Whenever we worry that smartphones, omnipresent screens, and video games galore are ruining our children, parents cling to a narrative that goes something like this: “I’m freaking out like the parents of every generation. Digital devices are just this era’s version of the car, the telephone, or TV.”
I used to feel better thinking that. But then I met Susan Linn. I interviewed her and a number of other parenting experts for our latest podcast. Linn is the founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and warns this era truly is different.
“No parents in history have ever had to cope with the unprecedented convergence of a ubiquitous, sophisticated, alluring habit-forming screen technology and unfettered unregulated advertising,” she says.
Linn is a former ventriloquist who worked with children’s television personality Fred Rogers and later became a psychologist. Now she and her organization take on big corporations, marketers, and advertisers.
Recently, they won part of a settlement against Facebook for using teenagers’ names and images in ads without parental permission. CCFC turned down the $290,000—more than 90% of its 2013 budget—on grounds that the settlement “harms vulnerable teenagers and their families under the guise of helping them.”
Previously, they forced the Walt Disney Company to offers refunds on Baby Einstein videos (turns out they weren’t actually “educational”). In December, CCFC took on Fisher-Price and its Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity™ Seat for iPad®.
Most games and app developers equate swiping and tapping with the term “interactive.” They want parents to believe that, unlike with passive screen-time, touchscreens will make our kids smarter, more connected, and better at problem-solving.
While Linn has nothing against kids playing certain games (such as Minecraft) in moderation, she warns that parents quickly forget (in our haste to get a minute of peace or just dinner on the table) that the business model for almost everything on a computer screen is marketing plus taking our personal information and embedding products in what whatever we’re watching.
So it’s much different from that 30-second commercial from my childhood that could be turned down or off is over.
What kids are really interacting with? Ads. Constantly.
I’ll admit that most of apps I’ve downloaded for my kids onto my phone, including Minion Rush and Fire Hose Frenzy, just require swiping and tapping. OK, also some tilting. Sure, I’ve got some counting and math apps but those aren’t the favorites.
And after they’ve been told to turn off the phone or tablet, my kids aren’t more alert or primed for learning. They are usually agitated. Grouchy. It takes a while to get them back.
Compare that to when I fire up an episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. As soon as Fred swings open that front door and takes off those sneakers, I can feel our collective blood-pressure drop. Susan Linn is biased, but I agree with her when she says, “It was an interactive show. He was encouraging kids to think and feel and encouraging them to turn off the TV.”
What I love most? My kids are calm and nice to me after Mr. Rogers tells them, “I’ll be back. When the day is through. And I’ll have more ideas for you….”
It never gets old. We could watch Mr. Rogers’ soothing tour of a 1970s crayon factory three dozen more times. How I wish he was here to explain the Information Age to us in that measured, reassuring voice.