Ninety-eight percent of American kids under the age of 10 have access to a smartphone or tablet in their home; 45 percent even have their own device. Over the past decade, modern touchscreen devices have become both intuitive and affordable enough that they’ve gone mainstream among children around the world.
But despite this high usage rate, kids mainly use those devices to do just two things: watch shows and play games. They don’t use a browser or search Google; too difficult, many adults would say, too dangerous. Although most children are proficient with the touch interface, navigating the web requires advanced literacy skills. The ability to construct a search query, read at an advanced level, skim the results, click on the appropriate pages, and find the relevant content on the page is beyond the capabilities of most kids under 10.
When it comes to the web, written words are an obstacle for kids; it’s too difficult for them to find answers to their own questions. Though children are constantly wondering about the world around them, there is an incredible amount of information online that is just out of reach.
Most grown-ups, and even most parents, don’t think this is a problem that needs to be addressed. After all, any time kids have a question, the “search engine” named Mom or Dad — or a babysitter or other caretaker — does a pretty good job at answering it (sometimes with the aid of their own quick Googling). If a child asks enough questions about the same topic, they might even receive a book on the topic. Problem solved.
But accepting this constrained view of “kidtech” — games and shows, ad infinitum — is a missed opportunity for young children. Granting kids safe, instant access to the vast trove of information that exists online is a challenge worth exploring. I believe there’s room for a new audio-visual web browser for kids: one where they can independently look things up online and satisfy their own curiosity. And just as browsers have grown in importance for adults (they’re basically an OS), they hold the same promise for children. The biggest hurdle to tackling this issue of accessibility, however, isn’t technological — it’s philosophical and cultural.
Points of resistance to an “internet for kids”
As many parents and caregivers know, children are capable of having surprisingly advanced conversations. Beginning around age 3, they ask sophisticated questions and can comprehend an incredible amount when presented with information verbally and visually. Young kids are developing their interests and are eager to understand the world they’re growing up in.
But when adults are presented with the idea of a web browser designed specifically for kids, their response typically ranges from indifference to resistance. Try asking a parent to imagine a world in which children are able to independently search for information on anything they wonder about and you’ll likely be confronted by one of three reactions.
The first is that children need to be protected and kept safe, both from certain information and certain kinds of people. As a parent of two young children of my own, I understand this; keeping my kids safe is part of my job. Parents rightfully want to ensure children are not exposed to profanity, nudity, and violence. Similarly, many parents want the ability to control who their child is having online conversations with, typically restricted to friends and family.
If children could look things up on their own and browse the web, how would we ensure their safety? While controlling access to content and people is a hard problem to get right, I believe it can be done — and done well — through a combination of parental settings, automated filters, and human moderation. In the early 2000s, for example, email was rendered nearly unusable by spam; these three tactics largely resolved the issue.
Of course, it will take time and rigorous testing to develop the right content filters for a children’s version of the web. But the difficulty of this effort (and latent worry from parents) should not discourage us from recognizing the ambition of the end goal: giving children access to a wealth of knowledge.
The second reaction that adults often have is that “screen time” — the phrase used for the time when children are allowed to use a device — is a bad thing. Parents often feel guilty for letting their children use internet devices and view screens like candy: it’s something allowed in limited quantities because their children ask for it, but they don’t think it’s actually good for them. If screen time is bad, the reasoning goes, then making it possible for children to look up anything they’re curious about might mean children would use screens even more.
Consider this thought experiment: imagine a child reading a physical book — say, a novel you deem to be of high quality. Now imagine a child reading that same book on an iPad screen. Does the switch from paper to glass change the quality of the time spent reading?
Many parents have concluded that screens are “bad” because they see their children engaging in what they consider a low-value experience. But it is important here not to conflate the quality of the content with the medium itself, nor with the mode of interaction (active or passive). Screens themselves are not inherently good or bad. I believe there’s room to reevaluate our preconceived notions of screen time by turning the screen from a mere distraction device into a reference tool.
Finally, many adults imagining a web experience for kids are struck by a third concern: they want to know how it will educate children.
