We all want our kids to grow up smart and successful. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app for that? If only it were that simple.
App makers, eager to profit from the insecurities of parents, love to market their wares as whiz-bang educational devices. But child advocates want to put a stop to the practice, and this week they filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission alleging deceptive advertising by toy maker Fisher-Price, which sells the “Laugh & Learn” series of mobile apps; and software developer Open Solutions, a maker of apps for young children.
“Fisher-Price and Open Solutions exploit parents’ natural tendency to want what’s best for their babies,” said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Their false and deceptive marketing creates the impression that their apps effectively educate infants and toddlers, when time with tablets and smart phones is really the last thing very young children need for optimal learning and development.”
Linn’s group also led a successful effort to make the Walt Disney Company dial back claims that “Baby Einstein” videos could turn infants into, well, Einsteins.
Fisher-Price’s Laugh & Learn apps were downloaded nearly 3 million times in 2012, and the company claims the apps teach babies language and basic math skills. “Yet Fisher-Price offers no evidence to support this claim and research has consistently demonstrated that screen media is not an effective means of educating babies,” said Linn. “The claims made by Open Solutions—that its apps will teach babies multiple skills, including reading and spelling—are also not supported by research.”
Naturally, the two companies take strong exception to the charges. Fisher-Price’s director of research says her company conducts extensive research about child development, while an executive of Open Solutions denied that its marketing materials make exaggerated claims. (Both companies commented on the complaint in an interview with The New York Times.)
In response, Linn said that baby apps aren’t just useless – they are potentially harmful. “Research links infant screen time to sleep disturbances and delayed language acquisition, as well as problems in later childhood, such as poor school performance and childhood obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging screen time for children under two,” she said.
The apps and associated complaints can be viewed as a sad commentary on the pressures parents feel to ensure their kids climb to the top of the heap. Apps are relatively cheap, but wealthier families often spend the equivalent of college tuition to send their kids to the right elementary schools, while those who can’t afford that extravagance are consumed by guilt and worry.
Getting Fisher-Price and Open Solutions to change their ways won’t change our culture, but it is a small step in the right direction.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.