Picture this: it’s now 2024, and you’re in a room of one hundred Gen Alpha children. What do you hear? If you guessed the sound of hundreds of tiny fingers tapping against sticky, interactive glass, then you’re about right. Enter the ‘iPad kid’: a term shedding light on the rather dystopian reality that Gen Alpha are being raised on, and are addicted to, iPads.
It’s a trend that’s making waves on TikTok, with Gen Z calling out millennials for replacing childcare with screen time. “I need everybody else in my generation to promise that we are not going to raise iPad children… Your kids can’t read! You’re raising Gen Alpha, and they’re bizarre and terribly behaved,” one Gen Z content creator pleads.
Other TikTok creators have produced viral sketches, portraying jarring and tantrum-prone children hooked to their iPads at restaurants and other public places. Yes, it’s funny, but when you scratch beneath the surface and realise that this is how children are now being brought up, it takes on a more sombre tone, shedding light on the behavioural and social impacts of a screen-centric upbringing. So, is this an over-exaggeration, or is Gen Alpha’s psychology and developmental well-being genuinely impacted by the use of iPads?
Unsurprisingly, iPads are impacting the development of our next generation. And the influence of the touchscreen tablets actually begins as early as in the womb, psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr Charlotte Armitage, tells SCREENSHOT. “It can affect attachment; when babies are born, they attach to their primary caregiver through feeding and eye contact, promoting healthy psychological and biological development of the brain.”
“I’ve observed children given iPads as early as two years old now,” she continues. “This affects key developmental milestones like the formation of their pincer grip and dexterity. Instead of engaging with toys in the real world, they’re interacting with iPads, touching and tapping rather than grasping and playing.”
This perspective is backed by research, indicating the impact of technology on shaping children’s social interactions. One study suggests that the use of iPads and tablets by children might potentially modify social behaviours and relationships. “There’s a tendency for parents to now place an iPad in front of children when they’re upset,” Armitage notes. “That affects their ability to learn how to process and regulate their emotions healthily.”
And not only does technology use impact children’s ability to play, socialise, and regulate emotions, but it also affects their brain chemistry. Another study suggests that technology, especially smartphones and tablets, can influence neuroplasticity in children—how malleable and flexible their brains are to change, new experiences, and the formation of new neural connections. In simpler terms, and without delving too deeply into neuroscience, screen time can significantly influence the early development of children in profound biological and psychological ways.
It’s no surprise, then, that the impact of the iPad epidemic among Gen Alpha is permeating into other aspects of life, particularly affecting their mental health. Currently, children in the UK are grappling with a surge in mental health issues. According to a 2020 report by NHS Digital, the rate of mental health problems among young people in England aged 5 to 16 increased from 1 in 9 in 2017 to 1 in 6 in 2020.
Similarly, The Good Childhood Report 2022 by The Children’s Society reveals that in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has risen by 50 per cent. Now, five children in a classroom of 30 are likely to have a mental health problem. Although the use of iPads may only be a part of the broader issue, its impact on neurological development and the ability to regulate emotions should not go unnoticed.
Combine this with easy access to social media and algorithms, and it becomes evident that the problem is far-reaching. “If a child searches for a video about a mental health problem, the algorithm will pick up on that and keep feeding them content in a similar vein—without the context,” Armitage adds. “Before they know it, a child might start identifying with what the content is telling them.”
Given the statistics and the prevalence of iPad kids across the Western world, it’s easy to point fingers at millennial parents—as many have done on TikTok. However, in reality, it’s not as simple as a case of lazy parenting. The cost of living crisis and COVID-19 have further exasperated this problem.
“No parent would purposely put their child at harm,” Armitage says. “If we lived in an ideal world, we’d raise kids with no devices, no social media, and no iPads—but it’s not that simple.” Parents today are facing unprecedented economic and emotional pressure—many work multiple jobs and are fighting tooth and nail to provide their children with the bare essentials. Can you blame them for placing their kids in front of an iPad while they work at home, desperately pulling together the funds to afford food and rent?
“It’s about finding the balance and I think it’s the same with devices. Unfortunately, we don’t have a balance at the moment, we’re on the other end of the spectrum,” Armitage adds. And, to find that balance, a nuanced and multifaceted approach is needed—educating parents on the implications of raising their children on screens, while also providing the economic and social support to raise offspring in a healthy way.
Generations have always conflicted over new technology. Take TV, for instance: when it was first introduced into homes, there were widespread concerns that it would cause health and psychological problems, particularly for children. Many critics at the time argued that TV would increase the risk of obesity and diabetes and decrease productivity. While there is some truth to this, every home now has a television, and rarely does anyone bat an eyelid or speak up about its negative effects.
The issue of iPad kids, however, is somewhat different. “Everyone is affected by this, adults and our children. It’s a huge impact. Technology was never this invasive—now it’s almost attached to us,” Armitage concludes. “There are positives to this technology, we all know that, but we need to do more to educate parents about the negatives of iPad use for children too.”