Born With a Tablet in Their Hand

Jerusalem conference opening on Monday seeks to explore how children's early exposure to technology affects psychological theories.

The following situation is bound to be familiar to many parents of small children. The little one, who already knows how to use an iPad − sometimes even better than his parents do − grabs a photograph or newspaper and tries to change the page by moving his finger across its surface, just as he would on a digital device.

The common, instinctive reaction would be to call him a genius and be impressed by this amusing mistake. But according to Dr. Osnat Emanuel, there is no reason to be impressed. In fact, if the child had leafed through the newspaper it would be more remarkable, as this set of actions requires a more complex motor ability.

Emanuel, who holds an M.D. from Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Medicine, develops innovative products aimed at children. “Today, children are exposed to technology at a much younger age and in a far more intensive manner,” she says. “When they’re only a year old, children are able to recognize the devices that we use and want them for themselves − once these were keys and the TV remote, now they’re cell phones and tablets. Children are surprising us: The new technologies show that they have an amazing approach, and great skills and command [of the devices]. But has the time really come to update all the classic psychological theories on child development?

“Why is this similar?” Emanuel continues. “Everyone is impressed by a child who starts speaking at an early age. His level of understanding allows him to speak, and in contrast to his friends the development of his vocal chords means he is physically ready. The fact that he understands something is seen as being worthwhile, and we treat him differently. Returning to the iPad, a new technological language is being created that enables us to understand earlier on that the child is aware of his surroundings. This is interesting, not because what he does with the technology is amazing; it simply means that we may need to reexamine psychological theories. Browsing with a tablet is much simpler than leafing through a newspaper, but because we’re impressed by technology, we’re more impressed by the child.”

Emanuel is one of the founders of the Comfy children’s games company, and developed the Comfy keyboard, the first computerized toy created specifically for toddlers. She was also responsible for the development of the “Hop! Lomdim” interactive TV channel, aimed at children age 18 months and above. On Monday she will talk about designing custom interfaces for children at the Just Kidding conference, which will be held at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

“Developing innovative environments and technologies for young children is a dynamic and exciting challenge,” says Emanuel. “The balance between the physical, cognitive and mental development of the child and between the latest technologies is elusive. I don’t necessarily want to say that psychological theories have been shattered, but these theories were not developed in such intensive environments, where knowledge was so accessible and where a young child controls the environment more than it controls him. In our generation it would have been impossible to imagine children being photographed and then immediately being able to see the photos. This is the basis for increased self-confidence, calmness, the absorption of even more knowledge.”

Playing the penguin

Designing for children throws up many challenges for designers. If once it was customary to think that the main difference was physical size, and that designing items to a smaller scale would be sufficient, now there is great awareness of the nature, sensitivities and complexity of the target audience. Over the past few years the issue has become especially interesting to design academies and museums. For example, last year the Museum of Modern Art ‏(MoMA‏) held an exhibition titled “Century of the Child − Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” which focused on the design world’s interpretations of childhood during the 20th century.

Like the exhibition, the conference taking place Monday indicates the great importance of designing the spaces in which children grow up, be they physical or digital. The conference’s starting point is the period of childhood between the ages of three to 12-13. The Western world defines these years as a period of development with far-reaching consequences for learning, experimentation, and the construction of character and personality traits that form the basis for the adult’s identity. Generally, contemporary culture sees childhood as almost being sacred. Children are seen as being a distinct economic and consumer group with needs that are different from those of the rest of the population.

Ronel Mor is head of interactive design at the visual communications department at Bezalel, and is one of the conference’s organizers. His lecture will be on the virtual worlds that children use. Like Emanuel, he doesn’t have a definitive answer regarding the impact of the digital age on reality. “I mainly ask questions about the blurred boundaries between the physical reality and the virtual world,” he says. “The virtual world is a space in which children are very successful. It is an arena that combines fun and purposeful play, and is wonderfully suited to the personalities and needs of children when playing, learning, setting challenges and developing the imagination. However, when watching television takes up a very large portion of children’s leisure time, as a result of its connection to interactive media, the line for children between physical reality and virtual reality and between passivity and activity is blurred.”

Is this also connected to social networks?

“I distinguish between social networks and virtual worlds,” says Mor. “For example, in Club Penguin [an online game] you adopt a character [in the form of a penguin] but it’s still you; completing challenges, setting out on adventures and buying things like a house, gifts and clothes that distinguish you and your personality from the other participants. Simultaneously, you’re interacting with other children [penguins], partly through commercial interactions that are guided by money, and the system of extracting money out of the parents works very well. There is an entire economy there based on real money, and people are getting rich from it.

“The question is how the interaction and involvement in daily life of such virtual behaviors will affect children who have been born into this world,” he notes. “On one hand, I still believe that it is impossible to replace the importance and significance of ‘real’ life, and that there could be a heavy price to pay when it comes to the children’s quality of life; that they could grow up to be people who will not be satisfied with non-virtual life. On the other hand I’m cautious. Every generation clings to its values and qualities that are lost over time. I don’t even know if what I’m describing is necessarily bad.”

‘Education and arbitration’

What’s the difference between adults and children when it comes to these arenas?

“Our awareness and responsibility is for education and arbitration,” Mor contends. “For example, the number of children under the age of 12 who have Facebook accounts is huge, but what’s even more amazing is that the reason for this is that their parents opened these accounts for them. Many times we’re looking on from the sidelines, and we need to be much more aware. I don’t know how many children are aware of the fact that some account holders aren’t the same age as them. But I don’t want to be a prophet of doom. I don’t only want to raise all the negatives, but to suggest we examine the children who were born into this era and who accept it as it is. Maybe they’ll be more creative and sophisticated thanks to the amount of information they accumulate. They will do things that we can’t even imagine.”

Like controlling an iPad better than their parents can?

“Not necessarily,” he says. “A new logical process is easy for a child, all his development is connected to new rules that need to be understood and adopted, just as he learns that in order to open a drawer you must pull it − this is something that he didn’t know before. He is doing many things for the first time.”

What’s the most important thing in designing for children?

“One of the mistakes adults make is to think that because we were all children once, we can remember what it is like to be a child,” says Mor. “But we don’t really remember. One of the things that has proven itself the most is to ask the children, to involve them and to give them a voice in the process.”

He goes on to say: “We need to understand what motivates children, what connects with them. Sometimes these are almost formulaic things, like the role of the face, eye contact, the influence sounds have and so forth. But in any case we understand a lot less than we think we do, certainly [when it comes to] the children of today. Although there are principles that remain the same, and the need children have to express them also remains, be it in the physical space or the digital one − these are not the same children. The world around them is changing and the intensity of the stimuli has changed.

“There is also an opportunity here for designers to work with an audience that has something pure and clear,” Mor maintains. “It is a desirable opportunity for designers, as adults are fond of children’s products even if they don’t have any children. There is something about the purity, the truthfulness and the honesty of this audience − that often says what it thinks and is even cute when it’s being manipulative. It is a huge privilege to design for children. They’re a fun crowd to please.”

David Bachar
Daniel Chetchik
Daniel Chetchik