For Oprah.com: Should you get an iPad for kids?

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This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

At 5 a.m. on April 3, I became the fifth person—and the first woman—in line outside the Apple store in Bellevue, Washington. By the time Apple store employees started handing out coffee and cookies, we front-of-the-liners were old friends. When a store employee announced we were allowed to buy only one iPad each, and not the rumored two, I wasn’t worried: My husband raced over with our kids so he could buy the second iPad for himself.

But what about Steve, standing right behind me? We’d never met before, but he’d shared his excitement about bringing a couple of iPads back to his office full of video game developers. He looked positively panic-stricken by the news he could buy only one.

As soon as my husband and kids arrived, I flagged down one of the store employees: “Excuse me, but do my kids count toward my iPads-per-person? Because their Uncle Steve here had hoped to buy an iPad for them.”

The employee agreed that yes, my kids counted as full, iPad-worthy citizens, and that “Uncle” Steve should feel free to buy an extra iPad for them. We made our iPad purchases as a brief, fictional family: me, my husband, and my pseudo-brother-in-law Steve, who was thus able to buy his two iPads.

If you’re feeling shocked that I would lie in an Apple store—my personal equivalent to lying in church—rest assured, I have been amply and appropriately punished. Perhaps it was the kids overhearing me say that we might get them their own iPads, or it was the eager way we handed our new ones over to create a whine-free drive back across the border to Vancouver—whatever it was, the kids now seemingly have their own iPads: ours.

Oh sure, I get to take the iPad to work while they’re at school. But it’s not really a work computer. It’s more of a kick-back, lie-on-the-sofa gadget. And no sooner do I kick back with the iPad than a couple of hands—usually dirty or sticky—pry it away from me.

More than a month into our life as a two-child, two-iPad family, I’ve come to appreciate this machine as perhaps the perfect kid computer. It’s kid-sized, unlike a desktop that looms too large, or a laptop that’s too big for a little lap. It’s intuitive, especially for kids who’ve been using their parents’ iPhones for the past couple of years. And best of all, it’s tactile: Getting rid of the mouse and replacing it with a touch screen gives kids the sense of immediacy that is missing from other tech toys.

Yet I still have misgivings about handing over a $700 machine to a 4- and a 6-year-old. Quite apart from the possibility that our kids will turn the iPads into a couple of very expensive paperweights, I worry about the impact of yet another screen in our already screen-infested house. We’ve got two TVs (each hooked up to a cable box, PVR and computer), three iPhones, a Wii and a PlayStation: Do our kids really need one more device to keep them info-tained?

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.

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