More tech for children...is that really smart?
Updated: Jul 25
I had the opportunity to offer comments on the new Amazon Echo Dot, a version aimed at children with either a Tiger or a Panda on the front...what was published was balanced (and I did love the idea that Alexa recognises and acknowledges politeness), but (perhaps understandably) missed a lot of my concerns not just about technology, but the ethics of marketing to children...so I thought I would offer my response in full on my own page.
Technology is a wonderful tool – it has made our lives much more varied, enhanced our ability to connect, and this is even before looking at the scientific, engineering and medical uses where it is enabling us to do far more than we ever thought possible.
However, a tool is best used when the user is in control.
Judy Armitage in her book “Smart Phones Dumb Parents” poses the question What other business tool would you leave in the hands of a child? The potential for exploitation, especially at such an impressionable age is great, and while a phone may be important to let parents know changes of plan, Armitage reminds us, there are phones in the school office
AND does a child really need access to any of the other features?
But, it is very easy to lump all technology together. When I taught in primary school, I was impressed by the editing skills Year 5 already mastered, and I myself had to learn how to teach maths via the iPads. The fact that it is now possible to laser an AVM of millimetres within seconds is nothing short of incredible; and when it comes to the Alexa – I bought one for my blind father, and not only is he able to listen to all his favourite podcasts and enjoy being a little more independent, it allows me to “drop in” as well. And it is certainly not unusual after that first purchase to think, actually I’d like an Echo Dot in my room as well.
It is therefore arguable that parents are already buying echo dots for their children anyway and simply ensuring the parental controls already afforded to them are on, so would it be fair to say, that this new offering is simply because it looks like a tiger or a panda?
Children and Marketing
In which case the argument turns into one about marketing to children, and the further ethical concerns surrounding the collection of any data (after all – is it possible to tell who is actually using the device – and how old they are? Is technology that discerning – and does it have to be in the eyes of the law?) So, for eg: if I buy the panda Dot instead of a “standard” Dot just because I like it more, do I get protection because I’m using a “kids device”? ie. Are Tiger and Panda configured differently? (In the marketing I’ve read it seems not – but I am happy to be corrected). In which case, if there's more protection, I might just buy one for myself then!!
…and if they are not, if it’s just the packaging – then the same concerns that have plagued psychologists in the research remain:
- Marketing to children can enhance their materialism
- The advertisers are “insincere” in that their aim is to sell the product (with any “life benefits” a bonus)
- It can create (at an age where the cognitive structures and processing, including the pre-frontal cortex where we consider consequence, are not fully formed) an “unrealistic expectations about the satisfaction goods can bring into one’s life”
Children and Technology
Research by the American Academy of Paediatrics has linked children’s use of technology with:
- The exacerbation of ADHD, anxiety and depression
- Higher chances of obesity
- Affecting sleep (which can impact growth and development)
There are mountains of research which explores the negative effect of smart phones (notoriously hard to “police” at home anyway, even with parental controls) on children’s body image, their sexual behaviour (before they are mature enough to understand it – leading to “Outcome 21” to be brought in so that the police, at their discretion can drop an investigation into behaviours such as sexting if it is clear that a criminal justice sanction is not proportionate), as well as an increase in bullying with “cyber bullying” being a key issue for families and schools – so it is easy to ask the question – do children really need any more?
But then, one must also bear in mind the exhausted parents, some working two jobs, some relocating every two years (along with their families) because of project-based work, and the lack of time and energy to engage – and in technology we have a simple entertainment device which can enable a moment of respite.
Whether the devices came before the adults becoming exhausted is another question to ask? Perhaps Amazon is simply responding to the world as it is – parents are purchasing a Dot for their children anyway, why not pop a tiger on the front!?
But for me, something needs to change – if the tech companies are not going to do it, because – do they really have incentive? How much power do parents then have? (And this isn’t just against technology for kids, but against the overwhelmed and overworked society that means tech for kids is a viable solution…not to mention the other parents (and even one’s own motivation) who don’t have the energy to fight.)
So what can we do?
- Make the effort to rely on technology less eg: have dinner face to face, even around a table.
- If you are going to play music or a quiz on a smart device – do it together – perhaps challenging family in a different location
- Designate “no tech time” – and see what new activities might engage you such as going for a walk or gardening
- …and remember, those that are encouraging you to buy do NOT necessarily have your best interests at heart…so YOU have to.
Hamlet said “For there is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so” – I’d argue the same of technology – it’s neither good nor bad, it’s how we are using it...and the wider consequences it has.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt