I’m supposed to work on creating better technology, but mostly I find myself banishing it from our house. Not all of it — I clearly benefit from access to knowledge via the internet, and have a fascination with wellness tech (and what it does and doesn’t help me achieve), but the rest? I more often than not find it problematic. Either it’s faulty enough that I would prefer a simple button, or it changes our lives in ways that seem great at first but then prove to be troublesome. This is especially true for most technology designed for children.
The latest example of this came in the form of a video app. I started letting my oldest watch shows on it because it had most of the features I thought I was looking for. My child could only access children’s programming on it, I generally trust the creator to provide content that’s suitable for my child’s age, and there were parental controls: I could block out certain shows, set timers, and (most importantly) turn auto-play off. Relative to similar apps I’ve tried for kids, they’ve put some thought into it, and as parents without family close by, sometimes these kinds of distractions feel essential.
Fast forward a few weeks, and we’ve turned the timer off because it cuts off in the middle of whatever show my child happens to be watching (cue tears and screaming). Instead, I resort to saying last show and hoping for the best. This works for a bit, until I get distracted. I come to find her clicking on show number 3 after “last show”. In what is not my proudest moment as a parent, I get frustrated and tell my child off for not doing what they’re told. Because I said “last show,” right? More tears ensue.
When I eventually pause long enough to ask why they kept watching after I told them last show, they point to all the pictures and say “I can’t help it! It all looks so interesting.”
I had a look for myself. The app is helpfully providing my child with beautifully illustrated links to favourite shows, latest episodes, and episodes my child might like based on past viewing. You know — the usual stuff we see on any video app these days, driven by machine learning algorithms tuned to offer up options that sustain our attention.
And right there, I know how she feels.
I still have a similarly hard time with offerings like this. Before we got rid of our own TV, we would binge watch episode after episode of whatever series we happened to be interested in until there was nothing left to watch. It was fun at the time, if a somewhat questionable use of time. But I’m an adult. With executive functioning skills.
Why are we designing apps for children with all the tools we use to get adults hooked? Why??
I understand why these apps are made these way. They make it easy for us to find a new favourite show, binge watch some great storytelling, or lose ourselves in someone else’s thoughts for a while. I am not, in principle, anti-TV. And I’ve personally benefited from the time my child’s spent on that app, clicking away without needing my help.
But I think we have a responsibility to consider what our design choices might do to our children before we simply copy and paste the approach we use for apps designed for adults.
Yes, I’m an adult and have chosen to give my child access to the app. I do bear some responsibility here. But I’m also a time-poor parent working in research related to technology development who realises how this happens. We live in a world that provides families with very little support even in normal circumstances. We’ve been working in a time that is, in many respects, unprecedented, with many people attempting to work while “assisting” their children with schooling, all conducted on devices that provide easy (and sometimes teacher-recommended) access to apps of this kind.
It is really easy as a parent to think someone has taken responsibility for designing an app that is appropriate for children, without really thinking about who the designers are and what “responsibility” means to them.
More often than not, I am guessing we are instead offering our children up as subjects in some kind of massive uncontrolled experiment.
Recently, we decided to get rid of all the apps and take a break from shows in our house. Even ones that are quite clearly educational. There are fewer screams. More art. My child all of a sudden is happy to leave the house and get outside for adventures. We still get to try out dissections, which they’re into at the moment — but on fish from the market, right here in our home. All in all, I see creativity, self-direction, and a whole lot of learning. I could not have predicted any of this before we started this experiment, and am quite honestly surprised by the change I’ve witnessed, just from putting away the devices.
Were there screams at first? Yes. Was it hard? Yes, initially. But that’s the thing with kids: if nothing else, they are programmed to adapt, often more quickly than one might think possible. The question I, as a responsible parent, have to ask is whether the adaptations are worthwhile. So far, for this one, the answer is a resounding YES.
I’m working with a single case study here, clearly, and there is no control, but I don’t think I’m bringing back shows anytime soon. Not in the way I have previously, at least, and probably not as a device to buy myself time. My child’s doing a great job finding other ways to fill that void. Yes, there are more distractions, but they’re the good kind: the ones where my child is proud of something they’ve done and wants to share it.
I can definitely live with that.
FYI: I am generally careful about revealing information about my children here. Posts like these are inspired by reality but are light on detail (and gender / specific age) because I want my children to have a choice about the stories they share with the world. Thanks for understanding this choice.
Feature photo by RF._.studio from Pexels. This photo captures what technology can enable at its best — access to knowledge is a privilege, and our many technological tools can and do give us access to worlds we may never have dared to dream of before. We are lucky. But, as this post was meant to start revealing, this same luck brings responsibility and a whole heap of difficult questions.