Innocent Gadgets?

By Mark Nuyens
8 min. read📱 Technology

While giving your kid an iPad may seem innocent, it may actually have unintended side effects and limit their exposure to diverse experiences. Meanwhile, tech companies seem to continue influencing younger generations in favor of a long-term strategy.

Do you recall your first encounter with computers, or any gadget for that matter? Chances are you were probably too young to remember. That's okay, what I'm getting at is that our first interaction with computers and gadgets happens in the early chapters of life. Back in the days, children would often commandeer their parents' computers for gaming or messing around in Paint. Personally, I vaguely remember printing my own secret language using WingDings on my dad's computer. However, times have changed: computers have been replaced by tablets and smartphones, and the age at which we first interact with these devices has decreased as well.

These seemingly innocent first impressions may actually have considerable influence later in life, imprinting brand loyalty or, at the very least, brand familiarity during a developmental phase characterized by absorbing information like a sponge. One might argue how this sets the stage for brands, in particular tech giants like Apple, to subtly influence future consumer decision making. This is certainly not something done in secret or through clever manipulation, but quite simply by offering powerful and lasting experiences with the help of engaging apps. In the end, parents still carry the responsibility in this regard, but does that mean tech companies are off the hook completely?

Fun fact: did you know 9 out of 10 American teenagers own an iPhone, rather than an Android device? That's a lot of blue bubbles floating around. While this can be attributed Apple's product quality, we shouldn't forget how more profound factors could be at play. Social pressure surrounding iMessage, Apple's native messaging app, most likely contributes. However, to go back even further, how did this trend of teenagers buying iPhones get started in the first place? Maybe, just maybe, their mind was already made up. From childhood, when they received iPads primarily as toys, they were already exposed to the Apple brand.

Consider Apple's strategic approach with its iPad range (excluding the Pro models). Although not directly marketed to children, the company is likely well aware of their usage by kids just by glancing at its usage statistics, highlighting one category of apps in particular–games. These stats serve many other purposes, by the way, revealing detailed user behavior and preferences. Apple, probably foreseeing long-term revenues, priced the iPad affordably, offering simplified versions for just a few hundred bucks/euros. Another indication Apple is aware of this development is their seemingly reduced efforts for innovation when it comes to the iPad, suggesting they realize their younger audience is far less demanding when it comes to new features.

In fact, Apple may not even need marketing methods to captivate the attention of a younger audience for their cherished tablets: word-of-mouth among kids likely suffices at this point. However, I often wonder what Apple would do if they started noticing a decline in the usage statistics among their younger demographic. What if children's interest would shift towards some other gadget, or if parents imposed restrictions on device access? Would Apple start improving its iPad range? Would they start lowering the price even further? Or would it shift its focus to newer gadgets, like their recently announced headset?

Recently, I noticed an Ikea ad at a bus stop, promoting a toy to "scare off monsters." This unconventional marketing tactic somehow resonated with me and made me question these practices. I realized how all sorts of companies deploy sophisticated strategies within legal bounds. The availability of digital games in Apple's App Store and Google Play Store, often enticing children with in-app purchases, raises similar ethical questions. While game developers share responsibility, Apple and Google, as platform providers, should navigate conflicts of interest, but seem to be more concerned about the balancing act of child protection and revenue from third-party transactions. While one might argue that all companies universally target children, I think the distinction lies in the unique role technology plays throughout our lives.

Meta, for instance, employs a similar strategy with the Quest 3, a virtual reality headset clearly targeting a young demographic. Such tactics, whether by Apple, Meta or otherwise, underscore the nuanced ways companies shape perceptions from an early age. Although I don't have a clear solution either, I think we should at the very least be aware of this and be cautious when it comes to handing kids these devices. As someone who has used Windows, Apple, and Linux, I've had the opportunity of experiencing diverse technological landscapes. My own experiences with Apple, ranging from the first-generation iPod touch to many other devices has also been quite insightful. Yet, I realize not everyone has the time or luxury for such experimentation.

Although this article was certainly not intended to come across as me being cynical, I think awareness around this topic is important and we should recognize the potential impact of these gadgets on children in the long run. We should keep in mind how younger generations, unwittingly exposed to these digital ecosystems, might transform into future customers. While that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, it's something to keep in mind. As I wrote in my article Gateway Products, innocent-looking gadgets may actually be part of an obscure, long-term business strategy.