Empathy Through iPads - App Week


By Meredith Schneider

The question of whether technology is a positive or negative influence on children has been raised quite often, especially recently. Toddlers are screaming on airplanes when their iPads are taken from them mid-Angry Birds. Babies who do not even have the ability to speak, yet are receiving toy phones for birthdays, and tears are being shed when the real thing is taken away so that mommy’s friends don’t get a series of odd text messages from her infant child.

You can find younger and younger kids who know how to operate a Playstation or pick up the Xbox controller when daddy leaves the room, and now apps are being released with a main focus on children—even toddlers. Is this an issue to be concerned with? Is this new age of technology providing more of a negative than a positive for those who have access to it?

Photo by Brad Flickinger.

“[This technology] has led to an ever-growing disconnect and speedy instant gratification,” claims recent college graduate Preston C. Witt. “Kids these days a re too plugged in to phones and nonverbal communication that I feel like they don’t know how to feel anymore.”

Michelle Verstraete, mother of a 3-year-old, disagrees, “I don’t think there is a certain age [for children to start using apps]. I think it’s good for their coordination to be able to do those movements. Plus, I think apps make my kid behave better because she isn’t bored.”

Howie Erenberg, the proud father of a 2-year-old, sees the value in games as well. “Like all things, games should be played in moderation,” he says. “If so, they can have positive effects. Hand/eye coordination, problem solving, etc.”

A big question in today’s society regarding apps and games is if mainstream media is using these fun distractions and learning materials to hook kids into their products. Alex Clark, an uncle of four with another on the way, is afraid of the influence playing these games will have on his family. “Generally, I think kids need to go outside and play and put their iPods down. [The media is] trying to get to kids through apps.”

His concern is not new and apps geared toward an older demographic, such as “Words With Friends,” show proof of sponsor advertisements. But will apps with a younger demographic focus so much on consumerism?

Although some will argue that these apps are just another outlet for the media to bombard kids, others are just worried about the types of games their children are playing.

“Yes, kids can learn from games if the game is designed well,” says Ernberg, “But my kid is not playing games unsupervised until at least junior high.”

Regardless of the level of protectiveness parents have over their children’s use of technology, there is an increasing number of parents like Verstraete that recognize the educational value in apps.

“I think if kids just sit there and play games all day it’s bad for their social skills,” she says. “But if they use the apps right, it can really increase social skills for kids who don’t necessarily have other kids to play with.”

Luckily for parents, there are numerous games geared toward kids that have been designed to teach kids important life skills. Currently, apps are being released that are geared specifically toward teaching children to be empathic. “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster” claims to be a physical venture geared toward two-player play, teaching kids several life lessons. This year, as Clifford the Big Red Dog celebrates his 50th Birthday, an app called “Clifford’s BIG Birthday” is available that allows children to help plan a surprise birthday party.

Both of these apps are geared for children as young as two, while “Mission US: Flight to Freedom” utilizes history to allow children to decide between paths of right and wrong in pre-Civil War America. “I think they can learn empathy from apps like the PBS app that has shows about friendship,” Verstraete says. “My daughter sings little mantras she learns with those about friendship.”

Maybe allowing your kids to play with apps isn’t such a bad thing, as long as you are aware of what they are playing and limit their playing time. These apps are teaching your kids lessons, and at an affordable rate. Most apps range between 99 cents and $3, with many available for free. Check out commonsensemedia.org for more detailed information, or sites such as PBS for available apps.