March 6, 2013 | LXXII, No. 49

An app for every occasion

In Other Words

This Christmas, with some trepidation, I received my first smartphone. I was very excited about the larger screen size (so I could more easily view pictures) and the ability to connect to the internet when I needed to. But it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say I was a bit reluctant to be connected to the virtual world at all times.

For one thing, the very idea of choosing the right app for the right moment is overwhelming. Without the help of more technologically savvy friends and family, I’m not sure I would even venture into the app store on my own. Some apps I find to be quite useful, like the ones that tell you the weather or the very useful flashlight app, but to the uninitiated like me, it seems like the endless array of apps and games are just another way to distract from the life in front of me.

As a parent, I understand that a well-placed app can be great entertainment. As a baby, it was easy to distract my daughter with the car keys to rattle around or shove in her mouth. But toddlers can be more demanding creatures, and as my daughter has entered the preschool age, I was shocked to see that my daughter learned to navigate my smartphone faster than I did.

Apparently, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by big companies either. In the education section of the iTunes app store, 72 percent of the top-selling apps are designed for preschool- and elementary-age kids, making it the most popular age category in the education section.

In a recent study by Parenting magazine, they state that 58 percent of kids ages 2 to 5 know how to play a basic computer game, while only 52 percent can ride a bike. Although these numbers are surprising at first, on further inspection it may not be as terrible as it seems. The basics, like tying shoes, are still being learned but just a little later. On the other hand, kids are learning some more complicated things earlier.

My generation was brought up with our “screen time” being Saturday morning cartoons. But this generation can also spend their screen time using interactive media. A recent study at Georgetown University found that interactive media lets kids retain information better than passively watching. This should come as no surprise. When you ask a question about what a kid might have learned on that program they were watching, it’s a rare event when they can tell you something concrete that was learned and retained.

Screen time is still something to be monitored, but the benefits of introducing kids to technology sooner are fast outweighing the negatives. By interacting with a game or book during their screen time, learning becomes simply part of the fun of it.

But like any good thing, sometimes the world of apps and interactive media can be taken too far.

Although those interactive games are pushing our children’s minds earlier and in creative ways, there is also a warning to parents. A new study at Temple University says that when a parent lets a child play with a game involving technology, we tend to “spout” instructions rather than focusing on the content of the game. Instead of playing together, we spend our time directing their actions and the outcome is not quite the same.

Increasingly, there are apps for almost everything. Just focusing on the parenting aspect of it, there are apps for keeping your kid on track developmentally, monitoring their sleep, or keeping up with their nutrition. A new app can decipher what your baby or toddler is babbling and tells you if they have just spoken their first official word or sentence. There are even potty training apps that remind the parent to take the kid to the potty and then links the results to Facebook so all your friends and family can applaud your kid for their success.

For now, my new phone is not being used to its app-crazy potential. Maybe, when the time is right, I’ll monitor my life by the device in my hand. But, for now, I’m happy simply with the larger screen size for pictures.

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