By Warren Buckleitner
The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has struck a nerve by sending formal complaints to the FTC, charging the makers of apps for babies with false advertising.
I normally wouldn’t respond to this issue — I’m too busy reviewing interactive media — but the day the complaints were made I was asked by both NPR Newshour and Bloomberg news if I had a response. Why me? The six questions below came from Bloomberg. If I were teaching a college class, I’d ask each of my students to come up with their own answers, but here are mine.
1. ARE THE CCFC COMPLAINTS LEGITIMATE? I’m an educator and not a lawyer. But when I looked at the legal briefs, I was bothered by the faulty logic. Let me be specific. Playing up the educational merits of a toy, book or an app goes back forever (remember “Hooked on Phonics?”) and there’s no shortage of bigger examples. So if the FTC were to take some sort of action, they’d be pretty busy. Also, there’s little or no “consumer risk” with a free app, and the language used to market the apps seems tame. The publishers imply learning outcomes, but they don’t guarantee them. We’re not talking about pharmaceuticals or high chairs, so I’m doubtful this is an issue worth government action. That’s not to say that CCFC’s premise is wrong. Publishers should not carelessly market. Like the CCFC, I cringe when two words like “baby” and “Einstein” are mashed together, especially under a Disney label. But I was hoping the CCFC would use their advocacy bullhorn to highlight some of the real problems in children’s apps; such as nefarious in-app sales techniques that tease a young child with greyed out icons of fun things, or trick them into a “like.” Some of the techniques being used are downright sneaky. Don’t believe me? See Animal Train. I also like the message that the CCFC letters send to publishers — think twice before inserting edu-speak into marketing. Instead of saying “Teaches your child to read” it is better to say “lets children play with early reading concepts.” As David Kleeman of PlayScience has posted on Facebook, companies should publicize the research that goes into their products, instead of the promised outcomes that can’t be measured. Market responsibly when the young are involved.
2. DOESN’T ALL MARKETING INFLATE REALITY? A parent and a child strolling together through Times Square is going to be bombarded by thousands of inflated commercial messages. App stores are commercial spaces, where marketing thrives. I feel the CCFC’s view of commercial spaces is unrealistic and removed from reality. Our children won’t grow up in a perfect gender-neutral, allergy free, violent free world where cats don’t make you sneeze. Sadly, most knives don’t have dull edges and bees sting. Most of us must raise our children in a messy, free, highly competitive culture where there’s a Burger King across from every McDonalds. Rather than hiding our children from these forces, I feel (and this is a personal opinion) that adults must act as guides, so they can learn to separate the spin from reality. It’s a new literacy that should be viewed through a developmental lens.
3. COULD THESE APPS BE DETRIMENTAL TO VERY YOUNG CHILDREN? Ask five “experts” and you’ll get five different answers. I say as long as they’re used in balance, with support, and your child grows up with a healthy mix of real and concrete experiences mixed with the apps, you don’t have anything to worry about. I’m still astounded whenever I hear a well-intentioned pediatrician use a blanket phrase like “no screens under age 2.” That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I certainly hope pediatricians are using antibiotics with more wisdom.
Let me make it simple. Parents who were raised in the QWERTY keyboard age are now bringing up tablet age children. This tablet can be a sketchpad or workbook; a camera or a picture book; a video editor or a million channel TV. It can also be a mindless arcade, pornography, or a poorly designed workbook with sneaky in-app sales. Some of these experiences are good developmental matches for children; others aren’t. It depends on the app, your child, and the match. It’s time to switch the conversation from the hardware to the software.
4. HAVE YOU REVIEWED THE APPS IN QUESTION? Yes. They’re not my favorites. They are highly causal (cause/effect) — like a rattle or a busy box which is totally harmless. So a child can explore sounds and symbols. For this stage I like apps where the child drives the activity. I’d avoid the Open Solutions apps. They are low rate flashcards that are designed to present slide-show loops to fill a child’s head with knowledge. This bad top-down pedagogy is combined with in-app sales, too. There are better ways to use an iPad with a toddler. See, for example, the Sago Sago or Duck Duck Moose options.
5. WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE CCFC? It is rare to find voices in this debate that are not afraid to stand up to corporations, and for this, I admire them. But I get upset when I see such sloppy writing in a research-based document. I always think “children deserve better from their adults” Whenever valid research is wrapped in emotional language it erodes the credibility. I’m referring specifically to words like “dopamine” or “changing brains” which are designed to sound scary, and are used frequently by Susan Linn and the CCFC. Parents don’t need this type of stress when they have to deal with diaper rashes and teething. Susan Linn says “time with screens is linked to sleep disturbance, it’s linked to doing less well in school.” (Susan in an Associated Press interview). I want to know what type of screens? What apps? Where are your references? Until the CCFC can provide examples, it should slow down on the verbiage.
6. ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO ADD? Remember three words: access, balance and support, or ABS. Each was distilled from the NAEYC Fred Rogers position statement on technology and young children. Provide access to a variety of high quality screens, but in balance and with your support. These aren’t necessarily sexy ideas, and the support part – that involves bedtime stories and walks in the park, is easier said than done. We’ll all agree on one thing. Parenting isn’t an easy task. It wasn’t 100 years ago, and it won’t be 100 years from now.