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5 things my 4-year-old taught me about technology

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One of the great things about being a parent is that you get to see how kids use technology. I have a 4 year-old daughter who loves to mess around with my phone, watch videos on YouTube (s GOOG) and play Angry Birds.

It’s fun to watch her interact with these things, not only because she’s already better at some of the games than me. The really interesting stuff happens when stuff doesn’t work the way she expects it to, or when she finds ways to use tech that I hadn’t thought of. That’s when I get to learn how tech should work, and why some of my assumptions about it are wrong. That’s right, I’m a 35 year old journalist who has been covering tech for 15 years, getting schooled by a 4 year-old. And I’m loving it.

Here are five things my daughter taught me about tech:

Touch screens change the way we see the world

My daughter must have been two when we took her to a mall that had backlit billboards, advertising some movie that used what looked like icons as part of its title. She went up to it and started pressing and swiping things, fully expecting that something would happen. It was funny, but also very revealing.

I grew up with the command line, and gradually made the jump to graphical user interfaces. Both shaped the way I think about technology, the way I organize information and the way I interact with new types of devices. My daughter’s experience with technology is fundamentally different. She has never used a mouse, and still has trouble using the trackpad of my Macbook (s AAPL) Pro.

Her experience is instead completely shaped by mobile devices with touch screens, which is why she naturally assumes that that any screen is a touch screen. Her view of the world is much more tactile, and she prefers to navigate surfaces to retrieve information instead of diving into nested structures. In short: She wants everything at her fingertips, which gives her a much more organic, immediate connection to technology.

Voice needs to be ubiquitous (or Siri is a huge deal)

"Search for penguins!"

I use a slightly older Android (s GOOG) phone, the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G Slide, which was released before Google added voice commands to much of Android. It includes a somewhat gimmicky “Genius button,” which offers voice-activated search for contacts, local businesses and web results. I showed it to my daughter, trying to impress her with searches for nearby ice cream shops. She loved it.

Then, a few days later, she used my phone to watch videos on YouTube, and started to scream: “Search for penguins! Search for penguins!” That’s when I understood that voice on mobile isn’t just something that helps to keep the eyes on the road when you try to pull up an address. It’s an essential part of the device.

We talk to our phone all the time – so it should understand us, and pull up some good penguin videos whenever we feel like it. At least on mobile devices, voice needs to be ubiquitous. Granted, some people may feel a little uncomfortable talking to Siri in public. But for the generation growing up now, it’s going to be weird not to talk to your phone. Why would you use a painful onscreen keyboard if it can hear us just fine?

Linear TV is dead

I’ve been writing about the future of television for years, but one of my biggest aha-moments came when my daughter watched TV at her grandparents a while back. She’s used to watching videos on YouTube and Netflix, (s nflx) (but her grandparents at that time only had basic cable. Guess what happened when her favorite show got interrupted by a commercial? She got mad. Really, really mad.

That’s when I understood that linear TV has no future. Sure, we’ve all used DVRs to free ourselves from the schedule of broadcast and cable channels, and online sources of content have added even more flexibility. But we also still remember the experience of passively consuming hours of TV without interruption, including ads and whatever was on next. Kids growing up today don’t have that experience, and TV is about watching what they want, when they want it.

Games are social

My daughter's favorite game: Bakery Story.

Okay, this one may be obvious to many, it it was still an eye opener for me: I’ve never been a big gamer, and I’ve been having a particularly hard time understanding casual gaming. I just don’t see the point of putting hours into maintaining a virtual farm. My daughter on the other hand is magically drawn to games that feel like work to me.

Her favorite: Bakery Story, a game that consists of managing a bakery and selling cake to people. It’s pretty challenging for her, but there’s one thing she really gets a kick out of: She can spend hours visiting other people’s bakeries, checking out what they have done to the place and what kind of pastries they’re offering to their customers. It’s like taking a peek into other people’s lives, much in the same way we look at the Facebook profiles of our friends – and to her, it’s much more rewarding than getting points in some traditional game where the score doesn’t matter to anyone but her.

