24 July 2022

Apps for under-fives? The digital madness dividing our kids from the real world

| Ian Bushnell
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Screen time for green time

The world is out there and kids don’t need a device to discover it. Photo: File.

It’s come to light that a range of children’s apps carry risky coding that allows companies to gather data to build life-long profiles.

The findings come from an audit of 186 Android entertainment apps by Children and Media Australia (CMA), including even one from the ABC.

The new advice to parents goes beyond the usual warnings about kids’ exposure to inappropriate content, user charges and advertising.

That sounds bad enough, but some of the audited apps include popular games that have clocked as many as 100 million downloads, including Star Wars: Pinball 7, and Dr Panda’s Swimming Pool, which its parent company says is aimed at children younger than five years.

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What is going on here? Why does anyone even think that someone that young should be glued to a screen in the first place?

What useful purpose, other than relieving a parent of their responsibilities, could such a thing have?

The glaring omission in the reporting about this issue was any commentary about the appropriateness of children’s apps at all, especially at pre-school age.

It reflects Australia’s blind acceptance of technology and addiction to gadgets that allows corporations to create and populate markets where their main targets should be doing a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t entail a mobile phone, tablet or whatever other device they can put in children’s hands.

Despite the mounting evidence of the dangers of screen time, the addictive nature of games and the risk to the developing brain, we allow companies to target preschoolers and swamp children with all manner of electronic products.

We call them digital natives or the digital generation as if they were born with dancing thumbs, destined to be tech-savvy devotees to Apple or Microsoft.

And this all happens without choice or discernment – they are simply fitting into today’s digital landscape.

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Pre-schools use them, and primary schools can’t get by without a flashy smart screen and tablets. The written word is disappearing from NAPLAN.

And governments get away with mixed messages – urging less screen time while at the same time tolerating and even promoting it.

The unquestioning use of digital devices at inappropriate ages threatens to separate children from the natural world and divert their growing brains down the relentless logic of the algorithms behind the spellbinding images on their screens.

At the same time, we bemoan the falling levels of literacy and numeracy in our schools and expect them to develop critical thinking skills at ever-decreasing ages.

Undoubtedly, computer technology and the internet have had a profound impact on humanity and delivered the capacity to access vast amounts of information and automate an array of tasks.

It’s an ongoing revolution and we struggle to digest one wave before the other begins.

In many respects, it has been an uncontrolled mass experiment and we still don’t know the outcomes.

It has changed the way we learn, and digital technologies are here to stay, but there are questions about what is age appropriate and useful for children.

Does an app enhance a preschooler’s experience given their play-based needs and the value of interacting with nature, tactile activities and the imagination?

Do early primary school children need tablets and internet access given the primacy that teachers should have, the need to curate information down to a digestible level, and again their experiential needs.

We should all ask what they are not doing while staring at a screen.

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Education departments need not be so bedazzled by technology and it is worth noting that not all school systems are such aggressive adopters, especially in the early years.

There is also a range of physical risks associated with device use, ranging from eye issues to muscular-skeletal complaints to basic inactivity.

It may seem all too much for overwhelmed parents but they should remember they have a say in what their children consume and how they do it.

Children have a whole world to explore right before them. They don’t need to do it through a screen.

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