Anytime the venerable EU Kids Online team comes out with new research, it’s an opportunity to print it out (on two sided paper, of course), get a cup of the good coffee and settle in for a read. You are guaranteed to read thoughtful, considerate paragraphs about some aspect of children’s use of technology that you’ve been thinking about and wished someone would investigate. The latest bit is no exception: what is happening with the very young children, aged birth to eight, using the Internet on touchscreen devices and should we be paying more attention? The report is titled “Zero to Eight: Young Children and Their Internet Use.”
We used to worry that technology was too difficult for older adults, and now we marvel at how easy new touchscreen phones and tablets are for our babies to use. No wonder that mobile device adoption is up. The study shows that in countries where there are more kids online overall, they go online at younger ages. The internet has never been more easy to use and widely available. Increased adoption of touch screen devices, be they smartphones or tablets, means lots of little ones, pre-readers all, can navigate the internet via apps and devices with ease, if not great understanding. You’ve seen all those adorable YouTube videos of cute kids able to use their Mom or Dad’s iPad and doing so with delight and absorption.
The EU Kids study divides our areas of concern into two buckets: is technology detrimental or dangerous and is technology educational or at least beneficial to young children? On the topic of danger, unless the parent is heavily engaged in the use of the device, there are several types of possible risks. Your child might view inappropriate material; they might download apps, content or make purchases without permission; they might leave or abandon the activity you selected or approved and engage in an activity meant for another user. And they might witness or be involved in bullying or abuse. Younger children may be more upset by these experiences, lacking the resiliency of an older child. Or if they can make in-app purchases with a quick tap of a gold coin icon, you may have real world bills to contend with.
And is there educational value in letting the very young spend time in online experiences? Some research shows having access to the internet is positively related to verbal abilities. Some access but not all: gaming on consoles and similar activities seems to lower linguistic ability. Some older studies show that internet use in early childhood seems to give kids a leg-up at school. Additionally, we all want our children to be well-versed in 21st century skills which include knowing how to access, understand, view and create content. So how does the 21st century parent enable the best use of technology for these little ones?
My colleague Emma Jeffs, from the UK, tells me how she and her husband are navigating this new world with her young ones: “We have to be very careful to watch what they are doing, disable in-app purchases and monitor types of free app used to avoid excessive advertising which could lead them into adverts/sites which are inappropriate (Even if it’s just adverts for car servicing or buying office supplies, diet pills or other games such as GTA, they don’t understand it and get confused).”
“We have just started to use kid-friendly YouTube apps to screen the types of video they are allowed to watch as YouTube can easily lead you on a loop of “if you liked that, then you’ll like this” type activity, which has led them to strange or weird videos I don’t want them watching – for example if you watch “Charlie Bit my finger” it takes you to suggestions for the “annoying Orange” (I’m sure you’ve seen it!) which has knives and blenders chopping fruit and lots of screaming – not what you want a 3 year old to watch but so easy to find.”
What little babes can do with touchscreen devices is a big improvement over their use of keyboard and mouse-driven systems (computers and laptops). We will continue to see parents happily hand over their smartphones and tablets to their toddlers, in the interest of both some entertainment but also education. Witness the remarkable growth in educational apps for children. The Apple store alone boasts an incredible 40,000 educational apps for the iPad. Can you blame parents who have the financial means to purchase this device from considering it a must-have?
The EU Kids Online research also points to a third area of parental concern; the digital or online footprint. If you are posting photos, videos and information about your child, you are creating this digital footprint. Yet your child lacks the agency to edit the information and may, in future, be concerned about their private information being out of their control. Another aspect is how we parents encourage our under age children to engage in social media, showing them how to create their social network profile and lie about their age in order to do so. It may be accidental but this teaches our children to ignore stated rules, to dismiss end user license agreements and to give up their privacy at the earliest age.
You won’t be surprised that one key takeaway from the study is that there just isn’t enough known about the impact of technology on very young children. It’s incredibly hard to research those who can’t read or answer a telephone interviewer’s questions. You must observe them directly to get good, solid data. They recommend that future research should help us better understand risk in order to protect the most vulnerable among us. We also need better understanding of the best way to safely give access to the internet to help with the development of “digital social skills”.
So what do the researchers recommend?
We need to develop guidelines by age groups for best activities and how parents can guide and co-use. For example, in our own Family Online Safety Guide, we have age group recommendations but they don’t start until ages 3 and 4. The research authors recommend guidelines from birth through age 2 as a first group.
E-safety education plans should be created for the toddler/pre-school group. I would guess these would need to be delivered by a family member since they are unlikely to have school services yet. So what happens to the children who never get this exposure when they all end up in school rooms together? We will have the tablet and e-safety educated set with a set of skills for technology that their less advantaged peers will lack.
Manufacturers, ISPs, and content providers need to design safety for younger users. I would also suggest that device manufacturers take more of a lead to make this easy and streamlined for the parent. Too many steps or no information for safety in the packaging make it unlikely parents will succeed.
With regard to the issues of privacy, they had an additional set of recommendations:
Encourage manufacturers to establish default privacy protection in the design of new devices.
Work with software manufacturers for greater transparency about data use and provide easy opt-out paths for both parents and children within a new app.
Work with service providers on their policies allowing users to retract or “take down” information. Especially the information posted by children, either willfully or inadvertently that might be confidential, risky or just plain wrong.
Education for parents about possible effects from their creation of a digital footprint for their children.
In my own narrow internet security view of the world, I see different sets of risk for the very young on these devices. Will they inadvertently download and install a malicious app, whether it shares private information without permission or worse, infecting the device with malware? Will they click a link they shouldn’t and visit a dangerous website, introducing bots and other problems to the entire family network? And as a mom, I always worry about little ones dropping and breaking the phone or tablet. It’s a very expensive toy, so I’d do everything possible to protect the device, adding case covers and making sure you back up the data on a regular basis.