Do Apps That Advertise Learning Make Your Baby Smarter? Advocacy Group Says No

Need to entertain your baby? There’s an app for that. But whether or not mobile device applications are actually educating your baby is under debate. An advocacy group has filed a federal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Jeffrey Brown talks to Dr. Michael Rich of Boston Children’s Hospital.

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    Finally tonight, the latest thing in child-raising and technology, so-called baby apps, software products that light up mobile device screens to keep young children occupied.

    Some companies promote them as educational. But that's met some resistance, including from an advocacy group called the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. It filed a complaint yesterday asking the Federal Trade Commission to step in.

    To tell us about the phenomenon and the debate, we turn to Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

    Welcome to you.

    First, tell us about the world of apps for very young children. How much is out there, and what range of activities and experiences is offered?

  • DR. MICHAEL RICH, Boston Children’s Hospital:

    Well, there are many, many apps out there for children, and they grow exponentially really over just days, it seems, because what people have discovered is that a smartphone with an engaging app will keep their child busy and quiet in a restaurant or in a waiting area for — in an airport, et cetera.

    So I think what we found is a very convenient electronic baby-sitter.


    So, tell us — take us into the dispute, then.

    What are the claims of this advocacy group and others who are worried about what they see happening?


    Well, I think this particular case echoes one that happened just a few years ago around infant DVDs, or baby videos, like Baby Einstein, in which the same group brought a suit with the Federal Trade Commission against them for claiming that they were educational.

    There really is no evidence that these apps can teach a baby anything. In fact, the research over years on educational television and other electronic screens shows that babies really can't learn anything from a screen under the age of about 30 months.

    But I think what's happened is that these app developers have recognized that parents are using their smartphones and their tablets to divert and engage their kids anyway, and are providing something that feels to them less guilt-inducing in terms of distracting them. So, if they can claim it's educational, even if it's not, they will get sales from parents who both feel guilty and want the best for their children.


    Well, what do they say, the companies say in their defense when they're pushed on something like this?


    They say that parents and children like them and want them and will buy them.

    They don't dispute that there's no research on this. And, interestingly, they don't do any research of their own, which is kind of ironic in a business that does a great deal of research on their products to find out how well they will sell or how well they will do the job that they purportedly do.

    So I think that what we have here is a product that is designed to fill a void that's being filled with less good material, if you will, violent video games, et cetera, if they don't step up and put something innocuous, but certainly not educational, in that space.


    Has the research looked into the differences in so-called touch devices — these are the tablets — vs. television, whether there's differences in the response or the reactions from young children?


    Well, the research is looking at it now.

    This is a field that is evolving so quickly, in terms of the technology and the capabilities of that technology, that research is not able to even keep up with the new developments. Not only that, but what we're talking about here are outcomes that are two and five and 10 and 15 years out in terms of how this interaction affects the way the child's architecture of their brain actually develops.

    We do know that the stimulus they receive affects their brain architecture, and at least there's theoretical basis for believing that a software or an app that engages the eyes, the hand and the mind at the same time may have more teaching ability than a screen that they passively watch.

    But the jury is still out on that. And the research is being done as we speak.


    And does the research make interesting distinctions among ages, different ages? What do you tell parents of a very young child, up to a year, and then after? What's the difference — what are the differences?


    Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics has now for over 10 years recommended against the use of screens in children under the ages of 2.

    And, as a pediatrician, I follow that. And I think that many parents do follow that mode. The problem is that, you know, these screens are so ubiquitous in our environment now that the little kids are watching as their older brothers play on a handheld video game or watch as mom or dad is surfing around the Net on an iPad.

    So I think that what we're seeing is that they are noticing that the kids are getting engaged with the material. The kids are being distracted and falling quiet around this material. And, so, they're using it anyway. The nice thing, if you will, about so-called educational apps is that parents don't have to feel quite so guilty about using them as the electronic baby-sitter.


    And let me just ask, briefly, if you would, yes, it's true there are more — these appliances, these devices are ubiquitous. But these kinds of debates have been with us a long time, right, back to — and this is a very similar debate as in television.



    And, in television, we do know that the content of that television programming does affect how kids respond. If you were looking at Sesame Street or other educational programs vs. violence, you're going to see a difference in outcomes over time.

    And one would presume that the same thing will occur with apps. But what we're dealing with, with these very young children is the fact that their brain is developing, and their brain is very, very different than the brains of even a child a year or two older, let alone the adults who develop this software.

    And the fact of the matter is, this software is developed to sell to adults, not to 2-year-olds or 1-year-olds. And so all one has to do is convince those adults that this is good for their child in order to sell it.


    All right, very interesting.

    Dr. Michael Rich, thanks so much.


    Thank you.