The alive web will be huge

Here’s another thing that’s interesting about my daughter playing Bakery Story: Whenever she visits other people’s bakeries, she talks about “calling them.” And if you think a little bit about it, equating real-time social experiences with phone calls totally makes sense. We’ve been using Skype video calls a lot to keep her connected to relatives in Europe, so she is used to the fact that phone calls are becoming more and more about telepresence.

You don’t just call people to talk to them, you call people to share an experience, show them your room and generally spend some time together. That’s the very same idea that also has made and Google’s Hangouts so popular. It’s not about connecting with intent and purpose, but about sharing real time experiences online. Services that tap into this need are going to be huge, and the generation growing up with them now will embrace them as a natural extension of the technology that surrounds them.

Want to learn more about the alive web and the way companies can design social and intelligent objects for future generations? Then check out our Roadmap conference, which includes speakers like frog’s chief creative officer Mark Rolston and Dreamworks Animation CTO Ed Leonard.

25 Responses to “5 things my 4-year-old taught me about technology”

  1. I had a similar ‘aha’ moment with my (then) 3-year old, and an iPhone1. We were on our own in a doctor’s waiting room, with a TV screen showing some boring kids show. To him it was natural that if he could watch his favourite cartoons on my phone, he should be able to watch them instead on the waiting room TV. He was right. There is an annoying and to him un-necessary link between the device that holds the media/UI/internet connection and the device that the media is watchable on. I have since acquired a video-out cable!

  2. Disappointed in tech.

    I think this is interesting, not because of how your daughter sees tech but that she is allowed to use that much of it! Personally, what I would hope you would learn from your daughter isn’t how tech should work but how to be creative from a child’s point of view. Take the tablet, the netflix and all that other crap away and let her play with real tactile toys, get outside and run around and read real books (not a kindle). I get that we live in a world of tech and it is all around us – that doesn’t make it okay at a young age. Technology is incredible, but there are so many more important skills that children miss by playing with them. She got mad at commercials? Really? How pathetic. We need commercials to teach us patience. She wants the phone to work on voice nad give her what she wants when she DEMANDS it? Wow, what an awful lesson for a child to learn. She should instead be learning about research (hell, Library?) and how to use other resources to find what she wants. It’s about building, maturing and growing. Every struggle we face without tech as a child helps us to grow to be a self-sufficient adult. When we are older and we’ve learned the skills without the tech, then we get to make it easier. I am actually embarrassed that your daughter is that tech connected.

    • Honestly, I prefer to teach my daughter about patience without companies peddling stuff to her. But to the bigger notion that kids should somehow grow up without tech and then learn to use it when they’re older (grown ups even?), I think that misses the fundamental point of media literacy.

      In the world that I grew up in, newspapers and TV news were a really important window to the world. Having access to them but also learning use them wisely and to question them was an important part of my upbringing. Today’s windows are electronic, and it’s just as important to teach kids how to interact with these new forms of media. The last thing we need is another generation of grown-ups that doesn’t understand tech – or the world, for that matter – because their upbringing was sheltered from reality.

      • Chris Olden

        It’s fun seeing how “old” people are reacting to your story. They really don’t understand!

        Talk about misunderstanding the word “demand”, how narrow minded they are; you’re simply describing what is natural to her, not some tantrum.

  3. Danielle Dunn

    I recently bought an iPad for home which my 5 year old daughter now claims as her own. After clickly showing her how to use it, she is now a natural and easily beats me on games which I see as builiding her coordination and strategic thinking skills. I have also downloaded a range of “educational” apps for her and she sees this as fun rather than learning to which she is naturally resistant. Tablets are now so intuitive to use but what we as adults see as intuitive is based on our prior experiences. For a child with limited background experiences, this is the true test of usability.

