Can Children Learn from iPads?

If you’ve been to a restaurant in the past five years, you’ve most likely seen a toddler swiping away on an iPhone or an iPad, and most likely that toddler could navigate that device better than your mom. In fact, a nationwide 2013 survey showed that 75 percent of children aged eight years and younger have access to a touch-screen device, and on average use that device for 15 minutes or more daily.

The widespread use of touch screen devices — especially by young children — begs a few questions: How does touch-screen device use early in life influence development? Do children learn better or worst from mobile games and e-books compared to traditional games and books? Are there any negative impacts for child development?

A couple years ago, I became interested in these questions and decided to write the paper that qualifies me into Ph.D candidacy on whether children could learn from iPads. That meant I spent my summer digging through the literature on children’s learning from television, as well as the growing literature on children’s learning from interactive touch-screen devices and e-books.

The results I found were a mixed bag.

Children do not always learn from screens

There is a lot of research showing that children aged one to four years do not learn as well from screens as they do from adults. For example, research shows that when children are asked to imitate a behavior or learn a new word, they learn better when someone is telling them to their face compared to that same person telling them on a television screen.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean that children don’t learn from television — in fact, cartoons like “Dora The Explorer” have adapted to be more like a face-to-face interaction — it just means they don’t learn as well. This is especially true if they are 1.5 to 2 years of age, which is when the “video deficit” peaks. Because touch-screens are screens, children may not learn as much from touch-screen devices either.

Also, recent research on children’s learning from e-books suggests that children don’t learn as much from e-books compared to traditional books. Research from my colleague here at Northwestern suggests parents may be somewhat to blame for this. When reading an e-book together, parents of two to five year olds are more likely to point out cool features of the e-book, such as sound effects, rather than talking about the content of the story.

Another study shows that traditional books — or e-books with the electronic features turned off — promote more content-focused reading and conversation between parents and three to five year-olds compared to e-books.

Lastly, the “educational” apps and games for touch-screen devices are not necessarily educational. A recent article by a group of psychologists and learning scientists reviewed some of the 80,000 apps labeled as “educational” available for purchase, and almost none of them were regulated or tested for educational content. Just because an app contains letters, numbers or shapes, doesn’t mean it’s educational, and it certainly doesn’t mean that children are learning from it.

But wait, there’s good news …

Despite the evidence that touch-screen devices may not promote learning, there is evidence that the interactive aspect of the experience does indeed help children learn from them because they respond instantaneously to the child’s touch.

Unlike television, where children are passively watching a screen, touch-screen devices allow children to interact with the screen in an intuitive way. One study shows that interacting with a screen promotes learning compared to passively watching a screen. In this study, children who interacted with the screen learned just as much as those who learned from an adult. One exciting possibility is that the interactivity of touch-screen devices will help children bypass the video deficit effect, helping them learn from screen media.

This next point is obvious but important: Children love touch-screen devices. In our lab, we’ve conducted multiple studies on children’s use of iPads. One consistent finding is that children are more engaged with iPads compared to traditional 2-D pictures or books. Touch-screens definitely capture children’s attention; children easily focus on the objects or pictures displayed on the screen. One potential benefit of touch-screen devices is that they naturally grab children’s attention, hopefully drawing children’s attention toward the content on the screen and promoting learning.

It may be easier for parents and educators to leverage children’s learning from touch-screen devices because children are so naturally engaged when using them. In fact, another recent study by psychologists at the University of Chicago showed that a “Bedtime Math” app helped first graders learn math concepts across the school year. For something like math that isn’t super exciting to many kids, learning on a touch screen may help children focus more on the math content and even enjoy it.

So where does that bring us?

Well, we don’t really know yet, but we do know enough to be more informed consumers and to be aware of certain ways that we can maximize children’s potential learning from iPads.

Here are my tips for parents:

1.) Ask yourself – is this game/app educational? The group of psychologists and learning scientists who reviewed the educational apps also created an evidence-based guide for evaluating and selecting apps. They instruct parents to select apps that promotes active, engaged, meaningful, and social interactive learning. Play the app or game yourself and ask, are the activities in this game meaningful to learning, or is it just another fast-paced, flashy game?

2.) Be aware of how you use touch-screens with you children. When using e-books, make sure the questions you’re asking your child are about the story and not about the touch-screen. When using games, you can sit with your child and ask them to show you how to play the game. Ask them questions while they’re playing to see what they are taking away from the game.

3.) Supplement play with touch-screens, don’t replace it. It’s great if your child likes playing Angrybirds or doing puzzles on the touch-screen, but we don’t know yet if this type of play is as beneficial as traditional play, like block building, puzzle play, and pretend play. Play games on the touch-screen with your child and make explicit connections with toys they play with in the real world (“Is that a triangle on the screen, Ben? Is it just like the triangle we play with in our blocks?”)

It’s super exciting that we have new technology that is both intuitive and engaging for young children to use. However, while research is still emerging, it’s important that we do our best to make informed decisions about children’s use of that technology based on scientific evidence.