Earlier this week, I was on a plane and shared a row of seats with a woman and her daughter who must have been four or five years old. I seek peace and quiet whenever I fly, so when I see a young child nearby, I worry. However, for the entire 3+ hour flight, we had no problems thanks to a tablet full of videos and games that held the child’s attention for the entire duration of the flight. This was one of those classic “I’m getting old moments” because I definitely did not grow up with toy connected devices, and anyone who can read this probably did not either. As I peered over her shoulder to see what was happening on her screen, I got to wondering how youth these days engage with technology, and specifically the internet.
80% of children between the ages of zero and five years old use the internet on at least a weekly basis and more than 66% of eight-year-olds go online every day in the United States. A more regularly observable trend is the use of cell phones by younger children. Half of parents in the United States believe that it is appropriate to introduce mobile devices (almost all of which are connected these days) to children five years old or younger, and this is what I was observing on my flight.
Kids are definitely using the internet more and being introduced to it at a younger age, and there are risks and benefits to this. Many of the risks are similar to the risks that television creates for youth. The more time kids spend in front of a computer, the less time they spend being physically active. Carpal tunnel and eye strain are also potential outcomes of increased internet usage at younger ages. Some educators believe that the overstimulation of the web makes it harder for young students to focus on single tasks. In addition to physical and cognitive risks, there may be emotional and social risks to having youth on the internet. There are risks of children feeling depressed and isolated from increased internet usage as they spend less time among friends and family and more time being overstimulated by the wide array of content, real or fake, on the internet. But there are benefits as well, or at least counter-arguments to the risks stated above. Social networking online can actually improve relationships and provide kids with support, a sense of validation or acceptance. Young children can broaden their perspectives with the vast amount of information online, and let’s face it, the world today is digital, so having young kids learn the language of the web makes sense.
It is still to be determined whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa, but nonetheless, businesses recognize that kids are on the internet more and at a younger age, and they are targeting them. YouTube created YouTube Kids and SnapChat developed SnapKidz, a kid friendly (13-years-old and under) version of its app with limited functionality. Facebook also explored offering official accounts to pre-teens in a way that would allow parents to closely monitor their kids’ accounts. Are these innovations and design choices for the protection of youth on the internet or long-term customer acquisition plans?
A line has been drawn in the sand by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA protects children under the age of 13 from unfair or deceptive acts related to their personal identifiable information on the internet. Therefore, many websites and applications prohibit use by children under the age of 13, but it is usually as simple as a child reporting an earlier birth year for kids to gain full access.
Youth online and the ease to which they can maneuver around security provisions have led to businesses, like YouTube, SnapChat and Facebook, among others, to take notice. Advertisers target children and the lack of transparency coupled with children’s lesser ability to distinguish advertisements from content creates a dilemma. For example, is a short video on YouTube Kids of children playing with branded toys and advertisements for those brands? Maybe. Is it wrong for grocery stores to place the sweetest children’s cereals, like Fruity Loops and Lucky Charms, on the bottom shelf of the cereal aisle in reach of kindergarteners?
As an uncle of two-year-old and four-year-old and hopeful future father these are the questions I started asking myself on the flight as I shared an armrest with the little girl and her iPad. Going forward, I would like to see more robust research on the effect of internet usage on children at different ages as well as continued development of online regulations up to par with those of television. It seems like businesses have a great opportunity to build relationships with customers at a very young age in a way that also protects them, and I am eager to see how this continues to evolve.