LAS VEGAS - Kathryn Green and her husband prevented their young son from playing on screen devices until he was 2 years old.
Then they handed him a Square Panda, a screen that sounds out letters. He loved it.
“It was pretty incredible and actually scary in some ways to see how quickly he was drawn to it and knew what to do,” said Green, who works at Square Panda.
Square Panda, in many parents’ eyes, would qualify as good screen time. It teaches young children early literacy while also engaging them with fun sounds and cartoonlike figures. The company was among thousands last week exhibiting at CES, the large consumer electronics show that took place in Las Vegas.
WATCH: Tech's Effects on Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show
Worries about kids and screens
But while there was a lot of excitement at CES about the latest in drones, robots and wearable devices, there was also some ambivalence about how the digital life might be affecting children.
“We need to start to set our own rules,” said Robin Raskin, with Living in Digital Times, a firm that creates tech conferences. “And I don’t think you can depend on the industry to set them for you. But I think you can depend on them to make the tools so you can set your rules easily.”
Should Apple help parents?
Tech executives have also sounded the alarm, and earlier this month, two large Apple shareholders wrote to the iPhone maker to express their concerns.
They asked the company to do more to help parents who want to restrict their children’s use of mobile phones and requested that Apple fund research looking into the effects of smartphones and other technologies on children.
“Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27 percent higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk,” the investors wrote.
“Wait Until 8th,” a parent group, invites parents to hold out until the eighth grade before letting their adolescents have their own smartphones. The organizers say that smartphones are addictive, affect sleep and interfere with schoolwork and friendships.
At CES, some exhibitors aimed their products at anxious parents worried that screens are upending play.
Games beyond screens
When John Shi’s older two children received laptops, “they just disappeared behind screens,” said the long-time tech executive.
Inspired to do something differently with his third child, he created Beyond Screen, a company that makes interactive games that do not rely on screens. He says tech executives should make products and services they would let their own kids use.
“I’m not going to make all these things that will just simply suck in our children’s time, without providing benefits, that really take them away from social interactions, take them away from parents and teachers, make them feel lonely,” Shi said. “I’ll make products my children will actually use.”
An opportunity for tech
Raskin says the growing ambivalence is a chance for the tech industry to do something new.
“The industry has a big opportunity to say, ‘We will educate you, trust us, we got you covered,’” she said. “And they really do owe it to people.’’