The Digital Trends Impacting Kids Under the Age of Five

For anyone who has small children and an internet connection, you’re probably familiar with the trend of Kinder Surprise Egg videos on YouTube. At first I was totally perplexed when my youngest started watching these. Eventually I learned from other moms that Kinder Surprise Egg videos were “a thing.” If you’re not convinced, check out this surprise egg video with over 288 million views from the Fun Toys Collector Disney Toys Review channel (a channel with over 9 million subscribers that makes approximately $5 million dollars annually while capturing 379 million monthly views):

Whenever a trend like this catches me off guard, I immediately wonder: 1) what’s fueling the curiosity, and 2) what’s the social commentary? As such, a journal article published by Dr. Benjamin Burroughs—a professor of emerging media in the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—recently caught my eye. The article, “YouTube Kids: The App Economy and Mobile Parenting,” focuses on the impact of emerging media and mobile technologies on small children (aged 0-5) since 2010.

What’s Fueling the Curiosity?

As a mother of children born since 2010, I was intrigued with this topic and the research findings. Apps like YouTube Kids, while benign in their attempt to keep small children better shielded from unwanted content, are still fundamentally built around the model of engagement and advertising. According to Burroughs, part of the work that the YouTube Kids app performs is to corral young children into a controlled space without unexpected participation and play, where a more monolithic category of “child” or “kid” viewership can be codified and marketed to within the constraints of the app. Do we really want to give advertisers unfettered access to our children?

While it’s no secret that some of the largest YouTube channels capitalize on brand partnerships—reinforcing buy-in that seeks to build a trusted relationship from the youngest possible age—what is less understood is how these technological interactions are actually impacting children. For example, as internet video consumption among young children has shot up, and hours of television viewing has gone down, algorithims have essentially replaced the role of the parent when it comes to the selection of entertainment. Burroughs writes:

Algorithms are now an interstitial part of parenting in an age of mobile technology. Algorithms can serve as a kind of surrogate parent that shapes the viewing habits of a child and both explicitly and implicitly instructs infant consumption. Tablets and mobile technology are understood to be a part of parenting as babies and toddlers are entertained, but in ceding that task to the safe confines of the YouTube Kids app, algorithms continually operate. This is all the more important as the younger the child, the more recommendations and filters work to guide viewing. The younger the child, the more impactful the algorithm and the app structure on viewing.

In other words, the bigger questions to be asking are these: what happens to our children when they spend increasing amounts of time on technological devices that are designed to lure and maintain attention at all costs? Who do our children become when they turn to robots and devices as their primary source of interaction vs. people? What is the psychological effect?

The Social Scientist’s Perspective

I recently read MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s book: “Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” Having spent the last 30 years exploring the relationship between people and technology, Turkle believes that our increased reliance on digital technology has brought us out of balance with what we need as people: rich, robust and trusting relationships. As a sociologist, clinical psychologist and media scholar, she talks about how our relationship with technology affects everything: how we work, learn, parent, govern, and even love. She writes:

Parents need a fuller understanding of what is at stake in conversations with children: qualities like the development of trust and self-esteem, and the capacity for empathy, friendship, and intimacy … the fact is we are all vulnerable to the emotional gratifications that our phones offer—and we are neurochemically rewarded when we attend to their constant stimulation. We are exhibiting a predictable response to a perfectly executed design.

The idea that our technological devices have been perfectly designed to keep us connected at all costs is a concept I wrote about recently in this post featuring thoughts and research from former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris. In fact, just in the last week his TED talk was published about this concept:

But what happens when the focus shifts exclusively to kids aged 0-5? In Turkle’s Aspen Institute talk entitled “The Robotic Moment,” she builds a research-based case supporting the need to deeply consider the consequences of our technological behavior, particularly as it relates to children. At about 33 minutes into it, she states:

The most important job of childhood and adolescence is to learn attachment and trust in other people. This happens through human attention, presence, and conversation. When we think about putting children in the care of robots, we forget that what children really need is to learn that adults are there for them in a stable and consistent way, and no robot, has that to give.

While Turkle is specifically talking about the effect of interaction with sociable robots like Kismet or intelligent personal assistants like Alexa and Siri, the bottom line is that we’ve reached “the robotic moment.” The robotic moment is defined as the moment in which we’re willing to accept robots into our lives as a replacement for certain types of human interaction, whether that be robot companions for the elderly, robot babysitters for our children, robot teachers, or robot psychologists. Today’s robots are not only smarter, but increasingly able to engage us emotionally. The question is: at what cost?

A Better Way Forward

At a minimum, we need to be aware of the content our youngest children are collectively consuming, as well as the intentions behind that content so we can help usher in a new generation of conscious technological consumers. As a starting point, I enjoyed this recent article from Creativity Post about how to educate kids for the future and not the past. Main points tie in with the research noted above:

  1. Working in a Team: The jobs of the future will not depend on specific expertise or crunching numbers, but will involve humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.
  2. Effective Communication: There is increasing evidence that the STEM shortage is a myth and, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, what we most need to improve is communication skills.
  3. Learning Patterns vs. Numbers: As the great mathematician G.H. Hardy put it, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”
  4. Focus on Exploring Things Rather Than Knowing Things: Instead of cramming their heads full of disparate facts, we need to give them the ability to explore things for themselves, take in new information, make sense of it and communicate what they’ve learned to others.

Taking this into consideration, I’ve identified a couple of resources for parents and marketers alike to help children become more conscious of their time spent on technology:

  1. Be Internet Awesome –  Be Internet Awesome is a website that teaches kids the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence. A Google-sponsored project in collaboration with experts in digital safety.
  2. Media Smarts: Media Smarts is a Canadian non-profit organization that focuses on media literacy programs, promotes critical thinking via education resources and analyzes the content of various types of mass media. MediaSmarts has explores topics of youth media consumption, as well as media issues.
  3. Media Literacy Now: Media Literacy Now is the leading national advocacy organization for media literacy and digital citizenship education policy.

In summary, kids under the age of five are considered a real target market in the digital landscape and the outcome of too much time spent in this realm can have real social consequences including decreased capacity for empathy, relational awareness, and intimacy. Now it’s your turn! Would love to hear your thoughts.



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