Apps & Babies: Keeping Our Heads, by Emily Lloyd

I’ve been wanting to address the media coverage and reaction to the news this week that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has urged the Federal Exchange Commission to look into the marketing practices of two makers of apps targeted to babies, Fisher-Price and Open Solutions. In particular, I feel the need to respond to Rachel G. Payne’s August 9th post on the School Library Journal website, “Are Learning Apps Good For Babies?” Since the form my blogging most commonly takes these days is a slide deck, I offer the below:

Emily Lloyd is a public librarian and lives in Minneapolis.

About Amy Koester

I'm a youth services librarian with a penchant for exciting ideas and engaging programs. It's a sure bet that if you talk to me about STEAM, whimsy, and trying new things, we'll be best friends forever.

Posted on August 10, 2013, in Apps and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Very thoughtful, mind-opening piece – yet, simple common sense. Thanks!

  2. I do not have much time to comment on all this-just to say I am so proud and honoured to be part of this awesome community of amazing professionals. Way to go!

    Tess Prendergast

  3. Emily, thanks for the great app suggestions! Maybe we should add a baby board to the Little eLit Pinterest page. It would be useful to have a list of librarian approved baby apps.

  4. Yes. Not all screens are alike in that research shows that television is better at making children obese.

  5. hanks for getting us talking and thinking about all of this and I appreciated our lively back and forth on the SLJ site. Here’s my response to your response to my SLJ piece (I’m getting dizzy!):

    I appreciate hearing about the apps you think work well for babies and we agree that parents should interact with their kids on these devices as much as they can. You’re right to point out that apps are a format, but is this an ideal format for babies for educational purposes? There are too many unanswered questions for me about about the impact of screens, interactive and otherwise, to feel comfortable recommending learning apps for babies. The better apps do seem to tap into a baby’s interest in cause-and-effect and repetition, but the tactile experience is relatively the same (finger or hand on screen). Touch screens don’t have the a wide range of sensory give and take when you use your whole hand to grasp a ball, rub a blanket on your face, or grasp a touch and feel board book. And you can’t put the iphone in your mouth without mom or dad getting annoyed.

    I do agree that passive TV watching and interactive app use is different, but I do think parent-child book reading and parent-child digital device use is also different. Parents seem to interact less when they give their child a digital device with an app, because the app is doing the work for them and the conversation around the device is where to touch and not to touch on the device. Most parents know they have to read a book with their babies for them to learn, but do they know they should interact around a digital device that is already interactive? Is the human element, so important for babies, missing?

    As you note, some parents are loading content for babies on their phones and tablets for convenience sake, but I don’t think that is the only reason parents do it. It concerns me that some parents buy baby learning apps and think they are giving their child the best learning experience, when letting a baby play with pots and pans in the kitchen might have greater educational value (not to mention being free!). Also do extended sessions with smartphones and tablets take away time from other vital activities in this narrow window of development?

    Lots and lots questions swirl around this issue and more research is needed!

  6. I think that librarians have a number of choices in response to the growing use of mobile media and apps. It seems to me that our first consideration is appreciating what we know about the children we serve and we know that most children we serve spend far more time with screens than the AAP advises. Many too are viewing adult-directed content. Many too live in environments with a great deal of background television. These conditions stand to harm child development and in my state it seems to be showing in kindergarten readiness assessments (only 60% are “ready”).

    How do we respond to this reality? According to what children and families need, libraries can help by offering screen-free environments, encouraging a variety of activities that are healthy options to screen use that help provide balance to screen use and also educate parents on screen use in a way that does not promote it or add to it. Libraries have the opportunity to be more relevant and more appreciated than ever in the current environment. I am afraid though, we could fail children if we succumb to the hope and the hype surrounding app use. This is a mistake we can easily avoid if we simply follow the research.

  7. Hi, Rachel–

    thanks for your response to my response. 🙂 It seems like most of your concerns are around the way parents might use/abuse apps with young children (“do they know they should interact around a digital device that is already interactive?”). My feeling is: that’s where WE come in! If we begin and end the conversation at “No apps, period,” we have to be comfortable with the fact that those parents who ignore this advice will go on to choose apps without the benefit of hearing from an early childhood educator as to what might be developmentally appropriate, what makes a good app, and how to explore apps with their children. So while some librarians’ response to parent inquiry will be “No apps, period,” mine will be “If apps, these apps, here’s why, and here’s how to explore them with your child.”

    I have a presentation geared specifically to parents and caregivers that is very clear, careful and intentional on the point that apps cannot replace other forms of reading, writing, playing, singing, and talking together–it includes tips on how each discussed app can be explored and extended, and ties each to the ECRR2 framework. It’s about exploring apps with preK children, not babies, but I hope it gives an example of the sort of conversations I want to be (and think more librarians should be) having with parents around apps: We model dialogic reading for parents; we show parents which board books are great for 1-yr-olds and which are more geared to 2 and 3 yr olds; I see this as similar work. All we can do in any of these circumstances is hope what we model sticks. I will always stress to parents that banging on pots is great for babies, but by “convenience” I will also acknowledge that an iPad loaded with carefully-selected apps on an international flight with a baby where no pots and pans are available and where one only has so much room for sensory toys and board books in one’s carry-on is not an evil.

    We’re in complete agreement about the awfulness of advertising promises that such-and-such will “make your baby smarter,” and that trying to “make one’s baby smarter” is an inappropriate and ridiculous goal. This, too, is something we need to do our best to educate parents about.

    For what it’s worth, I became interested in looking at apps and little ones after watching a webinar by Cen Campbell that included the story of Digital Storytime’s founding (–Carisa Kluver asked her local librarian for app recommendations and was dismissed with “We do books, not apps, here.” I felt ashamed, seeing that, and very much like I didn’t want to be that librarian. I do think that apps are something librarians should be discussing and educating themselves about, and I’m glad that discussion is happening here, at, and elsewhere.

    • Hi Emily,
      I do think we need more research on how families interact with touch screens, if can babies learn from apps, and is the hardware appropriate for babies. (Do screens interrupt sleep which babies need so much of? This question doesn’t go away once a screen is interactive.) If interactive screens are a great teaching tool for babies, what kind of content is educational? Also, how much screen time is appropriate? I don’t believe screens or apps are evil, but I do have questions about them and I am interested in what the research shows. From what I’ve seen, apps don’t provide the multi-sensory, 3-D experiences babies need to learn. Of course some apps are going to be better than others, but that doesn’t make other questions around their use or appropriateness go away.

      I know some librarians do believe we should not be using or promoting apps at all, but, I think we agree, that is not realistic or helpful. I never said “no apps period” in the article. I said that I think it is fine to recommend high quality apps, just as we would high quality books. I appreciate you alerting me to apps that are better than most. But I do think parents need to know what the concerns are about screen time, what the research says (or doesn’t say) about what babies can learn from screens and apps, and that many of the educational claims have not been proven. We can also model how young children learn through interaction and play, the value of the ECRR practices, and encourage parents, if they are going to use an app, to talk with their child about it. That way, they can make informed decisions about what is right for them and their babies. Personally, I was more cautious than some around screen use when my son was a baby. I was able to make an informed choice. That is what I wish for all families.

      I think we are agree more than we disagree. I was a little startled to see my piece used so heavily in your PowerPoint blog, but I am glad we are discussing it. There is a lot of emotion out there around this issue and I think you have raised good points and kept the discussion professional. Let’s keep the dialog going!

  1. Pingback: Read Up for Workplace Conversations on Apps & Babies | Little eLit

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