2015 saw the opening of Auxilium Reloaded in Dortmund, Germany’s first “therapeutic specialist unit for adolescents and young adults with high-risk media consumption”. Digital detox camps, apps for monitoring and controlling personal smartphone use or products for reducing “cravings” are other indications of the widespread recognition that digital communication is not only associated with advantages but can also trigger serious problems. But all of these offers are exclusively directed towards adolescent or adult users, while children are just as much at risk of damage caused by uncontrolled or excessive media consumption at a too early stage in their lives. This result was ascertained by the current BLIKK study [1: University of Applied Sciences Cologne, BLIKK media study, 2017, available at rfh-koeln.de/aktuelles/meldungen/2017/medienstudie_blikk/index_ger.html (last checked on 18 January 2018)], for example, which recorded and evaluated both the active and passive media consumption as well as the physical and psychological development of more than 5,500 babies and children aged between one month and 13 years. According to the analysis, there is a clear link between screen time and problems such as sleeping disorders, delayed speech development, poor concentration, and obesity. Easy operation means that the active use of (parents’) end devices often starts as early as kindergarten age.
Children meanwhile have become a relevant target group for manufacturers. Eight per cent of app sales are generated by products specially targeted at children. [2: Deutsches Jugendinstitut, Apps für Kinder, 2017, available at dji.de/fileadmin/user_upload/kinderapps/Apps_für_Kinder_Trendanalyse_1.pdf (last checked on 18 January 2018)] The Digital Kids Show has been taking place in the UK since 2016 – a trade fair specially for digital media aligned towards children. In the form of Messenger Kids, Facebook has created its own communication app for children while videos on the Youtube Kids platform land top placings with their numbers of clicks. An entire range of manufacturers meanwhile offers robust tablets with adapted functions. Supply and demand appear to be increasing despite the proven risks.
There are some radical positions such as that held by the frequently quoted neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, who regards any use of digital media prior to the age of 16 as dangerous. Realistically, such shielding is practically impossible. “Digitalisation is not a museum, which can be visited at will. It is part of our everyday lives. How are we supposed to explain to children that they can’t have anything to do with it?,” asks Sandra Rexhausen, founder of codingkids.de, a social journal promoting future-oriented education and digital knowledge. What’s more, media competence and a confident, responsible approach to digitality and technology are a basic prerequisite for orientation, reasoned judgement, and certainly in many cases success in the world we live in. In a generation of digital natives, those without digital competence could soon be left behind, both professionally and socially.
Rexhausen recommends “letting children effortlessly share in digitalisation. Under the guidance of parents and educators, of course. Nobody should ‘park’ their child in the corner for hours on end. Neither with a book nor with a digital offer.” As so often, the key therefore is the appropriate degree of use and an idea of what media are age-appropriate and what are not. Yet, the Drug Commissioner of the Federal Government of Germany, Marlene Mortler, calls for digital offers to support “healthy use” and prevent misuse. “Legal protection for children and young persons through design must become a standard,” reads the latest drug and addiction report [3: Drug Commissioner of the Federal Government of Germany, Drogen- und Suchtbericht, 2017, available at drogenbeauftragte.de/fileadmin/dateien-dba/Drogenbeauftragte/4_Presse/1_Pressemitteilungen/2017/2017_III_Quartal/Drogen-_und_Suchtbericht_2017_V2.pdf (last checked on 18 January 2018)]. Possible instruments include dividing up into chapters, avoiding playlists, which automatically move on or removing the disadvantages of taking breaks when playing games. But it is questionable as to whether such measures alone could represent a solution to the problem.
Regardless of laws and regulations, developers and designers can contribute to a positive development by designing digital offers not merely as passive ways of passing the time but as media with an educational benefit. Tailored to the respective age, videos, apps, games, e-books or digitally-supported toys can communicate knowledge and promote certain skills. Within the framework of the course design of playing and learning at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle, these new possibilities have long been recognised; modern technologies are part of the curriculum, many students work on projects involving digital play or a combination of digital and analogue elements. “It’s not about working against developments but rather to regard them as a challenge and include them in the process,” claims the head of the programme, Karin Schmidt-Ruhland. “Good toys encourage free play, meaning they allow freedom for personal interpretation, regardless of whether that is analogue or digital.” When quality content meets attractive, child-appropriate design and well-conceived user-friendliness, digital offers can be an asset for young users. “Some educators are already integrating them successfully in class,” reports Sandra Rexhausen. “They encourage creativity and team building as well as communicating how to handle failure.”
Therefore, it is up to designers to do what they can to improve the market with good examples. Ultimately, it can only be hoped that parents and educators take their supervisory duties seriously and give them preference over purely “sedation measures”. If that happens, the digital era can also create opportunities for children and prepare them for the future. By the way, the possibility of digital toys one day replacing classic analogue play is rather unlikely. “It goes without saying that the world is changing and with it products and actions are changing, too,” admits Karin Schmidt-Ruhland. “But the world is object-based. We surround ourselves with things, which we can feel, smell, and see, and nothing will change that.”