Amazon has enabled something that on the surface sounds great for kids: A child-centered service that runs alongside a family's Kindle Prime membership and gives kids aged 3 to 8 unlimited access to Prime content on a Kindle Fire tablet. (Prime costs $79 a year, and the new kid's FreeTime Unlimited package is an extra $3 a month per child).
We know that mobile device use is exploding at an incredible rate right around the world—so much so, in fact, that it's really beginning to look like the end of the traditional PC is coming into view. Our kids will, in general, grow up in a technological environment that bears little relation to our own childhood—they'll probably never really remember what a DVD is, let alone worry about how big a pixel is. And though the awareness of the matter may have come a little late, there's now much pressure to get kids coding in school, and education-centric programmable devices like the Raspberry Pi are flying off the shelves.
So getting kids used to tablet computing and mobile digital device use from an early age is probably a great idea. You may even be able to argue that Amazon's model sets a great example, too—it's legal, thus demonstrating that kids can consume content without breaking the law. And by offering unfettered, unlimited access it may even set up kids in a pro-Net Neutrality mindset. Letting them choose their own content may even encourage them to exercise a little independent thought.
Amazon's not going to let kids wander randomly through its content database. Instead it has a curated access system to content like videos, games, apps, and e-books from partners like DC Comics, Disney, Sesame Workshop, and more. To protect kids, Amazon is working with Common Sense Media—an independent non-profit that rates content for appropriateness. And in case you're nervous about huge bills racked up by in-app purchases, Amazon's disabled that power for the FreeTime users. Sibling rivalry is also quashed, because the service means kids get their own profile, and their own interface for the content they want.
But there is, inevitably, a flip side. Actually, lots of them. For starters, plopping your kids down with a Fire and unlimited free content may be great for stressed-out parents who just need five minutes of quiet to do the dishes ... but you can argue that if this happens very often, or for extended periods it's not exactly healthy for the kids. Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, who focuses on how our society is being influenced by digital media, points out in an email to Fast Company that unarguably "like televisions, personal computers, and game machines, portable i-devices offer tremendous opportunities for learning and development." The real question it "whether families and kids will actually take them up this way."
That is, parents are on the hook to make the machines work for their kids.
Then there's the question of outsourcing decisions about what content is suitable for kids. Common Sense Media has great-sounding principles of believing in "media sanity, not censorship" and "media has truly become 'the other parent' in our kids' lives, powerfully affecting their mental, physical, and social development," that sound eminently sensible and admirable. But would you, or should you, trust Amazon, and its inevitable biases to make all these kinds of decisions?
There's also the question of prolonged screen use and children's development, which has been the cause of some academic and scientific bluster over the years. And the super-wary parent may worry that Amazon's all-you-can-eat approach is even fostering a kind of runaway digital consumerism in the young.
Ultimately all of this is a question of moderation, as most sane heads will tell you when it comes to almost any worry about kids. Pragmatism tends to win out.
Leaving your kids nibbling on Amazon's Unlimited content treats for a short while probably isn't a bad thing, as long as you also spend time engaged with the device and its apps/books/etc. alongside your child—directing their experience, or just interacting with them. Encouraging kids to share the device is also a place where many social lessons are learned, particularly when it comes to multiple-player games, and so on.
You also can't avoid it. Even if your family isn't an Amazon Fire customer, there are many tablets being released that are aimed specifically at kids, and the relevant categories in the App Stores of Apple and Google are humming with content for youngsters. According to a study released earlier this year, 77% of parents questioned thought tablets were beneficial to kids, the same percentage think they promote creativity, and over a quarter of adults questioned had downloaded apps for their kids.
And so perhaps it's best considerparental admonishments then accept the tablet-y truth, and use the devices with your kids sometimes instead of letting your children always play alone. After all, recent consumer studies say smartphones and tablets are going to be the top gift for kids this holiday season. And you never know, your kids may even teach you how to do something more exciting with your next corporate presentation. Or at least how to get past the first level on Subway Surfers.
[Image: Flickr user David Goehring]