  4. Patrick Murphy

    I would add as kids’ get older creating and publishing content becomes perfectly natural. The idea of becoming part of social networks based on interests ( a million plus knitters on Ravelry for example) that are not based on geography or time of day blows up the concept of being in the “right” neighborhood. Having full libraries in your hands at all times is simple beautiful. Parental guidance is still needed but my goodness the concept that all of a child’s questions/intellectual interests can really be made available to them has to be viewed as inspiring by any parent.

  5. For the people who think sheltering their kids from these wonderful tools is the right thing to do, then these will be the kids who fail when the tools are so widely available, that everyone else knows how to use them except them. There is a point when it is too much, but never dismiss the benefits of kids learning from technology. The goal of a parent is to teach kids how to use them, not to disregard their benefits. How many times have you said to yourself, “Man if only i had THAT when i was a kid.” Well now your kids DO have those things and it is a wonderful time to grow up.

  6. how can a parent think it’s ok for a four year old to spend hours playing a computer game? if you’re “learning” from your four-year-old that kid is spending way to much time in the virtual world and not enough in the real version. Ridiculous.

    • Thanks for reminding me to be more careful in my choice of words. We don’t actually let her play hours at a time, and I encourage fellow parents to keep a close eye on their kids use of new media, both to learn from it and to make sure content and time of engagement are appropriate.

      That being said, I think they notion of virtual world vs. real world is romanticizing a notion that was never true to begin with. When I was a kid, I’d spend hours immersing myself in the virtual worlds created by books. That was time I could have spent running around in fields and forests, but I don’t think my love for reading hindered my development.

  7. Evelyn Messinger

    This is a well-done piece, but it gave me a strange idea. In the past this story might have been about the difference between adult behavior and that of a 2-year-old. Now, it is about how we are all going to soon be acting like 2-year-olds.

  8. I dont agree whoops.
    Technology is out there and one should let children interact with whatever is out there.
    If you say you dont let your children use technology and web extensively then please dont let them watch tv as well.

    Previous generations of children grew up with the TV, and some things they hear and see have actually helped them during their school career.
    The forthcoming generations are going to be fully into technology and the web, and i seriously dont think its a bad thing.
    Imagine his daughter starts to not only watch youtube videos and play social games, imagine she would find wikipedia f.e very interesting and would read up on all kinds of things. History, present and the future.
    The level of knowledge she will be on once she starts school wouls be incredible.
    Technology is making every generation more intelligent by just being used by it.

  9. most of these activities are exactly why i do not let my seven year old twins spend extended time on the web. most of these interractions are not enriching, they are stupefying. we’re on our way to raising a generation of digital dolts.

    • You have spoken my mind. If you child is to anything serious beyond consuming games, video, news etc She will need more than touch. If she is in school and need to run any serious software for learning like doing stats etc, she will need some other things beyond ipad etc. Those thing being praised here are for the digital idiots who won’t be part of those making things happen.

      • I have to disagree. Tablets work just as well for media creation, including recording and editing of video, music making and even some types of programming. The interfaces just have to be different, and may just be more kid-friendly as a result. It’s no accident that Alan Kay, the father of object-oriented programming, is a big fan of the tablet form factor.

      • DeltaOmega

        she’s FOUR playing games is what kids do… I don’t think anyone is teaching their four year old to use AutoCAD or Final Cut PRO at that age.

        This article just gives a really good insight into the way technologies will be integrated into our lives in the future.

        So if anyone is the digital dolt it is both you “dado” and “whoops” for not accepting how integral technology is in our lives.

  10. You have one very smart daughter! And I’m curious to learn how much of that has to do with the fact that she is able to develop her smarts (both street & book) before ever entering a school building, because of these advancements in technology.

  11. Matt Harrell

    I have a 4-year old daughter and confirm every single thing you’re saying here. After using my wife’s iPhone and the family iPad with such natural ease, she got frustrated learning a mouse. Seeing life through the eyes of our children is a HUGE blessing!