The day the iPad 2 was released last year, I watched a young boy playing with his shiny new Apple device while on a BART train to San Francisco, his beaming father standing behind him. Since then, I've seen many kids playing games, watching movies and tapping around the Web on their iPads—and each time, I got a feeling of dread.
Should children have iPads? I don't think so.
Perhaps I'm holding on to a false belief that children should be outside playing football or tapping their imagination with dolls and action figures. Perhaps I'm simply harking back to my youth. I remember how my father expected me to mow lawns when I was kid, just like he used to do.
But the iPad clearly is not a lawn mower or a playground.
Let's face it, iPad isolation can lead to poor social skills at a time when kids are just learning how to interact with each other. The iPad is supposed to be a creative device but instead blunts the imagination with rigid apps that define reality and choices, as opposed to a child's boundless thinking.
As Apple prepares for the unveiling of the next iPad on March 7 in San Francisco, the iFaithful are downright giddy with excitement, like children on Christmas Eve. Soon there will be new iPads in tiny hands. One out of three parents is willing to buy or has already bought their children iPads, according to a recent iYogi Insights survey.
On the flip side, the iYogi survey also shows a majority of parents who won't buy their children iPads. What are their reasons? Thirty-four percent think the iPad will keep their children from making more friends, while 50 percent believe their kids are better off playing outdoors.
Proponents will tell you that the iPad prepares children for the digital future. But doesn't this, too, sound familiar? In fact, this was the same reasoning used to convince parents to buy computers in 1984 when I was a teenager. During that summer, three of us kids spent entire days playing a game on the computer instead of shooting hoops with friends. (I can't even remember the name of the game.)
Critics might point out that I'm a tech reporter and perhaps my early exposure to computers pushed me that way. My retort would be that job opportunities were few and far between for an English literature major in love with Shakespearean tragedies in 1993. Tech reporting was the easiest entry point into journalism.
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Beyond elementary grade levels, Apple is making a huge push to make the iPad a standard student device in high schools across the country. Last month, Apple unveiled iBooks 2 for the iPad, a storefront for multimedia high school textbooks, and iBooks Author, a Mac app for creating multimedia textbooks.
At colleges, tech isolation predates the iPad and has been growing at a steady clip. A college square used to be a social Mecca buzzing with activity and conversation. Today, students listen to iPods or have their noses buried in laptops, a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement not unlike cubicle work life.
Then there are the mind-boggling reasons for buying your kid an iPad. In the iYogi survey, 57 percent of parents with two children or more would be happy to use the iPad to keep their kids out of their hair. Who would have thought the iPad makes a good babysitter?
In the professional world, the iPad has gained a kind of heightened status. A salesperson whipping out his iPad looks a lot cooler than his competitor lugging around a two-inch thick binder. Perhaps prideful parents get iPads to improve their kid's social status.
To be fair, the App Store offers many great learning apps.
Almost all of the parents in the iYogi survey who were willing to buy their child an iPad approved of its use as a homework tool. The iPad has been heralded as nothing less than a miracle for helping autistic students and disabled adults like Kevin Berg communicate. Multimedia e-textbooks created on iBooks Author and running on the iPad may one day revolutionize teaching at high schools.
Let's not forget that children of all ages can learn from basic reading, too, and the iPad has been billed as a great reading device: "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Anderson ($7), a read-aloud picture book for children, "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle ($10) for elementary students, and Shakespeare in Bits: "Macbeth" iPad Edition by the Bard ($15) app are all examples of classic books reimagined on the iPad.
There's just one problem: Of all the kids and young adults I've seen with iPads, including the boy on the train, not one was reading an e-book.