Jenny Radesky, M.D., FAAP, wants to demystify the digital environment in which kids and adults are constantly immersed. So she made an odd request during her plenary address Sunday: “Take out your phones and scrutinize your apps,” she told the audience.
“Which of the apps make you feel happy — the pictures, the FaceTime that you use to talk to your kids and the ones you don’t always come away with the best feeling from? The ones that always make you feel sucked in and you’re not sure why?” she asked.
“This is the type of persuasive design that children’s brains are fighting against as well. So it’s good for us as adults to examine our own relationships,” she said. “We have to realize we are also living in the same sort of gamified digital persuasive environment if we are going to fix the ones kids are using,” she noted.
Dr. Radesky, a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media, studies how kids’ apps are designed and marketed. She was a lead author of the 2016 AAP policy statement Media and Young Minds (http://bit.ly/2NgkQK3).
Her research has found there is not much control in how children use apps. In addition, a plethora of over-repetitive simple tasks with constant rewards keep children hooked.
“There is a lot of hypersalient bells and whistles … everything is so full of audio and visual effects. Compared to this, the natural world seems pretty boring,” she said.
A child might do a simple math problem and then get balloons, fireworks, cheers, parades, even aliens cheering for you. “This doesn’t happen in real life,” she noted.
“This packing of rewards into children’s interactive media right now does create these artificial expectations, that after you solve a problem, you get this reinforcement. I want kids to have their own internal motivation,” Dr. Radesky said.
One example is a cooking app where kids earn coins for stirring things or for feeding a baby. “This is just the kind of oversimplification and repetitive nature of a lot of the apps we’ve been studying.”
Some apps also encourage self-display. “Share your progress on social media,” kids are told, which then allows tracking of preferences and habits.
Data collection and tracking from apps are serious concerns. Information is shared with advertisers, who then could target users with advertisements for products like e-cigarettes or violent video games.
“This is something we really need to think about in terms of how our digital environment is designed,” she said.
Pediatricians should encourage parents to become informed consumers. They should explore other activities that can help children build the core life skills they need that are most nourishing. When checking apps, they can consult resources such as Common Sense Media or 5Rights Foundation.
She discussed how Fred Rogers talked about the importance of imagination and healthy play, and how kids grow and learn best through relationships.
What do you think Mr. Rogers would think of the App Store? she asked.