Helping Children Cope with Technological Change

September 22, 2013

A recently posted video of a four-year old’s tearful reaction to his father’s upgrade to Apple iOS 7 serves as a reminder that software innovation can affect children psychologically. The 17-second clip leaves much unaddressed: What about the new operating system made it “different” instead of “better”? Could the father have anticipated such a reaction by preparing his son with the ageless wisdom that “nothing is forever”? Or was he too busy using his iPad’s improved camera interface to capture the moment so he could upload it to YouTube? As difficult as these may be to answer, an even more demanding query looms in the background: What were the roles of developers and marketers within this child’s experience of technological change?

It’s probably impossible for technology companies to take on responsibility for all their products’ effects on the diverse set of children who will use them; devices and apps are tools that have varying consequences depending on social context. But as more young children begin using tablets and smartphones for play, software makers must acknowledge a newly acquired power: to remotely control intrinsic properties of children’s toys, which often become objects of attachment.

The video’s description provides some useful context for the outburst. The initial explanation that the child is upset “because the swipe bar was missing” makes sense (who wants to be locked out of a beloved toy?). But the following sentence is even more revealing: “He was fine with everything until he realized that it wasn’t a simple setting to switch back.” The change — perpetrated by dad at the behest of machines and executives thousands of miles away — was permanent. “Well, you’re just going to have to get used to it.”

In the months leading up to iOS 7, developers tested beta versions as early adopters scoured press releases, but it’s unlikely that many children were adequately prepared to anticipate the software’s “simplicity […] derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation.” Whose responsibility is it to translate implications of design changes for children who can’t process them intellectually?

As researchers begin to understand how mobile devices affect cognitive and social development, perhaps there is also room to consider a complementary set of questions: How can parents, educators and developers help to engage young children more genuinely in the design process? How can we set their expectations by informing them about the nature of software updates and cloud computing? And how can we provide them with the best of what technology has to offer while preparing them to confront the inevitability of change?