Should we give an iPad to our children?

Update: A modified form of this blog entry was published today in New Straits Times newspaper (2 Jun 2011)

Last Saturday was Parents-Teachers Day at my son’s pre-school. While my wife and I were waiting for our turn to see my son’s teacher, I noticed some parents giving their children iPad. One four-year-old child was watching a cartoon video on the iPad, whereas another (perhaps three years old) was playing some educational game.

Children are attracted to the iPad, but is iPad a double-edged sword that hurts our children learning development? (photo from

This is not the first time I have seen young kids (even babies) with iPad. Scenes such as these are becoming more common. I suspect some parents see iPad as a convenient tool to occupy their children’s time and attention. iPad is certainly easy to carry and, from what I have witnessed, kids are captivated by the ease of use and the versatility iPad can show and do (such as games, videos, photos, picture books, and the internet).

However, I am worried. I am aware of the opportunities computers can offer to my son’s learning development. But I am also aware the harm computers can do. And no, I am not talking about the harm from UV radiation coming off the computer screen.

Those who have been following my blog might have noticed the importance I placed on reading. It isn’t just reading per se that is important. It is reading printed books that is crucial in our development on how we think and learn. Reading off the computer screen isn’t the same as reading from a page we can feel and smell.

Two books, one by  Nicholas Carr (“What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows”) and Mark Bauerlein (“The Dumbest Generation: How Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future”) are the two most important books I have read this year. These books affirm by beliefs that reading is absolutely crucial in a child’s learning and thinking development.

These two books shoot down the importance of the role played by computers and the internet on learning. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, these books cite scientific research that show that children who read few books but are prolific in computer and internet use have difficulty in understanding complex ideas and concepts. The key problem is computers encourage shallow reading – the way we “scan” sentences instead of reading every word in a sentence. Shallow reading discourages us to think deeply and to internalize information, so people who shallow read often fail to see and appreciate the overall picture or concept.

Moreover, research have shown surprisingly that schools equipped with computers fail to show any improvement in the children’s grades. In other words, there was no difference in school grades before and after the school adopted heavily in computer and internet use.

Another important detriment to computer and internet use is they are a distraction to learning. Reading a text with hyperlinks encourage us to leave the page we are reading to another page which may instead lead us to another page and so on. The computer screen is rarely just shows plain text. Instead, it has text and picture links and even animation that distracts us from reading and thinking deeply. It is as though we are reading a book while trying to listen in to someone’s conversation at the next table.

Sure, it is more interesting, but children learn better holding a real colour pencil and colouring a real paper (photo from

Computers aid in a child’s education. It is a useful tool, but it does not replace the importance of printed books and physical, hands-on approach to handling real, physical objects. A child needs to develop the effort and focus needed to understand the text. In addition, proficiency in reading printed books encourage a child to develop self-learning skills required later in life.

It has been my experience that university students have poor self-learning skills. When students are faced with a difficult problem, they often become stumped without someone’s help.

Our university students are not self-reliant learners. Even when these students are given books that contain the solution they need, they still fail to understand the information. This disorder is very frustrating to me as a lecturer because I cannot count on books to help my students. I have to explain and teach my students one-on-one. Asking them to read books is of little help. It is not so much that they are lazy to read; the sad truth is they just cannot understand what they have read.

There appears some mental block. The students read, and they understand the individual words – but, for some odd reason, they do not know what the whole sentence means.

There have been some suggestions that playing computer games teaches children decision-making, management, and about moral issues. However, as warned by Mark Bauerlein, there is no scientific evidence of this occurring.

Playing computer games, even educational ones, do not teach children about decision-making and about moral issues, as warned by Mark  Bauerlein (photo from

Consequently, computers such as iPad, though useful, must be introduced to our children with great care. These tools, like iPad, can discourage our children from reading books. Our children become hooked more to what is on the computer screen than what a printed book has to show. When this imbalance happens, we should be very alarmed.

