Is it safe for my child to use an iPad? It seems that children are using electronic devices from an early age - is that safe? Can my children use electronic equipment like the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch? How old should kids be before they start to use iPads?

Any aspect of child safety is going to inspire strong feelings, but the question of kids and electronic devices is particularly sticky and disputed. This is an interesting question, and the answers are not simple, unfortunately.

The simplest answer would be that many authorities do not recommend electronic devices for children below the age of three, and advise parents to restrict use after that. But when it comes to the actual medical risks, many authorities are highly sceptical about how much of a problem iPads and similar devices present in reality.

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Are iPads and tablets safe for young children: Growing usage

When the iPad first arrived it was such an expensive - and rare - piece of kit that we couldn't imagine many people placing them in the hands of toddlers. But the iPad, and iPhone, have both been tremendously popular and the multi-touch interface is incredibly easy for children to pick up and start using. As people buy new iPads, they are passing old ones on to children for them to use and learn with. And the iPad is an amazing educational tool, packed with apps from some of the biggest names in education.

We are seeing more and more children of a very early age using iPads. Ofcom's Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report confirms that tablet usage is on the rise. Parents are right to ask for reassurance. They want be sure that it is safe for their child to use an iPad.

Before we offer any advice, we should point out that we're not paediatricians or child welfare specialists; we're technology specialists. If you have a particular concern about your child and electronic equipment, please speak to an expert, whether your GP or a specialist that your GP recommends. But we can talk about our experiences in this area, which are extensive, and direct you to studies and reports by reputable relevant bodies.

Are iPads and tablets safe for young children: Radiation

Child using iPad

It's definitely worth remembering as a parent that iPads are mobile devices with Wi-Fi and in some cases cellular transmitters.

The panic over mobile phones and children has receded somewhat in recent years, but we should remind you that in 2011 the World Health Organisation classed mobile phones as Group 2B "possibly carcinogenic to humans". This includes iPads with 4G Cellular Connection. According to Cancer Research UK this means that there is some evidence for risk, but it's not that convincing.

James McNamee, division chief for health effects and assessments in Health Canada's bureau of consumer and clinical radiation protection, was on the panel that made the decision, and even he isn't convinced. In 2011 Health Canada issued a cautionary warning stating: "Children are more sensitive to a variety of agents than adults as their brains and immune systems are still developing, so you can't say the risk would be equal for a small adult as for a child."

In Children, Adolescents and The Media, The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state that:

  • Infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology at all.
  • Children aged 3-5 years should be restricted to one hour per day.
  • Children aged 6-18 years should be restricted to 2 hours per day.

We're not wholly convinced that the same guidelines can be effective for the entire span of six to eighteen year olds; surely teenagers could be allowed, and even encouraged, to use technology more frequently than young children. But the guidelines are there to empower parents to make decisions regarding their children.

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Are iPads and tablets safe for young children: Is an iPad good, or bad, for my child's education?

Beyond the physical aspect of giving your child an iPad, there is the question of whether it will be good for them mentally and developmentally.

Is a child's engagement with an iPad going to improve their technological intelligence, and learning awareness? Alternatively, will it act to the detriment of other forms of learning? Is the iPad distracting a child from learning, or is preventing a child from using an iPad putting them at a disadvantage compared to other children? After all, the iPad is a tremendously powerful tool for gathering information and creative expression.

Remember that a tablet offers a world of educational content at the touch of a child's fingertips. Professor Lydia Plowman, of the University of Edinburgh, has researched the benefits of technology and the way children learn in apps and games. Her research for the BBC explains what parents can do to ensure that their children are using tablets to unlock learning capabilities.

Beyond that, bear in mind that the iPad is still a new piece of technology, and this means that there are limits to what we can know about its long-term impact it will have on a child's education. We will keep looking for research and report on it as it comes to light, but in the meantime we suggest monitoring your child's usage (especially internet usage) and ensuring the iPad forms a part, but not all, of your child's learning.

Image: C.K. Koay

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