Apps Arguments, Again

It seems like only yesterday that controversy raged about whether watching TV was good or bad for young children.  The argument then moved on to the “Baby Einstein” videos and their educational claims.  The “race to the top” seems to keep moving to the bottom as newly arriving so called “learning apps” target babies from birth.  Now a complaint has been filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which challenges the claims made that these apps teach infants a variety of skills. 

This group, which played a role in the backtracking of “Baby Einstein” from educational claims, contends that the “baby genius” industry makes such claims with no scientific evidence that proves their products provide the benefits claimed.  They challenge the idea that these apps provide more than simple entertainment value, and contend that such apps may be detrimental to very young children.

Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, interviewed on PBS Newshour says, “There really is no evidence that these apps can teach a baby anything.  In fact, the research over years on educational television and other electronic screens shows that babies really can’t learn anything from a screen under the age of about 30 months.”  He also says, “I think what we have found is a very convenient electronic baby-sitter,” and makes the point that the American Academy of Pediatrics has for over ten years recommended against the use of screens for children under the age of 2.

There is no doubt that parents are using these apps, as some Fisher-Price apps have been downloaded more than 2 million times.  Dr. Rich makes the point that developers of the apps have recognized that parents are using these technological devices to divert their children, and if they can claim it is educational, even if it is not, they will get sales from parents who both feel guilty and want the best for their children.  Author Hannah Rosin, writing about “The Touch-Screen Generation” in The Atlantic magazine, also discusses parents’ guilt and the conflict between wanting their children to have access to anything educational on one hand, and anxiety about possible damage to children’s brains on the other.

Having attended a conference of the developers of these apps, Ms. Rosin examines both sides of the argument as to whether they are good or bad for kids. Although for the most part she is not writing about young babies, as a mother herself, she is sympathetic to parents’ conflicts, calling it “the neurosis of our age.”  Far from happily using technology as diversion, “parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them.”  She writes that parents end up treating tablets like “gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ . . . but only if they are used just so.”

All of this brings to mind the famous Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, whose observations led him to conclude that children think differently than adults and to his research on children’s cognitive development.  His theory describes stages that children go through in the development of intelligence.  He has been quoted as saying that the idea that “earlier is better is an American disease.”  Piaget would no doubt find his observation confirmed by the contemporary competitive focus on early academic achievement, and the excesses in this competition contributed to by the promotion of technology and its software. 

In a way, the discussion about whether these new apps are good or bad for children is the wrong one to be having.  Research outcomes are many years down the road in terms of how interaction with technology affects the way the architecture of children’s brains actually develops.  The point really is that the brave new world is here to stay, and it is one in which our children will be required to function.  The question is not whether that is good or bad, but rather in what ways will it be different, and how do we prepare for those differences.

In many ways it is part of the discussion going on these days about young people’s use of social media, and the fact that interpersonal interactions are more and more becoming inter-technology interactions.  The question asked about the apps for young children is whether they will lose the capacity to relate to real people and things, having been raised on interactions with a screen.  When we ask if they will be damaged by the exposure to technology, we are really speaking from a humanistic value system that we think is superior and afraid will be lost.

We know the value system we have, and grew up with.  We don’t know what the generations to come will be like.  Undoubtedly, different kinds of personalities will emerge from the vastly different exposures provided by technologies.  While accepting that fact, as parents we are nevertheless faced with the present challenge of transmitting our values to children who will live in a different world.


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