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My Kids' First iPad

Tips to help manage the challenges and embrace the positives.

Topics: Screen Time

Before there were any apps for kids -- before there was an App Store, even -- my 2-year-old son was quite handy with the iPhone. Incoming call interrupting his Sesame Street podcast? Decline! Not saying this is good or bad -- it just ... is. Both my ex-husband and I tend to be early adopters, and in general we both embrace technology. This is reflected in the way we raise our kids.

So when the iPad launched, we were all over it. And while our kids have had other electronics of their own -- Leapsters, Nintendo DSes, a laptop computer, and now a Kindle -- the iPad was different. It presented amazing new opportunities, but it also raised new questions for us as parents. If you're planning to buy a new iPad for your family, consider these questions and suggestions.

Think about ownership. Deciding who the device "belongs" to can help head off problems, foster a sense of responsibility, and provide a basis for accountability. Is it Mom's and/or Dad's iPad that the kids can use? Is it owned by the family collectively but managed by the parents? Does it belong to a specific child? In one family I know, the iPad belongs to the 7-year-old boy, while the 5-year-old girl owns the iPod touch. Some parents may cringe at the thought of young children "owning" an expensive device, but it's really about what works in your family.

In my home, the iPad is mine, and I allow the kids to use it. But after Apple's iBooks 2 textbooks announcement their dad declared that the kids each need their own iPad because it is "the single most important educational tool ever created." It's not in the budget at the moment, but if money were no object, I'd be on board with that -- I agree that it's a powerful tool.

Set it up beforehand. It's just no fun to open a new device and then wait a few hours while Mom and Dad set it up with iTunes, install some cool apps, make and organize folders, set restrictions, and more. Get that stuff out of the way before handing it over for the first time.

But definitely set a passcode for unlocking the device. It's just a smart thing to do -- if it ever ends up in the wrong person's hands, you don't want to make it easy for them to access your data. In my family, the kids know the passcode to unlock the iPad, but they don't know the restrictions passcode or my iTunes password, so they can't change key settings or buy stuff. Speaking of restrictions: Use them. How you use them will depend on your kids' age and maturity as well as your own requirements, but use them -- they're in your settings, under "General." An extra bonus: If you're not familiar with the device, this pre-setup gives you some time to explore it before introducing it to the kids.

Once it's ready to go, depending on your kids' age, it can be fun to put the iPad back into its packaging for the big moment. This sends the kids a strong message that the device is special and a harbinger of great things to come. Plus, who doesn't love a good unboxing? (And be sure to record it -- even if you don't add it to the thousands of iPad unboxings on YouTube, it'll be fun to share with family and friends.)

Establish some ground rules. Introducing an iPad (or any tablet) in your home the first time will require setting some ground rules. Even if you have other electronic devices the kids use, you'll want to think about the questions the iPad will raise. A few examples:

  • How does iPad time figure into overall screen time limits? In my house, we don't have hard-and-fast screen time limits. But maybe you're a one-hour-a-day max family. Is iPad time now included in that hour?
  • Is it OK to make in-app purchases? We have tips for how to approach this question.
  • Is it OK to use the iPad without asking first? For us, no. Always ask first.
  • Is it OK to use the iPad while also watching TV? I encourage my kids to do one screen at a time.
  • Is it OK to take the iPad into the bathroom? I didn't think I needed to address this until my 6-year-old son took the iPad into the bathroom so he could continue with the Bobo Explores Light science book app while taking his bath. The iPad was resting on a bench outside the tub, and he reasoned "but my hands are dry." It could've been a disaster, and I could've avoided the close call by establishing that rule up front -- and of course by making better use of those eyes in the back of my head. (Side note: Clearly this is a thoroughly engaging app! A 5-star keeper!)

Explore, explore, explore. You'll find many, many uses for your iPad. Yes, there are lots of fun games for the kids. But with the right apps, it can also be an excellent homework helper. Plus, it adds a nice twist to shared reading at bedtime, it's great for watching movies on long plane or car trips, and board game apps are a lot of fun for family game night.

You might try loading your iPad up with a variety of types of apps and just letting your kids explore. You might be surprised to see what your kids gravitate toward. I've had the Woozzle puzzle app on my iPad for months, but only recently did my son discover it, and now it's one of his favorites. My daughter discovered that she loves hidden object adventures the same way. Of course, this only works if you keep age-appropriate apps on the device. (We have lots of great suggestions for you.) You can't set up separate profiles for the kids, so other than the apps you can block in restrictions -- YouTube, for example -- pretty much anything on the device is accessible to anyone using it.

Bringing an iPad into your home will be an exciting event for your kids -- and for you. Together, you can tap into its enjoyment and potential as you find new and useful ways to use it.

Ingrid Simone
Ingrid joined Common Sense Media in 2010, bringing more than 15 years as an editor and writer, a passion for providing quality content focused on kids, and a love of most things digital. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Florida A&M University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan. She has worked as an editor or writer with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Houghton Mifflin, Voyager Expanded Learning, the National Geographic Society, Rally Education, Education.com, the San Jose Mercury News, and more; has taught in early childhood settings; and has worked with teachers and students on projects for Leapfrog, PBS Kids/SRI, and WestEd. She's mom to two grade-schoolers who have been using the iPhone since the day it launched and is herself a mean hand at Words with Friends. Google+