Saturday, October 16, 2010

Smart Phones and Smart Kids

A story in the Times looks at the increasing phenomenon of smartphone use by toddlers.  Iphones and touch-screen devices have been revolutionary in that their intuitive interface is accessible to young fingers, and a vast array of cheap and simple educational games can be downloaded.  The general tone of the story is typical - a number of anecdotal stories of parents who can't resist the utility of giving the phones to their kids, and then some finger wagging by experts.

"Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who is a member of the academy’s council of communications and media, said the group is continually reassessing its guidelines to address new forms of “screen time".“We always try to throw in the latest technology, but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones,” she said. But, she added, “At the moment, we seem to feel it’s the same as TV.”
Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo. said: “Any parent who thinks a spelling program is educational for that age is missing the whole idea of how the preschool brain grows. What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology. You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’ You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening. Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”
"Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who specializes in early language development, sides with the Don’ts. Research shows that children learn best through active engagement that helps them adapt, she said, and interacting with a screen doesn’t qualify."
She's right about the research.  But in a common fallacy, she applies it incorrectly.  Children do learn best in certain areas of development through active engagement.  But many computer games offer a complexity of interaction that would be hard to replicate in the physical world.  Much like the reading of a book stimulates specific types of abstract thinking and processing that could not be replicated in the physical world, the computer interface allows for expansion of certain skills.  And because games are designed to be played alone, without help, they offer a facility that a physical game can't offer without adult guidance.

Now, the critique here is often that this sort of auto-facilitation lets adults off the hook.  Instead of engaging in crucial adult-child interaction, the computer becomes a cheap proxy.  But the difference ought to be recognized by degree.  If computers are being used as a complete substitute for parenting, then the child is being deprived.  But any parent who opts for such a radical substitution would not likely be inclined to effective parenting otherwise.

What is often left out of child-development analysis is the broad range of parenting that exists, especially across socioeconomic demographics.  Stories such as the one in the Times routinely ignore this piece of the picture as they narrowly focus on the headline-grabbing main event.  The children spoken of in the story are solidly middle class.  And comments by the experts are assuming that there is anything like a standard early childhood.

But we know that early childhood varies greatly, generally by SES.  Two children of similar ages but from different socioecomic or environmental backgrounds usually will have had vastly different experiences with language, cognition and higher-order thinking skills.  When I taught kindergarten in a low-SES neighborhood, most of the children came to school on the first day hardly even knowing what letters or numbers were.  Few had been read to on a nightly basis, and their exposure to high-level vocabulary and thinking skills was likely limited.  I can only imagine that had they the use of a smartphone with educational games, their academic skills would have been remarkably better. 

The same could likely be said for television viewing.  No doubt most of them watched television at home, but it tended not to have been the sort of educational or developmentally targeted programming found on PBS or Nick Jr., instead being the more commercial-driven fare found on other channels.  This is a direct reflection of the parent's knowledge - vague as it might be - of media and child development.  Content was essentially being edited for them.  No doubt this schism would extend to smart phones, although I know of no research on the subject.  That would have been an interesting story.

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