The Nanny Police Are at IT Again

The Washington Post printed a story about how the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has submitted the opinions of six experts on child development to the Federal Trade Commission in support of CCFC’s complaint against toy maker Fisher-Price for marketing its “Laugh and Learn” app for infants and small children.

One of the six experts, Herbert Ginsburg writes, “Existing research suggests that infants and very young children are not cognitively ready to learn key abstract ideas about numbers. Although some children at the upper bounds of this age range might learn to parrot some number words they are highly unlikely to learn important concepts of numbers.”

To be sure I am not a child development expert (although I did study child development in college.) I am a parent of a wonderful daughter. When she was 19 months old I ran across a Fisher Price online game, “The ABC Game“, which taught infants and toddlers their letters. (This was pre-tablet so I used a laptop). My daughter would press keys on my laptop and up would pop a picture of the letter, a picture of an animal whose first letter started with that letter while a cheery woman’s voice would say the word and letter (“A, alligator, begins with A”). My daughter just loved this game; often climbing up on my lap when I was using my laptop saying something like “A, alligator” to tell me she wanted to play. She’d busily tap a key, engrossed with these animal pictures and the nice voice that would come up. After 10 or 15 minutes she’d be ready to do something else, scribble with crayons, play with her dad, etc. The end result was that by 22 months she knew all her letters, to the point where we’d be out walking and she would see a sign and she’d stop and point to each letter and say out loud what it was.

I can’t comment on these expert’s statements, nor do I know anything about how babies, as opposed to toddlers, would benefit from these kinds of apps, but from my experience, online games for babies and toddlers was clearly highly educational not to mention fun. So much so that I often recommend it to friends and colleagues who tell me that they (or their spouse) are about to have a baby. I tell them that it will help their child learn their letters. I wonder if the FTC can go after me for “unfair and deceptive recommending.”

The Post article had one comment of note. It quoted the head of CCFC, Susan Linn, who stated these kinds of apps were bad because instead of parking babies in front of devices, parents should be encouraged to engage in ‘hands-on creative play, active play, and active engagement with the adults who love them.” I wonder if Ms Linn has children. Because I know of no parent who is capable of spending every waking moment engaged in “hands-on creative play” with their baby-toddler. That is the road to madness. So for those times when every parent needs a break from parenting what’s wrong with the baby-toddler playing on an interesting app that might also help them learn?

What’s next, a rule that says “this app is only for children aged 17.5 months of age and older, unless your child is particularly precocious (please have an IQ test done).” Let’s stop treating parents as infants and let infants have fun and maybe learn.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.