The Littlest Surfers: How preschoolers use the internet, and how to keep them safe onlineCamille Sweeney
Dylan Masamitsu of Manhattan can navigate her father’s iPhone with a masterful finger swipe, and she shows impressive multi-touch screen control. She can match cats to cats and dog to dogs on Jirbo Match, and flip between categories of games whenever and wherever she and her dad, Merv Garretson, happen to be around town.
Not bad for someone who’s nearly, but not yet, three.
At home, Dylan goes on the computer to surf YouTube for funny videos (animals mostly) and clips of some of her favorite TV shows (Dora and Diego). She also plays a variety of online games, and almost, but not quite, can manipulate the computer mouse herself. For this she still needs her dad. “But, she’s almost there,” he says.
Little little kids going digital has become an increasingly familiar tale, the subject of parental bragging rights and a mini-genre of strangely compelling YouTube videos of chubby hands having their way with sleek technology. In the process, it’s become a hot button issue. How much is too much tech time for a child five or under? And, at what cost? More broadly, What role do these technologies play in our young kids’ lives? Entertainer? Educator? Babysitter? Marketer? All of the above?
“We’re at a transitional moment,” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review and author of a recent study on young children’s tech habits. “It used to be there were two main platforms for technology, Mac and Windows. Now, there are over twenty, including Nintendo DS and Wii that kids as young as two-and-a-half can play,” he explained. “Kids are surrounded by screens in a way like never before, at home, in their pockets, in the minivan, and they know how to use them at younger and younger ages.”
While he believes access to technology can make our kids smarter and prepare them for many educational and social challenges ahead, he adds a caveat: Parents must be a part of it.
“If you’re going to allow your kid to go to a website or play a game, you have to first check it out yourself,” he said. “Think about it, you don’t let your child eat a meal you’ve never tasted before.”
In fact, Ryan and Amy Green of Media Greenhouse, owners of a small media software company, in their spare time create iPhone apps not only for their older son, Caleb, three, but with him. “Caleb is our guinea pig,” said Ryan, a software developer. “He loves to play video games, but can get frustrated easily when it’s over his head.”
For their Lil’ Snowman application Caleb even made suggestions. “He was thrilled when we added a hat at his request,” said Ryan. “Through gaming and being online, he loves to discover things for himself and not have to have me show him how something works. For him, that’s a big part of the thrill.”
Safety, of course is of paramount concern, an area that John Palfrey, author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a father of two, has made part of his life’s work. While he believes kids’ browsers and computer safety filters can help, filtering mechanisms can’t replace parental oversight. “In addition, we need to think about the online dossier we’re creating for our children,” he said. “I don’t care, say, if PBS has our information, but another site may not be as trustworthy not to sell that information to a third party, for example, should they be bought. I don’t see the harm in young children using technology. It may help them attain substantial skills, analytical, number and reading skills. But, the downside to engagement can be profound. It’s a matter of personal choice, but for my children, we pay for CD’s and use only sites that don’t request our information.”
Wired, or now increasingly, wireless little kids are a growing niche market for edutainment developers. Kidware and kid-oriented websites have proliferated in the last few years, offering a dizzying array of interactive games and “learning journeys” aimed at the five-and-under set, and led by many of children’s favorite TV, movie and book characters. Also multiplying are the portals to mom and dad’s wallets, kept open with easy-access 99-cent preschool apps from the iTunes store, pop-up windows that advertise, reward systems embedded in games that require an upcharge to keep active, and offers for premium packages that promise even more enriched material for a extra buck (or thirty) just beyond the velvet rope.
It leaves some parents perplexed.
“I don’t know how much I’m supposed to be allotting to all this,” said one wary mother in Bethesda, Maryland, whose four- and five-year-old regularly go online.
In addition, toy manufacturers find increasing value in linking their littlest consumers straight to the web through a password or URL inscribed on tag of a newly purchased doll or stuffed animal. Marketers say it deepens a child’s level of involvement (read: brand loyalty) and offers entr’e into a larger online community of like-minded fans. (Read: Sucks kids in.)
“The potential for educational enhancement and social development is there,” said Mr. Buckleitner. “But, we’ve got to remember that technology is still an abstract medium. There’s a lot to empower little kids, but for the ones still under two-and-a-half, I tell parents, keep it balanced, go analog, go organic. The most enriching experience you can offer them is to get a cat.”
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, two thirds of parents surveyed said they believed children six and under could learn from the computer. Makers of products such as Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart series (for preschoolers and babies) bank on that. Its products must pass what the company calls a “kitchen test,” the moment when a parent walks into the kitchen and from the other room can hear their child singing or counting along with one of the JumpStart characters.
“There is a strong push toward creating products for this age group,” said Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and founder of the Center on Media and Child Health. “A lot is being used largely as a marketing opportunity to implicitly or explicitly further a brand. Disney comes to mind,” he said. “So-called lapware is meant to be a co-production between a parent or caregiver and a child on their lap. But, more often even with the very young, it’s just something to park a child in front of to buy parents a little free time,” said Dr. Rich.
In the absence of adequate research in this area, early development experts tend to extrapolate from research into the baby-oriented video market where findings can be stark. At the University of Washington, one study of babies and popular videos such as Baby Einstein, BrainyBaby and others that purport to boost cognitive development revealed the videos actually caused developmental delays. With each hour per day of viewing time, babies eight to sixteen months learned on average eight to ten fewer words (or 10% less) than babies the same age who were not exposed to the videos. Another study at the same university revealed that babies exposed to foreign language video lessons (yes, Mandarin!) took an average of six times longer to learn a lesson on screen than in a face-to-face encounter with a teacher. Experts explain this as a so-called video deficit. “The human brain is wired to learn from other humans,” said Lise Eliot, a neurobiologist and author of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. “For a baby especially, anything that takes away from that human interaction would be less than optimal,” she said.
Even babies, it seems, can get jaded. If repeatedly exposed to something beyond their level of cognitive development, he or she may simply stop showing interest in it. Not forever, but perhaps for longer than the average eager parent can bear.
Melissa Bigge of Albany, New York, has been honing her own personal method of interactivity for her bright and accomplished children, now eleven and nine years old, since they were infants. “When they were very young, I put them in front of a computer because I was curious,” she said. At first her son, Gavin, then six months old, banged away randomly at the keyboard. But through trial and error and a Fisher Price game (doubling as mouse control proficiency program), within six months, he learned to manipulate a one-click mouse himself. After that, he moved onto software with adaptive technologies that increased in level of difficulty as it “recognized” Gavin’s increasing level of skill. “I appreciate the fact that we have all these resources to enrich our children’s lives at our fingertips,” said Ms. Bigge. “The point is we need to learn how to use them in conjunction with other kinds of learning and creative play to move from real life to online and back. The last thing I want for my children is for them to be couch potatoes, or whatever the online equivalent of that is.”
In other words, going to a zoo’s website doesn’t replace going to the zoo.