While adults were busy checking emails, someone truly perverse was designing glasses for kids that “work as surveillance cameras.” In spite of their ability to record video in the dark, the glasses are fairly conspicuous, and the challenge of finding really damning footage of parents to share online should push children’s creativity. If the networked device is the new gun, parents must beware the disruption of intergenerational power balance caused by youths acquiring unprecedented access to channels of information. While being an extreme example of the new challenges facing parents, the surveillance shades are part of a greater trend. The proliferation of tablets and smart phones and other tentacles of the web makes those responsible for children anxious.
For adults, the concept of childhood refers to something alien. Culture has represented the ideal of childhood in different ways at different moments in history. In medieval times, people generally thought of kids as little incarnations of Satan. Then, starting in the 18th century, the child became a placeholder for lost innocence, as adults romanticized simpler times. Whatever concept of childhood crystallizes for the digital age will have to take into account the potentially uncanny reality of kids who spend the majority of their time interfacing with screens.
Kids love iPads. The two-year-old at the restaurant on her mom’s lap isn’t crying — she’s gazing intently into a screen. It doesn’t look like anything bad is happening. The screen is remarkably compact. The child looks focused and content. There’s no need for anymore toy guns or dolls. .
In the 1990’s, parents thought TVs were worms rotting their children’s brains. Some kids’ parents wouldn’t even let them watch a TV. Today, some folks are having a similarly violent reaction to kids using mobile devices. Parental anxiety has shifted away from the TV and onto new technologies.
No one spends as much time dealing with kids as teachers. Recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveals a mysterious paradox in the way teachers are reacting to students’ evolving technological habits. The study states:
“Three-quarters of AP and NWP teachers say that the internet and digital search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on their students’ research habits, but 87% say these technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans” and 64% say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.””
There’s really no way to escape the conclusion that either the teachers are confused, or that the perceived shorter attention spans are perfectly compatible with improved research habits. Could it be that actual attention spans aren’t shrinking? Perhaps it’s just patience for offline stimuli that’s on the wane. The real issue is that younger generations are acquiring a familiarity with technology which renders their adult authority figures boring.
The question of how early use of consumer electronics ultimately effects a child’s development will no doubt remain unanswered for many years, as the first generation not to know of a world without computers comes of age. Scientists at the Swinburne BabyLab in Melbourne, Australia are researching how the use of touch screens effects children’s abilities to perform a range of mental tasks. So far, the research hasn’t come up with any negative impacts, but the study is in a very early phase.
Then there are those who see the undeniable trend in child behavior as a huge opportunity. Since it doesn’t look like humanity will be rounding up and burning all the consumer electronics anytime soon, the proliferation of apps geared towards children feels likely. big toy companies would have to agree. A sign of things to come, Hasbro’s legendary Furby, perhaps the most annoying object ever devised, is back. This time, it has an app.
The archetypal triad of mother, father, child now includes the gadget. If parents lament their children’s apparent addiction to screen things, children have to endure neglect as computing diverts parental attention away from their needy offspring. It’s no wonder then that children, who learn how to get along in the world largely by imitating the adults who provide for them, are internalizing the message that the screen is king.
One direction for kids’ apps to go in is to engineer novel ways for children to interact with the device. For instance, the iPad’s touchscreen is capable of more than mimicking the traditional mouse/keyboard style. User interface is the new kung fu. A multitude of styles will proliferate. Parents concerned that all their kids will know how to do is drag and click are looking for ways to bring reality back into the picture.
Tiggly of Cambridge, MA is developing apps which employ a set of physical objects so kids can bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds as they play. Leaving the confines of the iPad’s de facto touchscreen interface, Tiggly offers kids a tactile experience that transcends merely touching the screen with their fingers in the manner contemplated by the folks who own the patents for things like the touch screen. Here’s a video from their website:
I recently talked to Tiggly’s Creative Advisor, Will Gridley, who summed up the project:
“While the iPad presents incredible opportunities for learning and play, it’s applications for toddlers are currently devoid of the essential physical interaction traditional games provided. Our goal, therefore, was to create a modern interpretation of these physical toys and puzzles that bridges the virtual and physical worlds. Their designs reflect the geometry of fundamental shapes while maintaining a character of distinction, fun, beauty and safety.”
As much as it’s tempting to get nostalgic for toys like the Game Boy or the Nerf bow and arrow, it’s a safe bet that any poor schlub of a parent who doesn’t already own an iPad will soon be obligated to max out the credit card and buy one. The kids are going to use it, and if parents aren’t providing some kind of kid-tested, mother-approved digital content to hold the child’s attention, the wild forest of the web will.
Computer toys do have serious potential for education. Networking capabilities will enable parents to follow a child’s progress in unprecedented ways. Instead of devising ways to hide the periodic report cards and suffering like so many poison darts the bits of red ink on crumpled paper quizzes, lost in the filthy maw of some neglected binder, kids attached to their devices might find that their activities are subject to near-constant monitoring and analysis, as parents acquire apps to gain the upper hand in the intergenerational surveillance arms race. The kid might be wearing goofy surveillance shades 24 hours a day, but if the parents can figure out how to take control of the kid’s networking powers and to build the domestic equivalent of a great firewall, the adults should be able to keep the advantage and prevent Lord of the Flies chaos.