My wife and I sat down at a nice restaurant last week. Our table was right next to a larger party of four adults and two young children — both girls under the age of 7 years old or so.
Each of the girls had her own iPad, and each iPad had some high-end noise-cancellation headphones plugged in. One girl was engrossed in a children’s movie, and the other was enjoying a series of apps designed for kids.
So of course I whipped out MY iPad and blogged about it.
Granted, this scene took place in Silicon Valley, where there’s no such thing as an inappropriate social context for consumer technology and, in fact, in the very town where Steve Wozniak lives (Los Gatos). Still, it was a remarkable scene, and one that will be repeated across the nation as the iPad phenomenon spreads.
Letting kids use or own iPads is controversial. Parents, teachers and others aren’t so sure about letting kids get sucked into yet another electronic diversion. Pilot programs at a few schools around the country to experiment with iPad-based learning tools are often met with criticism by parents and teachers alike.
Everybody’s asking: Are iPads healthy for children?
I’m here to tell you: That’s the wrong question.
The iPad is scary because it’s new. But most parents have already accepted a gigantic role for something truly in the lives of their children: television. The content kids see on their TV sets is mostly mind-numbing, soul-deadening, formulaic consumerist crap, punctuated by sophisticated ad campaigns designed to transform children into mindless consumers.
When parents complain about inappropriate shows or advertising on TV, they’re told by society: Well, you should watch TV with your kids and discuss the programming, or get a V chip.
Gosh, thanks, society!
As any parent will tell you, managing what kids watch on TV is far easier said than done. Real life is busy and hectic. Working families undergo pressures from every direction, and spend their days scrambling to keep up. Parents simply don’t have time to lord over their children’s media consumption. The reality is that for a long list of reasons, American parents let their kids watch TV. A lot of TV.
Kids spend more time watching TV than they do in class (1,500 hours on TV per year vs. 900 hours in school).
More than two-thirds of daycare centers let kids watch TV during day-care hours.
One-quarter of preschoolers, half of school age children and two-thirds of teenagers have TV sets in their bedrooms. Two thirds of American families watch TV while eating dinner.
It gets worse: The average American child watches 20,000 TV commercials per year. The number-one category of product advertised on children’s TV shows is junk food. And even children’s shows themselves have constant references and even product placement for the worst kind of junk food.
I could go on for pages. The bottom line is that TV is a massive, negative, toxic, unhealthy influence in the lives of American children. I think parents already know this.
Television dominates childhood for a very simple reason: It satisfies everyone’s basic requirements. Children want to be stimulated with humor, drama, fun and novelty. Parents need a break.
That’s why fearing the iPad is such a colossal error. The iPad isn’t a new problem. The iPad is a new solution to an old problem.
By *replacing* TV time with iPad use, parents can dramatically improve the lives of their children.
From a parent’s perspective, the iPad is superior to a TV in every significant way:
* The iPad has far fewer, far less harmful ads than TV. It can even be rendered “commercial-free.” Imagine that.
* The iPad is interactive, for the most part, rather than passive. Instead of just staring motionless at TV, kids could be solving puzzles, actively playing games, typing, drawing and other activities.
* Parents can control iPad content. The App Store contains literally thousands of educational children’s books, games and other apps. By not sharing the iTunes password with children, parents can have total control over what’s on that iPad. By not connecting it to the Wi-Fi network, parents can easily prevent even Internet surfing.
* The iPad can be made age-appropriate. Who knows what kids are watching on TV in their bedrooms? It’s common for children to be attracted to programming for teens, and for teens to watch programming for adults.
* The iPad can be taken outside.
* The iPad can encourage the following of curiosity and discovery. By loading that sucker with a huge number of educational programs, kids can explore and search and discover what their interests really are, rather than being spoon-fed a celebrity-obsessed, shallow and limited set of interests by the commercial-driven TV industry.
* The iPad builds skills. By using an iPad, children can learn typing, multi-touch navigation, problem solving (with puzzles and games) and many other skills. Watching TV imparts zero valuable skills.
* The iPad can actually facilitate parenting. One example of many is a new app called “You Did It!,” which lets kids earn points for doing their chores.
Rather than fretting about whether an iPad is unhealthy for their kids, parents should instead be thanking their lucky stars that something highly educational and parent-controllable has finally come along that kids enjoy using at least as much as the TV.
If you want to argue that electronic, screen-driven devices *in general* are bad for kids, I can’t really disagree with that. But if you believe that iPads are worse than the TV kids are already watching — well, that’s an argument I’d love to hear.
My advice to parents: Unplug that TV and run, don’t walk, to Toys R Us and buy each of your kids an iPad 2 — before TV turns them into “average Americans.”