Understanding how the Internet of Things is going to change childhood is hard to imagine. The IoT (Internet of Things) describes the way objects can “talk” to each other via technology. Your smart watch talks to your phone. Your apps can talk to your new smart thermostat. Widespread fear about technology ruining childhood is in large part thanks to sensationalism. New technologies are often painted as either a soul-consuming monster or the flawless face of advanced society. Somehow, people often forget the role of parenting. Technology advances exponentially fast, but we won’t have connected robot nurses for several years. The final factor in how a child will be affected by technology still comes back to the parents. As parents, it’s important to understand what technology is and what it means for children as a life experience.

The Beautiful Positives of Connected Children

Yes, the internet of things does offer great opportunities for kids. With the rate that technology is developing, products that help children learn abound. Kids can (and have learned) to code on ever cheaper digital platforms like Raspberry Pi. If you thought Lego helped creativity and problem-solving, picture those hooked up to wires, screens and batteries. Kids don’t just create rocket ships; they can make apps that drive rocket ships. The internet is filled with resources for kids to learn through technology. Studies are even finding that technology greatly improves a child’s ability to learn. It keeps them engaged, and allows them to work on their own. Kids today can learn fast—faster than ever before.

For those that need to keep track of health information, the IoT is a godsend. Health monitoring can be vital for children, especially those too young to understand what it means. The perfect example is Teddy the Guardian, who is the smartest stuffed animal around. It checks baby’s heart rate, temperature and the oxygen saturation just by receiving hugs. It can alert mommy and daddy to any signs of trouble. Smart, practical tech exists. It doesn’t have to replace parenting or interfere with a child’s growth, and few parents could say “no” to something as logical as Teddy the Guardian.

The terrible, horrible truth about connectivity

The FiLIP watch takes helicopter parenting to a stalkerish low. It grants parents “the peace of mind they crave, while providing kids the freedom they need to be kids.” It embodies the possibility that parents will too far. FiLIP lets parents know where their children are at every point in the day. It is designed to give parents the ability to talk to their kid whenever they feel the need. Tech that acts like a leash on a child is not just unnecessary, but also kind of creepy. It could be as detrimental as hooking them up to a FitBit and counting their every step and calorie. It highlights a very strange disconnection. Many parents who fear technology are also the same who feel compelled to hook children up to a perpetual monitoring system.

A study printed in the October 2014 issue of Computers in Human Behavior also shows that interacting with technology makes it harder to interpret emotion. By taking two groups of children and allowing one to consume large amounts of media while constricting the other, researchers found a very strong correlation. Those who consumed less media could read facial and physical expressions more easily. However, another study from professor Doris Bergen in the Miami University Department of Educational Psychology may accidentally shed some light on this entire conversation.

Some see technology as signs that parents and educators are becoming lazy. Convince your kid to brush their teeth with a game app. Consult your phone to see when you need to talk to kid. Perhaps sensors could be used to track the eyes of a student to get a better idea of their ability. What if, as one major news outlet suggests, these numbers were used to track and grade engagement levels in school. These numbers would help grade students on effort and send the better performers to university. Don’t worry, that model is far too expensive for any school in the near future to even consider. Technology in the classroom is not hyper-connected, and will not be for many, many years. The IoT has not brought doomsday to education and childhood, quite yet.

The Grey Matter

The brain of an infant grows fast. Within the first few years of life, a lot of rules are set for things to come. While the infant brain has been extensively mapped, not much information actually exists on the relationships between baby and tech. Studies are not always conclusive. Research has shown tech to be both a blessing and boon. As Bergen explains, “If young children spend more time in technology-augmented play, this type of engagement may result in fewer interactions with parents, other caregivers, other children, and even with physical objects in the environment. Thus, brain developmental patterns and inactive cognition in such children may differ from that of children in past generations.”

One of the biggest fears parents (and bystanders) seem to have about children and the IoT is not the technology itself. Rather, they fear how adults will use it. Given how little hard evidence exists, and that new technology is popping up every day, the best option may be to step back. Many who argue that connected technology is good also follow the “interaction not isolation” mantra. The world doesn’t need MIT studies to tell it that learning from experience and interaction can be better than through video and games. There is no “all-in” or “out” with technology and children.

Adults of all ages often see new technologies as newfangled nonsense they would never have been allowed to play with as children. Actually, most of us did play with tech as children. What twenty- or thirty-old hasn’t owned a gameboy? Who hasn’t heard of AOL chat rooms, or napster? The internet of things is very different from the technology of yesteryear; yet, perhaps, today’s children are not as different as they seem.

One vital step forward has been the removal of the mouse. Removing the mouse and big, klunky keyboards has lifted the wall between user and technology. The “swipe” has been the focus of many psychology essays. A four-year old can now interact with a computer in a highly direct manner. This could lead to removing mental barriers between the self and technology, itself, allowing kids to grow up and completely change our ideas about technology.

Growing up in a connected world also means data. The topic of protecting children’s’ data in a connected world is a paper all its own. Data generation and analysis, however, does mean greater effectivity and opportunity. Playthings, education, health. These all benefit from the circular nature of data. The big looming question is the time and manner in which children interact with technology. Research has shown the children only begin to understand the symbol nature of a screen at about three years of age. That may be the only golden number when it comes to the Internet of Things and your child.

image credit: Marcus Kwan

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