News Column

New iPads for Toddlers?

December 4, 2010

Theoden Janes


Dec. 05--Tony Jennings thinks he's found the perfect Christmas gift for his daughter.

It's the gift of books, games, music and movies, all rolled into a 11/2-pound slab of gleaming, glowing glass and metal.

The Pineville man knows his 5-year-old is going to love it. "I have told her that she is too young for it, so I think she will be very, very excited," Jennings said.

And what 5-year-old wouldn't love a $499 iPad?

Apple's gadget is hot among adults: A recent survey by ChangeWave Research found that 9 percent of holiday shoppers plan to buy an iPad. It's hot among kids: 31 percent of children age 6-12 named it their most-wanted electronic device in a recent study by the Nielsen Company, beating out Nintendo DSes, Sony PlayStation 3s, even computers.

And, it seems, the iPad is equally coveted by the preschool set, largely because of the content -- everything from alphabet games to electronic sketch pads to animated storybooks -- but also because it's so easy to use, so tactile. The gadget has just one primary button below its 9.7-inch screen, and the environment is manipulated using simple taps and finger swipes.

"The colorful screens, the changing lights, and the fact that Mom and Dad play with them are enough to make any toddler want to play with iPads," said Deborah Best, a developmental psychologist at Wake Forest University.

Quite simply, toddlers can't seem to keep their hands off.

The best way to start a fight in the Martin household? Set Mom and Dad's iPad on the table, then put 5-year-old Wolf on one side and 2-year-old Fox on the other.

Fox wants to tap out tunes on the piano app; Wolf wants to sneak off and watch episodes of "The Family Guy" (although he's not allowed to, and his parents enabled the passcode feature after they caught him the last time).

Melissa Martin of Waxhaw has gotten so frustrated listening to her boys squawk over the gadget that she's been tempted to get a second one.

"It would be ridiculous to spend that kind of money on a luxury item for preschoolers," she said. "However, if the price comes down more or if I find one used on Craigslist, I may consider it."

Forbes estimates that Apple could finish 2010 having sold around 12.5 million iPads, which have been available since April. And it's no minor purchase: Models range from $499 to $829. (Its main competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, runs cheaper at $399 with a two-year contract or $599-$649 without, but lags far behind with just 1 million sold so far.)

Despite the price tag, Michael Craig says that when the next-generation version comes out, he'd like to buy it -- and then pass down the one he owns now to his son.

"I purchased the iPad when he was 31/2 and he immediately took it over," the Charlottean said of his son, now 4. "To him there is almost something magical about the ability to just touch the screen and make things happen. It only took a couple of minutes to show him the basics, and now he navigates it like a pro. He has tried to show his grandparents how to use it to no avail."

For some parents, the gadget serves a similar purpose to the one TVs did when they were kids: as a sort of babysitter. This concerns experts in the same way it did 30 years ago.

"You've got all these kids, instead of figuring out how to interact with people, they're figuring out how to interact with equipment," said Anatoly Belilovsky, a New York pediatrician and child-safety expert. "People will always have to figure out the workings of some sort of inanimate object. But if you think, 'Oh, this is really great, they're going to spend all day with it and I'll have time to do something else' -- that's not necessarily a good thing."

At the same time, Cindy Edwards, a professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, said there are potential educational benefits.

"IPads are immediately responsive and eternally patient. ... These are very kid-accessible pieces of equipment."

"Technology for kids in this generation is like air, it has always been there," Edwards said. "Intuitive and visual technology will appeal to these kids. The iPad with age-appropriate education software is potentially beneficial in helping your child learn."

Some parents strongly agree, and are taking advantage of the opportunity. Jennings plans to load up his daughter's Christmas present with books, and math, spelling and science games. Martin tends to push her two boys toward applications that encourage reading and drawing.

Stephanie O'Neill, a Charlotte mom who has boys ages 2 and 4 (and who has a background as a teacher), explained:

"We get some looks and some flack from older family members who think if the kids are not constantly read to, their brains will atrophy and they are destined for fast-food jobs or prison. But I can attest to the educational value of the apps. ... I actually think it is good parenting to integrate this technology into the children's lives this young. We look up a lot of stuff on YouTube to learn -- everything from videos about lobster fishing to butterflies and strange bugs.

"Of course, the funny part is when they walk up to a regular computer, TV or car GPS and slide their fingers around on it expecting it to respond."

Source: Copyright (c) 2010, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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