Sunday, April 14, 2013

Technologizing Childhood

Technologizing Childhood, when everyone seems to want it, is it wrong?

Time spent watching video content, playing all forms of gaming, searching the web for fun and information and virtualization of many parts of physical play are steadily invading childhood and replacing physical play and exploration time for our kids with captivating technological experiences.

Parents and even caregivers are equal parts excited and anxious about bringing technology and virtual experiences into their children’s lives starting practically at birth.

All kids are biological beings evolved to grow their brains and bodies through years worth of physical and conceptual explorative experiences. Just because we can change what they are largely spending their time doing during those important formative years, should we?

Because the kids themselves seem drawn to those experiences does it mean they are OK? There seems to be big business here so I should jump in and get tech and virtual experiences happening throughout my franchise plan, right?

Well yes and no. Yes, we need to move into the technological future briskly. No, this is far more than a competitive issue because our kid’s minds and bodies are at stake.

Since I am in the business of Meta-story creation, management and development, I see a lot of these questions and concern as they arise during the process of franchise creation and management. I also have a lot of experience developing entertainment and products for kids of all ages. I’d like to share with you some concepts and guiding principles that I believe help to bring understanding and insight into the discussions about technology and virtual experiences in kid’s franchises.

Listed below are my 5 guiding principles and 4 key concepts that help to talk about the what, how and why of this subject.

My guiding principles for kids and tech:
  • 1.    Technology changes, biology doesn’t
  • 2.    Listen to the kid experts. Everyone else might be rationalizing.
  • 3.    Kids are the future and Tech is the future, kids should play with APPROPRIATE tech, SUPERVISED!
  • 4.    Too much tech is bad. Encourage balance.
  • 5.    Remember to help Mom’s from the high road

Key concepts:
  • 1.    Playdar – Play’s job is to identify what’s important in a child’s world and play with it.
  • 2.    Tech Candy : Tasty tech fun for kids with little nutrition for brain development.
  • 3.    The Kid-tech gold rush – kidco’s rush to tech as antidote for solving change disruption.
  • 4.    Genius validation – Toddler’s ability to adapt to tech, triggers parent’s dreams of brilliance.

So let’s dive in and have a deeper discussion.

Technology changes, biology doesn’t (Principle #1). 
It’s a very simple concept that clears up a lot of conjecture, debate and misinterpreted observation. Human beings have been through countless millennia of evolution to finely tune our genetics and childhood development to use the physical world around us to properly grow our bodies and brains. There is a direct relationship between all the different kinds of physical movement, tactile experiences, environmental exploration and more that builds specifics parts of the brain at specific times during our first several years of life. What adults can and should do with their time is not analogous to what is good or healthy for our kids whose brains grow to over three times it’s birth size within the first few years and who’s bodies must learn to teach the brain about simple concepts that then build the increasingly complex understanding that eventually becomes the adult human mind and being. 

We have to build the road before we can drive on it.

“Tech Candy,” exciting and compelling tech experiences that draw us and our kids like moths to a flame but can starve the developing aspects of the child-mind, is perhaps one of the fastest growing elements in our play-purchase landscape today. I often see parents and play makers alike making decisions about what their children would like based on what they find interesting or compelling. Part of our adult play landscape is meant to relax and distract us for a while. It is the definition of Tech Candy and is just fine for us in reasonable amounts. It simply isn't all that great for our youngest kids and can become a problem in larger and repeated exposures.

Listen to the kid experts. Everyone else might be rationalizing (principle #2). 
If you search, you can piece together volumes of articles and questions about how to think about young children and technological experiences that can lead you to doubt that there is much of a problem to be concerned about. Kids like it so why not? We'll put it out there and let mom's decide. Because there is so much money at stake at the intersection of kids and technology and because there are so many companies moving into this business, many of whom are not versed in child development, a lot of partial truths and omission are creating headlines in the media. It is of paramount importance that those of us who are actually creating plan and product for the young children's industry are holding ourselves and what we do to a more rigorous standard. I can't recommend this highly enough:

Always consult the developmental experts!

They can help you to navigate what is appropriate and what is a possible issue for the developing children of the age you are making and distributing to. As more information from these experts becomes more and more public, and as the regulatory environment adopts and enforces doctrine based on this knowledge, you will want to land on the right side of these issues. If the decision has a possible impact on children's health, then it is no place to be too experimental with your plans.

Additionally, the entire kids entertainment and products industries are undergoing constant, seismic-level change. ( In an effort to find some stabilizing approach around which to plan and manage brands and business, as an industry we're susceptible to the “kid-tech gold rush” where companies are diving into product and distribution options that are tech driven as an antidote for the terrible change disruption everyone is experiencing.

 To be clear, I believe strongly that it is important to be “in the game” and to learn how to move much more quickly. It’s also equally important not to rush to tech without being darned sure of its impact on the children we are bringing our product to. Keep that voice in the room when the heated competitive discussions are happening.

There is a lot of research and practical work that has been done by some quite brilliant and caring experts in these areas and these folks have not been shy about telling us what transplanting tech into these free-form physical growth experiences may be doing to our children. Here’s just a few:

·      Gill Connell –Moving Smart

·      Dr. Madeline Levine -Teach Your Children Well

·      The American Academy of Pediatrics –No Screen Time Before Two

·      Dimitri Christakis – Media and children

Kids are the future and Tech is the future (Principle #3)
So kids should play with APPROPRIATE tech, SUPERVISED!

