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22 May, 2020 19:07

Upcoming ‘Apple Watch for kids’ is a bad sign of creeping tech addiction

Upcoming ‘Apple Watch for kids’ is a bad sign of creeping tech addiction

The next Apple Watch update may be a lot more child-centric, bringing better parental controls and a school mode. But regardless of the benefits, this early induction into the tech world is a win for the tech, not for the kids.

Enthusiasts digging into Apple software for hints of what future updates might bring have discovered that the Apple Watch, a gadget sold in the tens of millions every year, is likely moving to be more ‘child-friendly’ in the future. The new functions apparently in the works would make it more appealing for a parent to buy a set for their kids. 

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Over the past decade or so, the world’s honeymoon period with a number of social media and tech giants has hit a few rocky patches. Many have begun to question whether the luxury of communicating with one another and purchasing online is worth handing away information detailing our every move.

In response to consumer fears, the tech giants have, over recent years, undergone a Long March of sorts, retreating from their past selves and instead announcing various privacy policies that aim to improve their increasingly sinister image. However, it only takes a few seconds to see that these policies are probably not what the consumers were after.

Take, for example, Facebook’s encrypting of all messages across its platforms. The measures, designed to encourage us that they are no longer listening, have the added benefit of creating a potential refuge for child abusers. Despite warnings from various child protection services, these measures are still going ahead. 

Or look at Google, who in January announced a new timeline for implementing privacy standards that limited third-party use of cookies. However, analysts have said this will actually gift Google more control over the digital ad market, where parent company Alphabet makes the majority of its revenue. 

What glistens, then, is not always gold – not for us, anyway. First and foremost, these giants are businesses, concerned with maximising their profits and stylising their PR. It serves their own interests to look like they care for the consumer. Let’s take a look at the new Apple Watch through this lens. 

The Apple Watch itself will apparently feature a plethora of tools designed to appease parental concerns about children engaging with technology for too long. They include the ability to operate several watches from a single iPhone (presumably to allow parents to monitor and control their children), a ‘Schooltime’ mode, and even a rewards system that encourages children to play outside. Setting to one side the fact that the best way to stop your child from spending too much time on a gadget is to not buy it in the first place, these features are essentially the PR aspect of the product.

Now for the profit side. Clearly, as younger consumers tend to live longer than older ones, it makes financial sense for businesses to target them, as they will – more likely than not – spend more money throughout their lifetimes. However, with technology companies this goes even deeper, normalising consumers’ growing reliance upon technology, irrespective of the consequences. 

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Take, for example, a study published last year by Mobile Marketer, which found that a staggering 32% of Gen Z respondents were not concerned “that companies will use their personal online data in a way that could harm them.” The same study concluded that this had a lot to do with the fact that this generation grew up with smartphones and social media, with more than one-third (38%) saying they felt stressed when they couldn’t access the internet. By being surrounded by technology from an early age, they had become dependent on it – and even addicted to it.

What does this all mean? It means that, by buying a kid-friendly Apple Watch in an attempt to control your child’s access to technology, you are in fact making it much more likely that they will become dependent on technology in the long run. Big Tech makes a poor nanny – it’s a business, not Mary Poppins. 

Speaking to MIT Technology Review following Facebook’s launch of Messenger Kids, Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who co-founded and runs the Center for Humane Technology, put it bluntly: “It’s like Coca-Cola inventing a kids’ soda product,” he says. “It still has to sell sugar; it can’t really be genuinely concerned with the well-being of kids.” This is the mindset with which we must approach tech’s targeting of children.

Therefore, although these new gadgets may add a lot of fun and function to our daily lives, we cannot forget that these are profit-maximising corporations first and foremost. Before leaping to buy the next gleaming ‘child-friendly’ gadget, let’s pause to assess the real trade-off for this profit. 

Next year, though, parents will be able to buy the world’s first Alexa deluxe play set, allowing children to pretend-shop via Amazon’s voice assistant. Sounds fun!

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.