If you're considering an iPad—or other device—for your kids, here are some questions to consider first:
Which on-screen activities will this replace?
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that the average American child consumes almost 11 hours of media per day, fitting that into about 7.5 hours of actual screen time thanks to multitasking. Unless your kid has a couple more hands than mine does, you probably can't get them to multitask a lot more than they are now, so adding another device into the mix will see that whopping 7.5 hours extend even further to accommodate yet another distraction. In our home, we've tried to keep the total amount of screen time more or less constant by turning off the TV whenever we see that both kids have their noses buried in an iPad.
How will I control my kids' use of this device?
If it were as easy to find a pen in our house as it is to find a computer, I expect our oldest kid would already have written her first novel. At this point it feels like every surface of our house is covered with some kind of computing device: a pile of game controllers on the ottoman, a couple of laptops on the dining room table, iPads on the sofa and iPhones scattered across the coffee table. While it's reassuring to know I'm never more than 30 seconds away from finding Wikipedia's answer to the question of whether dogs can eat dogwood trees, the ubiquity of our computing devices also makes it very hard to patrol the kids' tech time. Our best ally has been the password protection built into the iPads, iPhones and computers: While it's a tiny bit inconvenient to enter a password every time we want to use our own machines, it means the kids can't play with an iPad without first asking us to unlock it. Just don't let the kids see the password as you're typing.
How can this device promote more family interaction?
My daughter has only recently started to read, so I was surprised to find her peering over my shoulder as I played a game of Chicktionary, an iPad word-search game that attaches letters to animated chickens. Sure enough, she found some words of her own, and Chicktionary has now turned into an activity we can enjoy together—while working on her language skills. It's hard for two people to simultaneously play with a single phone, but it's easy for two kids (or a kid and an adult) to share an iPad. I try to invest in devices and software that encourage the kids to play together, or that provide us with new activities we can do as a family.
How much will we spend on software?
Early in the life of my iPad, our 4-year-old son pressed "buy" on a $10 word-processing app. "I thought about it and thought about it," he told me. "And then I downloaded it." Touched as I was by his concern for my text-editing environment, I could foresee feeling a lot less touched if his next executive decision involved the $299 medical database now available from Lexi. You can lock your kids out of the App Store by using the Restrictions option in the iPad's settings, but that won't resolve the constant whining for new games. So we've followed the advice of Common Sense Media and told our kids that iPad purchases have to come out of their allowance, which they can use to buy iTunes Store gift cards.
Will this distract us from spending time together?
With all the worrying about how much time our kids spend onscreen, it's easy to overlook our own screen obsession. One of the things I love about the iPad is that, unlike a laptop screen, it doesn't put a physical barrier between me and the kids if I'm surfing the web while they're watching TV next to me on the sofa. But precisely because it's so unobtrusive, it's easy for the iPad to add to my current level of distraction as a parent: If I can snuggle up beside my son while catching up on Facebook, I can pretend I'm parenting rather than geeking out. But I have heard about some parents who actually pay attention to the kids sitting next to them, possibly even interacting without the presence of a TV, computer or gaming device. Who are these parents, you ask? I'm not sure. But I bet you don't meet them at 5 a.m. in line outside the Apple Store.
Share your thoughts: What's the best thing about technology like the iPad?
Alexandra Samuel, PhD, is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University and the principal of Social Signal, a social media agency that has launched more than 30 online communities. The mother of two young kids, Samuel blogs about how to make technology a meaningful part of your life, work and world. Follow her on Twitter.