Should apps for babies be marketed as educational?

I read today that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (“CCFC”) has filed complaints with the FTC regarding marketing of apps aimed at babies. The complaints allege that the apps of two companies make educational claims about their apps that are not backed up by research.

Good for them. They stood up against the Baby Einstein & Your Baby Can Read scams & now they’re tackling the gargantuan (& seemingly ever growing) baby app industry.

Hanna Rosin on Slate disagrees. As in her Atlantic article (see my take here), she seeks to defend the app industry & read the scant research in such a way as to make touch-screen technology OK for very young children.

And, yet again, Ms. Rosin misses the point & confuses education & play. The apps that are the target of the CCFC’s complaints make educational claims. They do not bill themselves as the playful, high tech distractions they really are. If the apps were marketed as “a way to entertain your child while you take a shower, enjoy a sip of hot coffee, or talk with a friend for five minutes,” that’d be one thing. It would be an honest description of what these apps do for parents.

I am glad that Ms. Rosin can make sensible decisions about how her family will utilize apps & touch-screen technology, but consumer advocacy groups exist because many people simply aren’t media- or marketing-savvy. Ms. Rosin may be able to see behind the ridiculous claims. Not all parents can or do.

What touch-screen technology does for very young children continues to be a hotly contested issue (so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics continues, despite the proliferation of apps for very young children, to urge against screen time, “television and other entertainment media,” for the under-two set).

So for Ms. Rosin to blithely dismiss the difference between touching a brightly-colored shape with real-life contours & the screen representation of the brightly-colored shape (as if it were well-settled that they are of equal value) is absolutely disingenuous. Is it a “crime” that the “baby can’t actually feel the bumpy star”? Of course not! But just because it’s not a crime doesn’t mean it’s good or even just “OK” for young children. Touch & sensory exploration play a large role in how we learn & understand our world. I doubt that Ms. Rosin can point to any studies to suggest that tapping on the representation of a purple star on a screen is better than (or even just as good as) her old toy with the “real” purple star. I’m certain hand manipulation (at least for very young children) will win out every time.

Which is why a rock is better than any app.

Perhaps not as convenient in a restaurant. But better, nonetheless.

I suppose Ms. Rosin would dismiss my point of view as coming from one of those parents nursing a “nostalgic vision of childhood dominated by bubble blowing and sand-castle building.” I’m not. Technology does & will play an important part in my son’s life. And like most parents, I’m figuring out a way to help him learn to navigate our tech-heavy world. (And for the record, I think bubble blowing & sand-castle building get old really fast.)

Ms. Rosin, I’m certain, pictures herself as falling in the camp of parents who are trying to “make reasonable choices about, say, how many and which apps they will let their toddler play with and have reasonable expectations for results (that it will occupy your baby, not groom her for Harvard).” (Note the lack of any sense of “reason” or “reasonableness” associated with the other “camp.”) This second approach also sounds reasonable enough (though splitting parents into adversarial groups is a non sequitur & reveals the flaw in Ms. Rosin’s argument…).

So why, then, rail against these CCFC complaints? Wouldn’t honest, well-founded information on apps help parents make decisions regarding which to expose their young children to? And let’s not forget the apps targeted by the CCFC are for babies, not toddlers or pre-schoolers.

The bottom line (for me, at least) is that Ms. Rosin has shown once again that she is not an even-handed journalist on this topic. She appears to be more interested in finding justification for allowing screen-time than in getting to the bottom of the screen-time-for-tots issue. That’s what blogs are for… (ahem…) exploring these daily parenting quandaries. But we are justified in expecting more from journalists, even from quasi-news-culture sites like Slate.

Parents like me are desperate for real information on the potential benefits & perils of exposing our littlest ones to touch screen technology. We have to keep digging. And as I’ve written before, until there is reliable research showing that touch screen entertainment (which even Ms. Rosin recognizes is all that is out there in terms of touch-screen apps) is not harmful for very young children, I will advocate for following the AAP guidelines.

(Another bugaboo I have with Ms. Rosin’s coverage of this issue is her assumption that this is a dilemma most family’s face. Truth be told, we have not yet found room in our budget for an iPad & I use my phone exclusively as a tool, mostly to protect myself from the time-suck of games & other entertaining apps… But also to set an example for T. I’m lucky to have a smart phone but the screen-time issue is a first world, middle class problem if ever there was one… And really, the true problem is not whether we should be letting toddlers play games on an iPad… It’s what to do to raise up the tech-illiterate who don’t have access to technology, even at appropriate ages.)

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1 Comment

Filed under Gentle Discipline, Mothering, Parenting, Screens, Simplicity

One response to “Should apps for babies be marketed as educational?

  1. Pingback: iPad vs. child | Mom, JD

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