Appy babies

Smartphone apps designed for infants are on the rise, but should they be?

Photo By AMy beck

Human Development and Family Studies, UNR

When Heidi Jared is trying to get her 6-month-old son, Evan, to sleep, she does what mothers have done for millennia: sings to him, rocks him, nurses him. But sometimes, when he’s especially fussy—say, in the car or at the occasional work meeting—she pulls out her smartphone and turns on a white noise app designed to sound like falling rain.

“The app just calmed him,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because it replicated the noise of the womb. We just noticed that if he was fussy, the white noise app would calm him down, and within a few minutes, would put him right to sleep. But it’s not something we use even half the time.”

Beyond that, Evan has no other interactions with Jared’s phone—other than to grab it, she says. But she can imagine a time when he’ll want to play with his dad’s iPad as he gets older.

“He’s so young at this point, the only interest he has in my phone is putting it in his mouth.”

Yet an increasing number of apps are specifically designed for babies to use themselves—some as young as 6 months old. There’s a Baby Piano app, where a small keyboard on the screen “plays” as the infant touches it. There are painting apps, where a child can scribble on the screen in psychedelic colors that explode in bursts of glitter and music. There’s a bubble wrap app that will pop-pop-pop beneath an infant’s awkward hand. There’s a cat that will wriggle its nose when touched there, or erupt in giggles when the baby pokes its tummy. There are digital flash cards for babies to learn shapes, letters, colors and numbers, “Learn to Talk” apps to “facilitate language development in one- to three-year-old children.” There are apps for digital coloring books, finger painting, stories, puzzles, songs and more, all targeting 1-year-olds or younger. In fact, children’s content makes up 47 percent of the 100 top-selling educational apps on iTunes in 2011, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a children’s research nonprofit named for the creator of Sesame Street.

The makers of these applications almost unanimously market them as educational and beneficial for cognitive, language and motor development, yet research about those claims is minimal, as is research about the impact of digital apps on babies at all.

Smartphone technology—and the apps that come with it—is so new that many child development experts have to relate it to the extensive research about television and general computer use. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children under age 2, which includes television, video games, interactive console games like Wii and cell phone apps. “No studies have documented a benefit of early viewing,” the AAP stated. And research suggests that children under 2 who watch “educational” programming learn less than kids who spend time playing and interacting with other children or adults.

“That they’re targeting apps for 6-month-olds is shocking,” says Dr. Bridget Walsh of the Human Development and Family Studies department at University of Nevada, Reno. “We know in terms of child development and brain development that, at four months, we know there’s a lot going on in the brain.”

For instance, according to the National Academies Press report “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” synapses in the cerebral cortex kick into high gear during the first few years of life, with the peak of production occurring around one year of age. And, it continues, “synaptic overproduction in the visual cortex occurs about midway through the first year of life.”

“We know young infants are eager to see and hear, but they need to see and hear humans—human interactions are best,” says Walsh. “They have a people preference. They prefer to look at people rather than inanimate objects. They prefer movement and change rather than static stuff. A human with a ball is more stimulating than an iPhone app with a ball jumping around on it.”

New draft recommendations from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media (FRCELCM) state: “Infants and toddlers need interactions primarily with human beings. They need to freely explore, manipulate, and test everything in the environment. Increasingly in today’s world, this includes the exploration of digital technology and interactive media.” The guidelines also say to avoid passive screen time. “If they are distressed, they need the comfort of a caring adult, not an electronic toy,” the report says.

What a tool

While research regarding infant exposure to digital media or “screen time” is negligible, some studies show that interactive media, like apps and multimedia books, can have benefits over passive media, like television. It tends to be more effective when in the context of play or when parents are also interacting with the child. There is also some research indicating children with autism, traumatic brain injuries and other special needs may benefit from some mobile apps that help them communicate and enhance memory and other skills. But that research is largely for children over age 3.

“These concerns are hardly new,” states the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in its June 2011 report “Families Matter: Designing media for a digital age.” “We’ve been worried about media interfering with the healthy development of our children ever since the moving image hit cinemas a century ago. What’s different today is that newer forms of media—which by design provide interactive experiences for the child—have been shown to motivate, facilitate, and deepen learning in ways that film, radio, and television never quite managed.”

Heidi and Brandon Jared take their son, Evan, for a stroller ride. Heidi says Evan loves being outdoors.

Photo By amy beck

In a separate report, 2010’s “Learning: Is there an app for that?” the center found that children ages 4-7 most often use smartphones when they’re “passed back” by a parent while in the car. They also found that children ages 3-7 who used two apps from PBS Kids programs improved their vocabulary, letter-identification and rhyming after using them. Yet, again, this research did not involve infants.

