Gathering Around the Tablet: A Glimpse of the Future in the Frozen North

How will the media habits of families, especially those with young kids, evolve in the era of the tablet computer?

I got an interesting perspective on that question over the holidays, which I spent with my brother and his family in Alaska. Jamie and his wife Jen Athey have two loveable children, aged four (Kieran) and 13 months (Lucy). My parents were also visiting, so the Athey-Roush house on Moose Mountain, 15 miles outside of Fairbanks, was temporarily home to five adults and two children, plus two dogs and two cats.

The weather was standard for central Alaska in December—a frigid -10F to -40F—so there wasn’t a lot of outdoor activity. There is a TV in the house, but given that it’s located in the room where the toddler sleeps, it’s almost never used. In any case, there is no cable TV service that far from town, so there’s not much to watch besides DVDs and Netflix. (Internet data gets beamed in wirelessly from a transmitter on nearby Ester Dome.)

What we did have at hand, however, were four tablets (three iPads and a Motorola Xoom) and three smartphones (one iPhone and two Motorola Atrix Android phones). So conditions were ideal for observing how a high-density group of family members uses their mobile devices for entertainment, reference, learning, communication, and just goofing off.

It goes without saying that Kieran and Lucy already know their way around touch-driven devices. Kieran can’t read fluently yet, but he knows exactly which icons open his favorite apps. He can flip virtual pages, start and stop videos, and tap on words in lists. To his generation, non-touch interfaces will feel antique. Indeed, when we took the kids into town to visit the public library, Kieran had no idea how to use the trackballs attached to the ancient Windows computers.

He did, however, leave the library with three actual books. His favorite: The Z Was Zapped, a book of abecedarian mayhem by illustrator Chris Van Allsburg.

There is an idea circulating on the net that tablets somehow spoil kids for other types of media. You may have seen the video that surfaced on YouTube last fall called “A Magazine Is an iPad that Does Not Work.” The video, which been viewed about 3.4 million times, shows a 1-year-old girl deftly navigating an iPad, then trying futilely to interact with the pages of a paper fashion magazine using pinch-and-spread gestures like those pioneered for the iPhone. To the Apple-fanboy dad who made the video, it showed how “magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives.”

But if I could offer one conclusion based on my visit, it would be this: the notion that tablets will kill off older, more static media is poppycock. Kieran’s bedroom has shelves full of books, from Dr. Seuss to Richard Scarry to Roald Dahl to Dorling Kindersley’s obsessively detailed nature and engineering books. His parents read to him at least twice a day, at naptime and bedtime. And that’s not counting all the time they spend reading with him and Lucy, usually curled up on the couch or the easy chair with a physical book. When reading with Kieran, the only problem is finding books around the house that he doesn’t already know by heart. Lucy, who isn’t old enough to comprehend what books are, nonetheless loves to flip through them.

At the same time, tablets offer beginning readers elements that books can’t. Jamie and Jen bought the Xoom so that Kieran could use a Flash-based early reading program from Seattle-based Headsprout. (Flash doesn’t work on the iPad.) Headsprout uses cartoon games to keep kids motivated while they learn to recognize and sound out words. In the lesson segment Kieran showed me, he advanced a monkey character through a jungle by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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