Computers not made for kids, study says

Anthropologists point out difficulty with typing, sharing


May 28, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

It may seem like a no-brainer: Youngsters have a hard time sharing, and their unrefined motor skills and limited grasp of language make typing difficult.

But those observations are at the heart of a recent study on children and technology by Baltimore's Context-Based Research Group, an anthropologist-staffed subsidiary of marketing firm Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc.

For the study, dubbed GenWired, Context sent three anthropologists into five households in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas to find out about the experiences of the first generation to grow up in the modern computer age.

The anthropologists, who contracted with Context for an undisclosed fee, spent about two hours a week with the households' nine children, ages 5 to 15, for five months, conducting interviews and observing them using computers. They also had their young subjects keep diaries about the technology they use and take photographs about the role of technology in their lives.

Robbie Blinkoff, who with his wife, Belinda, is Context's principal anthropologist, said anthropologists are able to observe things that the children might not have told them if they had participated in a focus group or other more conventional marketing research. After a time, the children become comfortable with the anthropologists, he said.

"When people walk in [to a focus group] they don't always bring their context with them - the way they live their lives," he explained. "It's much different if you actually watch them."

Yet even as the practice becomes more popular among corporations - AT&T Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Motorola Inc. and IBM Corp. employ anthropologists - some in the field criticize the practice as unethical.

"Using our kind of insight into what humans are all about to sell [something like] Pepto-Bismol, that is not what I was trained to do, and it is not what I should be doing," said Aubrey Williams, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. "What I have been trained to do should not in any way be connected to capitalistic enterprise."

But Blinkoff contends that his company's research can provide insights important to the development of technology.

"Everyone knows of this as a revolution that's occurring, but no one knows what's going on," he said.

By watching children, who are increasingly being pushed to use computers and go online, the anthropologists noted several barriers to use inherent in the computer's basic design.

The problems begin with one of the computer's most important components, the keyboard.

The study found that children up to age 8 were prevented from effectively using the Internet because of difficulty with the keyboard.

Even older children who can read and write proficiently are stunted in their computer use if they do not have typing skills.

"Here's this state-of-the-art technology that depends on technology that is almost 100 years old," said Chuck Donofrio, RMD president and chief executive and Context's managing partner. "There is nothing wrong with learning to use tools, but if you are a marketer with a product on a computer, you may need to find another interface."

Donofrio said while some computer makers, such as Gateway, offer keyboards modified for children, they have not come into mainstream use.

If the technology was designed specifically for kids, it would be "a whole different world," he said, not just modifications to existing technologies.

"Who's to say that the way a computer looks now is the right way to find information about the world?" asked Matt Barranca, project manager for Context.

In one of the homes Context studied, when the two brothers, ages 6 and 9, tried to use the computer together, it usually resulted in a fight. It's not news to parents that children have a hard time sharing, but Context points out that PCs are asocial by design. ("Personal" is even part of the name. )

With a standard set-up, only one person can control the machine with the mouse or the keyboard. This differs from video games, where more than one control pad is often standard, or traditional board games, where each player has his or her own space.

"Inevitably there is a time when you want to have more than one person in front of the computer, and that's when it shows its limitations," Donofrio said. "There is huge opportunity for a computer manufacturer to expand its share of people's time. You could replace a lot of other equipment used in play if you can overcome the barriers to multiuse interaction."

Said Barranca: "The only way the computer tends to bring people together is if there is a problem and people gather around to try to fix it."

Another problem Context identified also won't come as a surprise to most parents: Kids get bored easily. This is a particular problem with educational software, which has a hard time keeping children's attention.

In one of the study's households, the anthropologist noted how the father combated this by rewarding his son's achievement in a math game with Pokemon cards.

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