First things first: happy Fall! For even the most riveting blog, it’s hard to compete with the glorious weather, welcome respite from drought and swelter. Something about it tugs at our intrinsic mammal-ness, beckoning us outside to play in the Yard, romp with Pets, toss a Ball, build a fort out of a Box, or for those so lucky, head to the Beach. Inspiration for these, too:
(end shameless, if well-intentioned, unplugged book plug)
Such perfect weather is a reminder that as hard as we try, we are inextricably, fundamentally connected not only to the world outdoors, but to the real world in general: people, places, things. Such connection is not only nostalgic, fueling seasonal trips to the pumpkin patch, it is critical for human mental and physical health and development. Nowhere is this more true or urgent than for young children.
I am ever-amazed – though not entirely surprised, since they are booming business – by the relentless flood of screen-based products bent on virtualizing human experience as cited above, collapsing the 3-dimensional world into 2 dimensions because technology allows it (and where weather is a constant nothing degrees, partly backlit with a chance of glare). A perfect example is Sparkabilities, a relatively new player in the world of “Educational” Baby Media founded by a former animation designer and professional gymnast. Their mascot is Sparky the Neuron.
Just when we unplugged types felt vindicated with the demise of Your Baby Can Read!, this web-based company claims to promote “essential learning skills” through a series of DVDs for children ages birth-5. There’s also a TotBox iPad App, stuffed with “fun and educational content.” Concepts promised for babies under 1 (I entered 2 months in the site search field) include math, reading, art, music, language, and my favorite, emotion. Emotion from a video? And reading? Haven’t we done that? Infant math? Sounds stressful for a child already burdened with learning how to eat, walk, and feel safe in the world.
To achieve these goals, Sparkabilities promises to “build essential skills,” including:
- collecting data precisely
- processing and integrating information efficiently
- interconnecting brain regions with agility
- developing clear perceptions
- acting upon perceptions with quality performance
This all sounds great, if anxiety-provoking, but it is critical to note that ALL of these are skills best developed in the real world. No curriculum is or has ever been required. Developmental stages take care of that, leaving us to just add attention, opportunity, and love. To a baby, “data” isn’t the computer kind, nor anything abstract. It’s a parent’s face or voice, the feel of a real toy or water, the taste of food, or the hue of the sky. A real rattle, not an iPhone that rattles. Real faces, not app faces. Real emotion, not Sparky.
(in lieu of screen-based picture, imagine these real things…)
Processing, interconnecting, developing perceptions, and acting upon them all just happen as natural byproducts of this real experience. And what is “quality performance” in a baby? Channelling my best Dr. Phil: it’s not curriculum to be measured, it’s childhood to be treasured! It’s how we’re wired, how we have evolved to develop over millennia utilizing all of our senses. These claims, so common on “educational” baby media marketing, use faux-scientific language to make the process seem more complicated than it really is, implying the need to spend $59.95 on a 4-DVD set. Also note that the “science” claims have no real science behind them – because there is none. A small print disclaimer on the Sparkabilities site admits as much:
“…objective laboratory or scientific tests based on accepted data, criteria or standards may not be possible; thus no such tests were administered or relied upon uring the creation of this product to determine the effect of the program.”
This drives home a central fact about Smart Baby media: claims of science and learning with screen-based “smart baby” products are marketing tools, nothing more – a universal strategy that unfortunately works. Browse online, starting at the Baby Unplugged Wall of Shame, and you’ll see what I mean (just don’t buy). Other examples:
I’ve posted before about the Video Deficit, a well-described phenomenon in children under 2. Despite the best attempts by marketers, children in this age range simply do not process electronic media well, including language and other cognitive tasks (not to mention emotions). Thus, time spent in front of a video screen – including iPhones, iPads, and other devices – is not useful for them and essentially wasted, providing a false sense of security to caregivers that learning is taking place. This reduces the sense of urgency to engage in multi-sensorial, hands-on activities such as going outside, building with blocks, or simply sitting, ironically impairing real learning. This also sets the stage for developing bad habits of mind, e-media becoming a catch-all for entertainment and enrichment, short-circuiting natural instincts to explore and play in a primary way. There are also direct toxic effects, with studies (real science) suggesting links between early media use and obesity, ADHD, sleep problems, and developmental delays.
In a very real sense, e-media marketers are trying to sell products that will deprive children of the real world experiences they need, placing them at a disadvantage versus children maximally engaged with the real world.
This same logic applies to Baby Apps. A recent New York Times article profiled many of these for children as young as 3 months, including Sparkabilities above. Unfortunately, this article badly, even irresponsibly, confused cool technology with good for babies. Baby Apps are the newest incarnation of screen time, DVDs or video games without the shiny round discs or cartridges. They may even be worse, obliterating context and sense of place, and ingraining a need for instant gratification, with long term implications for self-generated creativity, inner calm, and attention. With apps, any time is media time: dinner, the car, shopping, bedtime, or whenever mom/dad are busy.
Simply put: they are in-app-ropriate for young children.
Despite the swirl of excitement and debate about which is most educational, this is all you need to know about Baby Apps: they are television on a smaller screen, with the same implications for health and development. Of course, this also applies to grownup apps, but grownups can make their own choices. Children can’t, and thus they need us to make the best ones for them – and affording them a screen-free first few years to get their real world footing, is one of the best gifts we can give them.
The goal of this post, believe it or not, isn’t to bash Baby Apps and videos. It is to champion the timeless, wonderful, robust experiences that the real world has to offer, especially in the first few years. Technology can wait, and it should. Unplugging is science-based, time-tested, and actually works. It’s the stuff worth remembering. A brain and body turbocharger! The first few years pass quickly, too, every day offering its own magic. Embrace it with your child. Not only will they be healthier, happier, and learn more, deeper, better – you will, too! So save money, put the phone away, join the resistance, and have fun!