Parenting in the smartphone era

In recent years, both children and their parents have more screen time than ever. Recent surveys in the UK found that children aged under five now watch an average of three hours of video content every day; this has increased by 30 minutes since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by Ofcom reveals that 78% of three and four year olds are using a tablet to go online.

Our technology use

Similarly, parents have never been more reliant on technology; 99% of parents of children aged over three have access to broadband and 90% of adults aged 25-54 use their smartphone to go online. Parents are using digital devices with their young children both to support learning and to keep them quiet, according to the Department for Education. They are also using the internet and social media to get ideas for learning and play activities.

This ubiquity of screens in the family environment presents challenges as well as opportunities. There is a risk that both parents’ and toddlers’ use of screens are replacing the crucial back and forth family interactions that are important to early childhood development. There is also a growing body of evidence showing that babies and toddlers from lower income backgrounds tend to have higher screen use than their peers.

However, by creating a direct channel into families’ homes, digital devices also provide a new opportunity to support early childhood development and enhance the home learning environment. This might be through content used directly by pre-school-aged children or through advice and support provided to their parents via apps or social media.

Understanding the landscape of early years apps

To learn more about trends in the current market of toddler tech and parenting tech, we analysed apps in the Google Play store that were designed for use by children aged 0-5 or their parents.

We identified 14 categories of early years apps (shown above), including 303 apps designed for parents and a startling 896 apps designed for young children (nearly three times more). We found that the toddler apps market is growing fast, with around 100 new apps released every year since 2016. Our analysis of app reviews (a proxy for usage) also indicates that the use of toddler apps increased substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic and has remained high.

In comparison, the supply of apps for parents is growing more slowly. While there were only two parental support apps on the market that were released before 2015, there were around nine new apps released each year between 2018 and 2020.

The case for intervention

Although the growing early years apps market presents opportunities, there are currently some barriers to these types of products having a positive impact on the home learning environment for pre-school-aged children. Our analysis of children’s apps has identified that:

  • the large number of children’s apps makes this market hard for parents to navigate
  • around a quarter of the children’s apps in our sample (249) did not have any explicit educational benefit
  • app reviews show that parents are frustrated by adverts and in-app purchases in children’s apps.

We also found that while high-quality parental support apps have the potential to support and upskill parents to give their children a stimulating home environment, take-up has been slow. If we use users’ reviews as a proxy, there was little to no growth in uptake of this type of app between 2019 and 2021.

"Without some intervention in the market, early years tech is not going to play a substantial role in closing the school readiness gap for disadvantaged children."

Towards an early years tech market 2.0

Our analysis suggests that while early years tech probably isn’t going anywhere, without some intervention in the market, it is not going to play a substantial role in closing the school readiness gap for disadvantaged children. At the moment there is a risk that young children (and particularly those from poorer families) are spending substantial amounts of time each day interacting with low quality apps and videos that will have very little benefit for their development.

Working together, some of the actions that the early years sector and tech sector could usefully collaborate on include:

  • improving the quality of toddler tech so that it has greater benefit for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development; this might include designing more apps that facilitate interactive play with caregivers
  • helping parents to navigate a crowded market so that it is easier to identify high quality toddler apps worth their children’s time
  • making high quality digital content available free-of-charge to pre-school aged children in low income families
  • building partnerships between local service providers and developers of high quality digital parental support tools to help connect parents with trustworthy advice.

Author

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Deputy Director, A Fairer Start mission

Louise works as part of a multi-disciplinary innovation team focused on narrowing the outcome gap for disadvantaged children.

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