Bashing of 'baby apps' misses the point; context is everything

Kid apps purporting to be educational have come under fire from the Federal Trade Commission and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, however as in so many childhood experiences, the inherent value of screen time depends heavily on parents' roles in providing context.

AP Photo
This undated screen shot image from the Fisher-Price website shows Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn mobile apps. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleged that two popular baby app developers, Fisher-Price Inc. and Open Solutions, tried to dupe parents into thinking their online games make infant and toddlers smarter. Open Solutions has since withdrawn its educational claims.

The topic of children and technology seems to be eating up more and more (often virtual) ink these days, and it's no wonder: as WiFi becomes viewed as a right equivalent to running water and kids increasingly communicate by text messages and status updates, it becomes necessary to try to understand what immersion in the digital environment does to their developing brains.

The question gets relevant fast. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against educational (or "educational," if you're the CCFC) baby apps by Fischer-Price, and Open Solutions. The complaint argues that the apps promise, without suitable scientific support, to teach babies skills before they're taking their first steps.

The apps "prey on well-intentioned parents," argues the CCFC, which is calling for increased guidance for marketing apps as "educational" and wants Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act – Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices enforcement against marketers of these apps for babies and very young children. The saber rattling has already begun to work – Open Solutions has withdrawn its educational claims, and CCFC has withdrawn its complaint

The conflict is interesting on a number of levels. On one hand, screen time can replace "living in the real world" time, to the detriment of kids' social skills, particularly vis-a-vis members of older generations, i.e. the people who will be hiring them for jobs.

On the other, (and this is a point that Slate makes well in a recent opinion piece), the equation might not be simply "baby + app = nothing of value," but rather "baby + app x parental context and input = something between neglect and education." Leave a baby to pound away on an iPad, and it's unlikely that a great deal of learning will take place. Use that iPad to deploy sounds, visuals, and interactive opportunities with the guidance of an adult, and it may be a different story.

History buffs are probably enjoying this story, because it plays a familiar script: the suggestion that an entire (newly emerging) genre of communication is nothing but a corrupting distraction.

Newton Minow, the FCC chairman in 1961, famously said of television "... when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."

When radio was on the rise in the early 20th century, Forum Magazine contributor Jack Woodford wrote in 1929: "[Listeners] sit around the radio and sip watered gin and listen to so-called music inter-spersed [sic] with long lists of the bargains to be had at Whosit’s Department Store . . . Thus dies the art of conversation. Thus rises the wonder of the century... Radio!"

And – brace yourself – when Johannes Gutenberg's mechanized printing changed the way people read in the 15th century, the church raged against the printing press and the vernacular Bibles and criticisms of the church itself that rolled into circulation by the hundreds of thousands. (The church was right to worry; the printing press helped fueled the creation and growth of Protestant sects.)

Presumably there were ancient Egyptian parents complaining to the Pharaoh's equivalent of the FTC about the damaging impact of hieroglyphic writing on young children, too.

None of this is to say that there aren't worthless apps out there that will fail to educate your infant or toddler. But it is to suggest that a medium is as good or as bad as the people creating content within it - and the community (and that means parents) who interpret and contextualize it.

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