Plenty of books behind them but paying them no mind when they have iPad…woah! (photo from

Before I end, I encourage parents to observe their children when they read a book and when they watching TV or playing the iPad. Any difference? Below I show the difference for my son, Zachary. One photo shows a happy child who is enjoys learning from a book and another a passive, almost in a drugged-state, “learning” through the TV. Which do you prefer? I know which I would like my son to be…

Zachary is often animated during his reading session, showing that he enjoys learning and the imaginative stories

But an animated Zachary transforms into a passive and quiet Zachary when he watches TV



  1. While I appreciate the fact that many students today are very dependent and show a lack of self reliance- I am afraid that is more a symptom of the generation that has always expected things to be given to them without the work. This has been perpetuated by parents who feel guilty for lack of time or who want their children to “have everything they didn’t”.

    I believe that the key to using technology in education is proper application. When a group of students are let loose in a computer lab and the instructor sits and grades papers-the computer is not going to improve grades. From the little I’ve been able to observe of iPad (or tablet)use in the classroom- it has many applications that can encourage participation, help with note taking, as a lecturer- if you could have an app that projected re-enforcement images onto the screen in front of each student-or say key words with definitions- it might be a help not hindrance.

    Technology is not going away. Computers are part of our everyday life. Learning to be computer literate is a must. I am an avid reader. I enjoy reading more than watching a movie. I have entire worlds created in my head that are sometime hard to escape. I didn’t think I could ever convert to reading from an electronic reader. Now I can’t tell the difference. I have the same reading experience that I do with print except I don’t carry a bag full of books. I read to my children from birth and gave them books at a very young age.

    I also did not allow video games or extended tv time before 5 years old. When they read they do not get pictures in their heads. Neither does my husband. It is the way they process things. Therefore reading is not as attractive to them. I’m not sure my daughter ever completed a book unless it was assigned for school. And she tried. We have an entire library of goosebumps, babysitter clubs etc. She is a sophomore in college (anthro major) with a 3.8 gpa my son graduated cum laude with a degree in philosophy.

    I understand the distraction of computers- I've played farmville-but to discount the uses of these tablets in encouraging learning, tracking progress and maybe catering to alternative learning styles is a bit prohibitive.

    Thanks for the chance to enter the discussion:)

    • Thank you for your reply and feedback. I agree that computers are here to stay, and I hope my article didn’t imply that I was anti-technology or wish that computers did not exist. I was raising the issue that reading from books and reading from the computer screen give different effects. I agree that a person can do very well in school without having to read or complete reading any books — that wasn’t what my article was about.

      Books is one tool (but not the only one) which gives a person not only knowledge, as it is commonly assumed, but also raises awareness, appreciation, and understanding in diverse issues in politics, social, environment, and science. My article was aiming more on a wholesome or holistic development of a person, rather than being a straight-A student at school, college, or university. Again, I like to stress that books is one tool not the only tool for such a goal. Being active in social activities is also important, for example.

  2. Agree with your post. I’m one of those people who grew up on a lot on television and spent most of my adolescence hooked onto the internet. It was really a nurture in a state of distraction. Trying to reeducate my brain at the moment lol! I might ‘know’ ‘a lot’, but like Carr said, the breadth of knowledge is not the same with the depth of knowledge.

    Another book might be of interest to you; Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Though it was written 30 years ago, I found it still relevant today; it’s quite illuminating.
    [And sort of related (in the sense of products made for children and how it affects them), check out this documentary called ‘Consuming Kids’. You could find it here:

    • Thank you for your feedback. And thanks for the documentary and book recommendation. I don’t agree with the book author that TV should be eliminated; we would be poorer in knowledge and awareness of important issues if it was. However, as with most activities, moderation is important as well as awareness which TV programmes are useful and which are not. This is not to say we should only watch educational shows. Sometimes even a “braindead” show can be a form of relaxation. I agree with you that we all need to reeducate our brains!

      I will certainly check out your video recommendation.

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