The NAEYC-FRCELCM report says, “Infants and toddlers use technology as something to explore, to control, to touch, taste, shake, and as a tool for banging. Certainly, some technological tools are inappropriate for children from birth to age two. Passive screen viewing has not been associated with specific learning and development in infants and toddlers. Yet mobile, multi-touch screen, and newer technologies have changed the way our youngest children interact with images, sounds, and ideas. … When experienced in the context of human interaction, these interactions become very similar to early book reading or joint adult-child exploration.”

“I think the apps are more of a combination of educational toys you see because you actually have to engage the app somehow,” says Julie Jensen, mother to 13-month-old Gabby. “You have to touch the screen to get the piano to play or touch the screen to make the doggie dance. They’re not just sitting there staring at the TV.”

When Gabby was first born, Jensen used apps for parents to track every diaper change, the color of Gabby’s stool, which breast she last fed from. “And thank god I did because we had some weight issues with her at first. To be a new mom and expect to store all that in your brain, no, it’s not going to happen. Whereas I can record it with the touch of a button. That was a lifesaver; that was amazing.” And many parents, even while still pregnant, look to things like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” apps and baby journals to record each first step, word or smile.

When Jensen introduced baby Gabby to apps when she was around 6 months old, it was more to see her reaction, not with the idea she’d learn much from it. It was a Fisher Price dog and cat that said “nose” or “mouth” when those parts were touched. Then Gabby tried the Baby Piano app on the iPad of her mom’s friend, which she seemed to like at first, but when shown later, grabbed her attention for a couple of minutes, and then she was done.

“I don’t expect her to be a concert pianist from playing on an app,” says Jensen. “I look at it more as something to distract your kid and keep them entertained if you need them to settle down or something. As she gets older, I can see it being used more for other educational aspects.”

Unlike TV, however, there’s little chance a parent would plop a baby in front of their smartphone by themselves. With infants, there’s sort of a built-in assurance that the experience will be one in which parent and baby interact together—after all, what parent in their right mind would give their 9-month-old free reign with their smartphone? Certainly not one who wants to keep it.

“It’s just another tool,” says Jensen. “It’s kind of cool we have all these different technologies. Some people don’t think so, but I think it’s really cool that there’s tons of different tools to interact with your kid.”

Everything in moderation?

The effect of smartphone apps on learning and brain development, however, is only one component.

The NAEYC-FRCELCM draft report says early child educators need to continually monitor “emerging issues related to technology, including 3-D and eye health, exposure to electromagnetic fields, toxins from lead paint or batteries, choking hazards related to small parts, or any other potentially harmful” side effects.

In May, the World Health Organization said cell phones increased one’s risk of brain cancer and listed mobile phone use in the same carcinogenic hazard category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform. It was not able to draw conclusions about other types of cancer. While there are plenty of people and organizations who debate those findings—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration among them—the concern remains.

“My husband and I have discussed the unknown health risks with this,” says Jared, a public information officer. “But it is still a catch-22 because you typically have your phone—or at least I do—with me all the time. Especially in my line of work, I’m expected to be available; I have my cell phone with me whether I use it or not. And cell phones are constantly emitting radio waves whether you’re on the phone or not. You have to be careful. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to limit the use,’ but if you carry it on your person, and you carry your baby with you everywhere …”

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center says “mobile technologies appear to be the fastest-growing type of digital media, and cell phones are among the most popular devices.” The range of people owning internet-equipped cell phones now goes from 8 percent of families earning less than $25,000 a year to 32 percent of families making more than $75,000 a year. As smartphones and data plans become cheaper, that number is increasing.

With smartphones in their diaper bags, parents have an instant photo album, arcade, library and stereo rolled into one, with the seemingly magical quality of distracting a baby who is utterly losing it.

Picture a screaming 1-year-old in a doctor’s office—they have a fever, are scared and in pain. The parent has tried rocking the baby, singing to the baby, has pulled every toy in the diaper bag out, read all the books in the office, but the baby is still screaming. Then, out comes the smartphone, open to a photo album of the baby’s favorite subject: herself, and all crying stops. She’s enamored. All is calm.

It’s easy to see how parents may be enticed to use apps for babies more often, or at least for last-resort situations like doctor offices, traffic jams or airplane rides. They’re handy, available and effective. But with such little research, the question of how much is too much is still largely unanswered.

“I don’t think it’s that bad this young when it’s a little bit here and there, but if you’re using it as a babysitter all day, that’s not good,” says Jensen. “I think anything in moderation is OK.”

Walsh, however, is not convinced: “I think if we have this interview 20 years from now, I’d still be saying the same thing—that human-to-human interaction is best for infants and toddlers.”