, games that teach him colors and shapes, and other kid-friendly entertainment. My husband and I have tried to limit his use of it, but he asks for it daily. I sometimes get concerned that he has an unhealthy addiction to it. Even though he loves reading real books and playing with his toys, he does use the iPad daily. I know that the way our kids are learning these days are way different than how we learned, and the way they learn in the future will be even more "advanced." But I still wonder if there are any negative impacts of his use, other than overuse.

Routines are very comforting to children and they will seek to establish and maintain them, as much as possible. This applies to snack at a certain time, a bedtime story, virtually eveything that a child does. The issue that is unique to screen media and tablets in particular is that many of the apps or programs are easier and "suck them in" with less effort than a book or blocks or going outside and exploring. Apps and games are designed to draw users in and keep them in in order to sell more apps or to grab attention to advertising. If what your son is doing is productive and the tablet is the best tool for doing it, then it would be good to limit his use to one cycle of his attention span, 15-20 minutes in a 2 year old, then change to something else. Also, do it at different times of day so that he does not become dependent on it as part of the routine. Then there may be hell to pay on the day that you need to use the tablet during "his time." 

Another side effect of TV in cars is that my 16 year old nephew who's learning to drive has no idea how to get around or where to go in his own home town. And the reason is because he's never looked out the window of the car. When I was a kid, the window was our TV. That said, I would have LOVED to have a TV in the car as a kid.

That's really interesting. I wouldn't completely blame the TV for his navigational difficulties though. It's hard to learn your way around streets from the passenger seat or backseat of a car. 

Frequently, if my kids are playing on a computer, phone, or watching a movie, they get so engrossed in it that it is difficult to pull their attention away from the media item. Is this something that we should be concerned about? They are 3 and 6 years old.

This is the media doing exactly what they are designed to do (capture and hold users' attention) in the context of young children who, as part of their normal development, have little impulse control. So you should not be concerned in the sense of them being "abnormal" or "unhealthy" in some way, but you should follow your instincts and move them on to other activities when they have finished a taks or a program, so they don't get into the "glazed stare at the screen just because it is moving" state.

Parents chattering on their cells while their babies sit unnoticed and awake in the stroller, instead of talking to the child and pointing out things in the environment. In fact, that's one of the ways you can tell parents from nannies--the nannies are focused on the kids, the parents are focused on their phones. I pay more attention to my dog than a lot of people give their kids while they have them out for a walk. (2nd pet peeve: school-aged kids being pushed in strollers.)

I hear you, but it's also really tough to be "on" as a parent all the time. I stay home with my daughter four days a week and there's no way that every minute I'm engaging with her at my absolute highest capacity. ("Where is your ball? What color is it? Is that a RED BALL?" God, I'm exhausted just typing it.) It's just not possible, or probably desirable for the child. I doubt my daughter wants me in her face at all times. There are times that she'd really rather crawl around and explore her environment. 

Our computer has a 1 hour/day limit that logs our son out when he's used up his allotted time. As he gets into using the computer for school work, should we adjust that time? If he is generally a kid who jumps at the chance to do outside activities and loves interacting, is there still a benefit of imposing comprehensive screen-time limits on days when going outside just isn't viable?

Depending on the age of your son, the goal is to teach him to self-regulate and manage his time rather than to impose an external limit. This is why I do not recommend specific limits on screen time but rather to teach them to "build their day" making sure they plan enough sleep, outdoor play, a sit-down family meal, homework, etc. then see how much time and attention are left for media. This gives them a sense of control as well as practice in prioritizing and managing their time and effort.

Thanks everyone for reading the article and participating in the chat.

Thank you for this stimulating discussion. If you have further questions, you can find me at AskThe Mediatrician.org and for further discussion, check out and Like the Center on Media and Child Health Facebook page. Have a healthy and safe holiday season!

In This Chat
Michael Rich
Michael Rich, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, came to medicine after a twelve-year career as a filmmaker, including serving as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on "Kagemusha."

As the Mediatrician and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital, Rich combines his creative experience with rigorous scientific evidence to advise pediatricians, parents and other caregivers on how to use media to optimize child health and development.

Rich is the recipient of the American Academy of Pediatrics Holroyd-Sherry Award and the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine New Investigator Award. He has developed media-based research methodologies, authored numerous papers and AAP policy statements and makes regular national press appearances.
Rachel Saslow
Rachel Saslow is a former Washington Post editorial aide. She lives in the District with her family and writes on parenting and health topics.
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