A recent study conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 80 percent of kids under the age of 5 use the Internet weekly, and 60 percent of kids 3 and younger are now watching videos online. It seems they’re taking their cue from their parents. For the past two years, Parenting magazine and BlogHer have asked mothers to weigh in on the ages they would permit their children to own specific technologies. In 2010, the average age they said children could have their own mobile phone was 13-years-old. In 2011, however, 1 in 4 mothers allowed their children to interact with a mobile phone by age 2.
“Our mouths dropped,” says BlogHer’s Jane Collins, director of market research. “I don’t think we expected to see such numbers of the 2- and 3-year-olds interacting with these devices. It seems like it progressed very rapidly. [And] the younger the mom, the more likely it is she’ll have children at a very young age experiencing technology.”
The official stance of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that babies shouldn’t have any time in front of a screen—none—before the age of 2. “There is no hurry in introducing your children to new technology,” says Vic Strasburger, chief of the academy’s division of adolescent medicine. “There’s no evidence that a baby given a computer is going to do better in school than a baby without one.” There are, however, piles of evidence that simply reading to your baby will accelerate his or her language acquisition. How analog.
But any parent who’s flown with a fussy infant can attest to the magical powers of digital devices. They’re handheld baby-sitters, digital pacifiers. It’s a parenting tactic as old as the television, only now these televisions are portable. Babies are especially enamored with smartphones, tablets, etc., given that a simple touch of a keyboard rewards them with shapes and sounds. (Intuitive devices like Apple’s iPad are especially alluring.) For proof, look no further than the hundreds of YouTube videos showing infants and toddlers smitten by such devices, to the obvious delight of their proud parents.
In addition to Disney, brands including Fisher-Price, Mattel, Sesame Street, Scholastic, National Geographic Kids, Nick Jr., LeapFrog, and TV characters like Teletubbies—almost every major baby and toddler brand with goods to sell—has an app to download and/or a website dedicated to online games, populated by branded characters and a click away from their online stores.
Infants now even have their own TV “network” with BabyFirstTV.com, which offers subscription-based content including videos, games, educational activities, and music. A 2-year-old can watch some content free, but to get more, parents have to pay—and if their toddler wants it, he or she will probably get it, thanks to what’s known in the business as the “nag factor.”
Marketers, meanwhile, are cooking up ever slicker and savvier gadgets. Brand new to the market is the Vinci, which debuted this month. It purports to be the first-ever educational handheld device for kids 0-4. The Vinci tablet looks like an oversized iPhone, runs on Android, and comes encased in a drool-proof bumper.
“We are converging three categories—technology, science, and education—to make a brand new learning system for the youngest children,” says Vinci’s inventor, Dan D. Yang, formerly a telecom entrepreneur. “Passively watching is definitely something we do not do. We’re talking about play-based learning under the control of the child with parental guidance.”
Out of the box (for $389 or $479, depending on the model), the Vinci is loaded with original interactive storybooks, virtual worlds for small fingers to explore, and no recognizable characters—as of yet. Parents will soon be able to plug the device into the Android app store and download branded apps to their hearts’ content.
Watchdog groups, and others, believe such marketing strategies can negatively affect a child’s well-being. “Bringing these kids into the market economy in such a wholesale way has raised all kinds of questions in terms of childhood development and socialization issues,” says Jeff Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. (He and his wife, Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, recently wrote a report, “Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age.”) “It’s not just about easy baby bucks; it’s about how kids play, how they socialize, cognitive development in terms of early brain behavior.”