I’m telling you, my daughter is a genius! She’s only 18 months old and when I put an ipad in front of her she was swiping her finger and navigating around my games within a minute! She giggles and laughs and it’s just amazing. I let her play with it a lot now. This new generation is just growing up with this stuff and they’re gonna be so good at it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of a number of exhortations just like this from parents about their seemingly technologically brilliant children several times in the past year. You tube is loaded with videos of this kind of “genius validation” of proud and amazed parents showing off their precocious children’s almost unbelievable acuity with operating mobile touch technology. Some have even become Internet sensations showing what seem to be toddlers with an understanding of the electronic ephemera of the digital world before they have mastered the mundane physical world.

What looks like genius is really what I like to call “Playdar” at work. It is a kid’s inborn targeting system for their curiosity, helping them to focus on what is important and useful in the world they see around them. It’s part of the mechanism that insures our children adapt generation after generation, to be successful wherever and whenever they are born. Watch a toddler when he or she is shown a set of plastic and rounded play-keys at the same time he or she is shown the real keys his mom keeps in her purse and uses to open and start things. The Toddler will unerringly keep going after the real keys. They want to understand them and play with them in every possible way. We’re actually wired at birth to find great pleasure in exploring and discovering THE REAL WORLD. That’s what play is, joyful exploration. Our minds won’t grasp certain concepts or build certain structures unless we PHYSICALLY experience the underlying elements first!
Because Playdar is always on, It should come as no surprise then that our children see us on our cell phones, tablets and computers and are equally drawn to those devices. It’s not because there is something genetically different about this latest generation. It’s because the environment is loaded with tech and we’re using it in critical and constant ways signaling to our kids that these things are important.

Playdar can sense what’s important in a child’s world…however, Playdar doesn’t know when or how much of something is good or not. That’s what parents are for.

You wouldn’t let a child play with a sharp knife at 5 months old even though it’s shiny and your child’s playdar sees you using it to prepare dinner. They just aren’t ready for it yet are they? Tech experiences don't cut you and they make us smile and laugh so we don't see them as inappropriate or doing any harm.

I believe it’s very important that we show the same responsibility about technology and our children as with everything else in their lives that needs monitoring and metering.

The very important reason why we must endeavor to make, sell and use toddler and preschool tech carefully is that for the first time in the history of human beings, we can create compelling and immersive experiences that children are drawn to, that can cause  deficits in the developing brain and body of our young children if they are allowed to access those experiences either too young or too frequently at certain ages!

Too much tech is bad. Encourage balance. (Principle #4)
Too much of anything is bad and for a young developing mind, this is critically true for tech. It starves a young mind and body of the multitudes of different kinds of physical, kinesthetic, personal and emotionally variable experiences they need to develop. Remember the Baby Einstein videos problem? Time spent watching those videos for babies subtracted from vocabulary development over time.

That doesn’t mean that some tech can’t be accessible to the child. We just need to make sure it’s in small increments with limited exposure and that the tech, whenever possible, encourages some real world interaction and is appropriate for the age of child (again, not below 2). Here are some simple goals to try and achieve as often as possible:

·      Avoid lots of mini-games or short but wildly kinetic activities or video cuts. Think more like Mister Rogers. Gentle transitions with clarity and purpose.

·      Cause and effect should be clear – Magical effects are attractive but don’t teach any real cause and effect. Simple things like cows going Moo and things behaving like the real world help.

·      Stop trying to drill for skill too young. At too young an age, this is pandering to parents desire for content to be “educational.”  There is good evidence that early childhood is really for experiencing, moving and exploring as much as possible and getting “exposed” to concepts and ideas. Mastery of math, letters and memorizing largely levels out once kids are in school so prepping them to be ahead doesn’t really work. In fact there is evidence that “free range kids” have a learning advantage when they get to school because their experiences have grown the right mind-body connections to maximize intelligence.

·      Engage Mom and Dad – Any kind of video or tech experience that can actively involve Mom, Dad or any other caregiver, is a much richer and healthier experience. Kids need to look at human faces and to have adults name things for them and discuss/play things with them. For every minute a passive tech experience can slow a child’s development, that same minute spent interacting with a caregiver can have twice the developmentally positive value. A little mom and dad goes a long way to balancing benefits.

·      Understand what your curriculum is – There are very knowledgeable child development experts that can be consulted to insure your technological experience, narrative and ergonomics are being done properly for the age of child you are creating for and for the benefit you are trying to achieve. Don’t oversell your tech to parents as being a magical solution. It can have it’s proper place.

Remember to help Mom’s from the high road (Principle #5)
There is so much contrary noise in the marketplace and media that parents are conflicted in terms of how to think and act about Tech for their kids. It’s important for business, but more importantly, for the future of our kids, that anyone working in the kids and family entertainment and product business take the high road when making and marketing to kids.
·      Consult the experts. Don’t think you know better and don’t think because you like it that it’s OK for kids.
·      Help educate parents and caregivers to do the right thing.
·      Make your entertainment or product a positive tool for use with clear guidelines.
·      Innovate on behalf of healthy child development

In summary:
Responsibility isn’t about keeping all tech away from kids but it is about when they use it and what they find when they get there.
Educate yourself about what kids need and then help to educate the parents.

Now let's go innovate, create, distribute and sell and move things into the future!