Open Letter from Virry to APPLE INC.

Fountain Digital Labs fully supports studying the effects of heavy screen time and children’s access to mobile phones. Our Virry app was designed through a collaboration with a number of leading child development researchers and we have been mindful of issues mentioned in the Open Letter, especially when it comes to a students ability to focus on educational tasks, as well as the increase in students with emotional or social challenges.

We are aware of the Hooked Model developed by behavioural designer Nir Eyal in which a user sees a trigger, action, variable reward, and an investment and it’s sometimes a negative, almost deceptive way of creating habit formatting products. Many products that deploy this model do so out of greed with no real eye toward social responsibility. After all, we all know that it’s easier to form a bad habit rather than a healthy one, and spending hours glued to your screen is obviously a bad one. Nonetheless, we would assume that a sensible use of this model to build good habits could be beneficial. This would of course mean less money for the digital product owners but more health benefits for kids. That’s because using this model responsibly would mean five minutes in the app, rather than five hours.

Far too many digital products, also targeting a younger audience, are full of short-term reward hits aimed at getting the user into the dopamine circle and ultimately lead to addiction. Although digital dopamine leading to digital addiction surely increases retention and makes investors happy, we believe that it is highly irresponsible and harmful on the part of both creators and investors to consciously apply those addictive hacks and we feel there should be an alternative.

We specifically designed our app to encourage children to learn more, to be creative, but we do not use systems or algorithms that would make children addicted to the app.

Virry targets key learning, interpersonal, and emotional skills. It’s designed to get young children thinking about size and quantity comparisons, to teach them two-step planning, cause and effect, and to develop understanding the feelings of others. One of the most important aspects of child development we aim for is self-regulation, helping children move from excited, vigorous, strong emotional states to mellow, calm ones. This can aid in their studies and interactions with their peers by helping them to control their emotions and focus attention.

Virry also introduces concept of caring and promotes empathy and problem solving skills in an engaging and age-appropriate format.

Research and a responsible approach has always been an important part of our work, which is summed up nicely by Dr. Gail Melson, Professor Emerita at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies of Purdue University. She states:

“A realistic, up close and personal experience in virtual nature with wild animals such as lions, rhinos, giraffes, and meerkats can do more than teach children with disabilities about these fascinating creatures.

Without disturbing any animals, children can be guided to engage with them. By virtually feeding, caring for, and encouraging these animals, the children are practicing social and emotional skills.

VIRRY also builds in experiences in self-regulation, going from an excited to calm state.

Parents and adults working with children who have disabilities can use the link “Educational and Developmental Goals of Virry” to learn more about specific skills that each component of Virry targets.

Then, those goals can be matched with the individualized goals for each child.”

We suggest having a system in place within the iTunes App Store to evaluate apps aimed at children not only from a technical point of view, but also from a psychological and educational point of view and that apps meeting those criteria be marked as such by Apple.

We would also welcome a study of Virry along those lines. We feel that we did everything possible to ensure that our app is educational and informative and that it isn’t designed to use any tricks to pressure kids into spending money or copious amounts of time within the app. Instead, we see the advantages of awakening a child’s natural curiosity by creating fun, entertaining, and unique ways to interact with endangered animals, allowing them to see and interact with the beauty of the natural world in a way they couldn’t safely do otherwise. In doing so, we are encouraging children to appreciate nature and animals even more when they’re offline and away from their devices. Virry works well with individuals, pairs of children, or even small groups. But it also works very well as an adult-guided experience, allowing the adult to build upon and reinforce the lessons learned within the app.

This connected space with screens available 24/7 opens up a whole new world of wondrous possibilities and unintended consequences. Learning as much as we can, now, before it becomes a real problem, is in everyone’s best interests.