The education question may not seem like an obstacle to making the web accessible to children. However, often when you unpack what is signified by “a child’s education,” it most often means core academics: the subjects of reading, writing, math, science, and history. For some parents, few other skills, such as computer science or problem-solving, count as education.
But this narrow-minded focus on what education means can significantly limit what content is viewed as important, and worthwhile, for children. The vast majority of things a child might wonder about and want to look up might not be categorized as academic, at least in the traditional sense.
Developing core academic skills is important. But I think it is equally important — maybe even more so — that children develop interests and discover their passions. School is not typically focused on this. Similarly, parents often struggle to nurture their children’s interests, especially when those interests are not aligned. A child may develop a passion for skateboarding, dance, Star Wars, outer space, video game design, or countless other pursuits that their parents may not be knowledgeable about (or interested in, for that matter).
We need to drop the obsession with academics outside of school, in my opinion, and encourage children to pursue their own innate curiosity and sense of fascination. I believe giving kids safe, independent access to the vast trove of online knowledge, through technology, could be a huge enabler of this mindset shift.
Kidtech’s stalled present — and promising future
Of course, the idea of catering to children through technology is not new. It’s useful to consider where we’ve been, as well as where we’re going.
While there have been waves of technology developed for kids for decades, the first mainstream kids’ products to be developed by tech companies were Netflix Kids in 2011 and YouTube Kids in 2015. This era primarily centered on the reinvention of childhood television (with on-demand video), and later the reimagining of video games, as kids shifted from gaming consoles and cartridges to mobile games from the App Store.
Within the past four years, Facebook, Amazon, and Spotify launched Messenger for Kids, Alexa for Kids, and Spotify for Kids, respectively. Most recently, Instagram announced (and subsequently delayed) the rollout of Instagram for Kids.
But all these products have one thing in common: many kids were already using the “grown-up” version. Prior to launching its kid-targeted product in 2011, Netflix reported that half its subscribers were already streaming shows for children. Similarly, children were already using Alexa, as well as the YouTube, Messenger, and Spotify apps, before kids’ spin-offs came to be. According to a 2020 survey of 3,000 parents by nScreenMedia, regular YouTube is more popular among children than YouTube Kids (though, perhaps unsurprisingly, a greater percentage of parents allow their kids to view YouTube Kids unsupervised, in comparison to standard YouTube). Importantly, the current wave of kidtech does not empower kids with new capabilities.
So why introduce kid versions of these apps? For one, U.S. technology companies have to abide by parental consent requirements in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 1998 regulation, if they know that children are using their products and those products collect personally identifiable information. In addition, the kid versions of these apps address adults’ concerns with content filters and enhanced controls.
But the real opportunity ahead, I’d argue, is not in creating kid-friendly versions of existing apps — it’s in building from the ground up for children, rather than from an outside-in, adult-first perspective. What new uses will excite children? I believe we’ll soon see a kids-first money app, possibly centered around allowances and gift cards. Imagine extending ecommerce to children, maybe by allowing them to send birthday and holiday gift lists to friends and relatives. Ultimately, a browser for kids is not solely about giving children access to information — it’s also about unlocking a new wave of child-first applications.
After all, kids are not just miniature adults, they’re a unique demographic all their own. What online experiences make sense for children, these digital natives? In what new ways could an internet device be a platform for imaginative play? With nearly a billion children now online worldwide, tech companies are beginning to recognize children as an important audience with unique needs.
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Children are currently in the AOL days of the internet, experiencing a walled garden of dedicated services. That’s about to change. There is significant potential to expand the usefulness of internet-enabled devices for kids, beyond watching shows and playing games. This new set of internet users can’t read — at least, not yet at a high level — and lack the fine motor skills of teens and adults. But kids can nonetheless benefit from what technology can bring.
While we must remain thoughtful about how to navigate the safety and particular challenges of kidtech, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the immense potential of the internet for furthering learning and exploration in the hands of kids. As more and more children use the web, I expect we’ll see a wave of original products being created for this new audience — just as when the web gained popularity with adults. In the wake of over a year of remote schooling, as more kids are using internet-enabled devices than ever before, it’s worth considering how to make technology accessible, useful, and interesting to children in new ways.