December 17, 2014

Tablets, Touch and Talk: Technology Through the Eyes of a Child

Braden With my Nexus 5, Watching the MLB At Bat app.

My children have never known a world without high speed Internet, streaming movies on demand, and a seemingly all-knowing personal assistant, available to answer their every question when asked. They've grown accustomed to concepts which once seemed fanciful, like the ability to order all sorts of items on your tablet and have them delivered in the same day, having every photo you've ever taken available to you from any device, or having video chats with just about anyone instantly. For them, there is no such thing as technology. There's just the real world, which is directly impacted by pervasive Internet.

As the major enabler of this, and someone who largely has converted from analog to digital at every opportunity, I've been especially excited to see how this impacts the way they interact with each other, what they choose to learn, and how quickly they grasp ideas - even when, to them, there is no user manual. I'm naturally curious to see what they choose to do and choose not to do, and what simply proves too hard.

My twins are now six years old, and Braden (pictured) is four. The twins are in first grade, and Braden is in preschool. The older two can read well, and do some writing, but while Braden recognizes letters, it's not as if he's sitting down with a good book yet. Despite the mild illiteracy, all three can breeze through tablet usage - from memorizing a pin or lockscreen, to finding applications, launching apps, moving them to folders, and even downloading new ones from the Google Play store. And it's not far-fetched to say Braden is actively learning to read from applications you'd never expect, like Major League Baseball's At Bat, where he's working hard to memorize stats and names of players I've never even heard of. (See also: Wired: How Videogames Like Minecraft Actually Help Kids Learn to Read)

Braden Seeing Baseball Highlights from the Majors on my Nexus 7

Given my kids' capabilities, it should come as no surprise that their primary interaction with the Web is through touch on tablet or phones. They were exposed to iPads and Android tablets early on, and have grown familiar with the practice of touching an icon to launch and app and how to navigate the apps - including the always important ability to hit the small X in a corner to close ads. And when the app isn't what they are looking for, they just ask Google. Depending on how well they ask, Google should find them what they want, whether they are looking for "videos of cupcakes", "pictures of beagles" or whatever strikes their fancy that day.

It'd be easy to say kids, like us, use technology to be entertained. They each have favorite games, and frequently open Netflix or YouTube to watch videos - or, as Braden does, the MLB At Bat app, to see highlights from all of the previous days' games. But they also use applications to draw, or for education, whether they are matching games, flashcards, or adventures that teach them language or math. And on more than one occasion, I've found my Google Express shopping cart full, with hundreds of dollars of items, from everything to do with Disney's Frozen or Minecraft, to books, toys and food. Luckily, they haven't yet figured out the last steps of the purchase, so I've always been able to clear the cart before having to explain away crazy charges.

Sarah posts to YouTube, complete with titles and emoji.

They've each also figured out the tablets and phones are capable of creative work as well. I was recently surprised with an email notifying me that I'd successfully uploaded three new videos to YouTube. After momentarily thinking I'd been hacked, I realized my daughter had not only filmed three new videos, but correctly titled them and uploaded them to my account. Meanwhile, the automatic backup capabilities of Google+ come in handy when we want to see pictures the kids have taken with our devices, from their perspective. Sarah has also been known to tell me to take a photo of something she's proud of, with the intent of my sharing it on Google+ or Facebook, saying "Daddy, take my picture and put it on the Internet."

"My" invite to Brian to join Ingress, sent by Braden.

Last week, just before I wrote my post about Ingress, I got a note from my friend Brian Fitzpatrick, thanking me for inviting him to the game. But I hadn't. Braden did. While I was at the office, Braden had opened up Ingress, sent off a dozen or so invitations to people in my address book, and unhelpfully, dropped some of my equipment into the front yard, for me to reacquire when I got home. That was amusing, and luckily for me, he didn't mess up my account any further. And this Sunday, Braden jacked up our thermostat to 82 degrees, using the Nest app, before I realized things were more than a bit toasty.

On Sunday, we were a comfortable 80 degrees in our house. Thanks, Braden.

Just as important as seeing what they're doing with my devices is seeing what they aren't doing. Aside from the Ingress invites, I've never seen the kids interested in opening up Gmail, or posting to any of my social networks. No fun tweets or posts to delete. No mass apologies to coworkers for toddler missives to internal mailing lists, and no inadvertent likes of odd posts in the stream. They're not interested in Google Drive or browsing the Web, and they've only fired up Sonos to blast music in our house a couple times. For them, the tablets are purpose driven. They have a short time to delivery of the content they're looking for, and if they can't find it, they'll ask Google in a different way, or go back to what they know works.

Just like many of us find we struggle with handwriting after years of regular typing, I'm interested to see how my kids are going to operate with analog assignments that may require pencil and paper, or if textbooks might be the rule, instead of downloadable equivalents. I'm curious to see if they'll master speed typing at a faster age than I did, thanks to the availability of computers, or if touch and voice will rule the day so they might not have to make it a priority. But for now, they're especially handy on the tablet - be it a 5 inch phone, or my Nexus 9, which Braden calls my "big tablet", as opposed to my "medium tablet" Nexus 7. And as Google Now improves, time between what they want and what they find should even further decrease. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Disclosures: I work at Google and enjoy products of ours I mentioned in the post, from Android to YouTube, Gooogle Drive, Gmail and Ingress. So do my kids.

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