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Worst toys

Yesterday, the iPotty, a potty seat that comes with an iPad holder (“Parents can give children a comfortable and fun place to learn to use the potty with the child-friendly iPotty from CTA Digital,” claims the marketing material), was voted the worst toy of 2013 in a parent poll sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“Throughout history, kids have mastered toilet training without touch screens,” said CCFC’s Director, Dr. Susan Linn, in a press release. “The iPotty is a perfect example of marketers trying to create a need where none exists. In fact, the last thing children need is a screen for every single occasion.”

Reviewers on Amazon have weighed in, too: “Seriously, I can’t believe this is not a joke. Does anyone else find this ethically wrong to cut down human interaction with a toddler in this aspect of their lives?”

The kerfuffle over the iPotty, and similar items like a Fisher-Price iPad holder clearly directed at infants, represent a deep ambivalence that parents feel about exposing their kids to ubiquitous electronic media.

When I talk to other parents of young children, we express a lot of guilt and most of all, confusion about the role of screen time in our family lives. iPad apps and videos are so useful for occupying young children on long plane flights, through illness, or when a single parent needs 10 minutes to take a shower. Some parents see their kids learning reading and math skills, and other positive behaviors–even toilet training!–through apps and videos. But on the flipside, we don’t like how obsessed our children get with screens, how they constantly whine for more screen time as though each pixel were a sugarcube. And as parents we struggle with setting limits ourselves for texting at the dinner table or checking our phones at the playground. There’s a movement of “hands free parenting” exhorting parents to give up all these distractions while they’re with their kids.

Recent research shows that 75% of kids under age eight have regular access to mobile devices, and 38% of babies under age two have used the devices. The trend lines are mixed, though: overall daily screentime is down slightly from two years ago, to just under two hours, driven by a decrease in DVDs, video games, TV, and computers.

Another announcement yesterday spoke to parents’ anxieties with a fantasy of complete control over electronic exposure. Amazon has updated its parental control features on the Kindle Fire tablet, allowing parents to dictate both overall time spent on the device and a distinction between “education” and “entertainment” uses.

With the “Learn First” and “Educational Goals” features, parents can force kids to spend a fixed time, say 30 minutes reading, or 45 minutes playing math games, before they can access any old regular games or cartoons. Or they can limit kids to one 20-minute TV show while permitting unlimited ebooks. Bedtime, Weekday, and Weekend settings cut off all access, depending on the time of day or time of week. Amazon offers a subscription service featuring children’s multimedia content that is age-graded, pre-sorted into “educational” or “entertainment,” and offered without in-app purchases or ads.

Electronic controls like these are similar to those offered teachers by the “one app” mode on the iPad, or the Amplify tablet’s “eyes on teacher,” “app controller,” and timer modes. The idea is to use technology to fight the most pernicious effects of technology–an “Odysseus at the mast” strategy.

There are two cautions here.

One is that the distinction that Amazon is pushing, between “good” educational content and “bad” entertainment content, may be a false one. Initial research indicates that the important metric for child development is the overall time spent with screens versus interacting with people in 3D space, not the individual choice of media within that screen time.

The other, bigger issue is that by arming themselves with an elaborate set of behind-the-scenes controls, parents–and educators–may be abdicating the responsibility to assert overt control and authority in their children’s relationships with technology. It feels uncomfortable to deny my two-year-old daughter’s repeated requests to watch her favorite Little Mermaid clip, but I’m learning to set boundaries, which is important for me as a parent and important for her to internalize as she gets older. I want to raise a kid who passes the marshmallow test, and is able to actively delay gratification, not one who needs to put a lock on the refrigerator door.


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