Do smart devices make smart kids?


WATCH: Mindshapes' Chief Executive David Begg explains how interactive online books are made

I grew up with Ladybird books. They looked pretty old-fashioned when I was reading them and they seem to belong to a bygone age in the era of iPads and e-books.

These days, with the toddler acknowledged as the family's tablet expert, children often learn to navigate the internet before they learn to read.

But are smart screens making our children smarter or simply creating a new generation of "square eyes"?

In the US most young children have access to a touch-screen device and, according to Daniel Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, using these devices could be more addictive than watching television.

A young child will look away from a TV screen about 150 times an hour, but a well-designed iPad app is more engaging because the child is touching the screen to generate actions.

Reading crisis
Two boys, one reading a book, one an e-reader Book or e-book reader? Which is best?

Half of all US 10-year-olds read poorly, according to Dr Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which was set up to research how digital media impact on learning.

One of the centre's studies, using an iPod Touch, found that the vocabulary of 13 five-year-olds improved by an average of 27% after using an educational app called Martha Speaks.

Another study, using a different educational app, had a similar result, with three-year-olds showing a 17% gain.

Its latest research compared how children learned using traditional books versus e-readers.

The conclusion was that for young children traditional books were more effective in focusing attention on literacy skills while e-readers helped older children maintain attention and excitement with books.

But even then the picture is complicated.

"Children may be distracted by the bells and whistles of enhanced e-books. They may be engaged but many are not comprehending as much," said Dr Levine.

"It depends on the context and content, but e-readers aren't going to solve the reading crisis."

Book power

The idea that apps and touch screens are now constant companions for young readers was the inspiration for MagicTown, a fantasy world built around classic children's books such as Elmer, Winnie The Witch and Little Princess.

The site is trying to bridge the gap between the screen-based digital world and a time when families gathered around to listen to stories.

Every time a child listens to a story, they create a new house in the town.

They can choose a variety of modes for stories, from basic listening to modules that require them to participate in the story.

Even in the web age, stories maintain their power said David Begg, chief executive officer and co-founder.

"Story is the best medium to teach children. From the village elder importing stories from generation to generation, it is how people learn about emotions, morals and the structure of society," he said.

In Magic Town the village elder is a lion called Louis who will tell different stories to children daily.

The tree at the centre of the town grows more leaves the more stories listened to and withers if none are read.

"It is not about ramming books down kids throats but about engaging them," said Mr Begg.

"We wanted it to be something that parents think is valuable for their children," he added.

Screen learning
Two Indian school boys Not all children have access to books at home

The model of children learning alongside adults is thought to be the ideal, but in parts of the world with low literacy rates it is simply not possible.

In such places, the screen may take the place of a parent or teacher.

Prof Sugata Mitra, whose "hole-in-the-wall" terminals offered children living in the slums of India their first experience of computers.

Now, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Education, he is experimenting with teaching children to read without adult intervention.

"We are trying to find out if children can learn to read by themselves," he said.

He and his team have created reading software which has been installed on computers in three villages in central India, one in West Bengal, plus in a slum school and household in Calcutta.

The trial runs until the end of the year.

"The field reports so far are exciting. Children are starting to read already," said Prof Mitra.

Just how technology can be harnessed to help children learn in better ways may be unclear, but it is obvious children's perception of books has radically altered.

"Really young children look at a real book and think that it is electronic. They try to swipe it and think it is broken when nothing happens," said Dr Levine.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The internet really isn't the magic source of information some of you think it is - not if you are after something better than Wiki and all of the sites which just quote the same info.
    QUOTE. 'The screen may take the place of the parent or teacher'. Wouldn't monopoly computer floggers love that. Jane Wakefield doesn't tell us much about the amazing stats. Does she? Whole article C&P?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    If there is any shred of truth in this, they should be given as standard operating kit to our politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I wonder it works on second childhood as well? I, for one, hope so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The biggest library in the world is your PC. If only kids would explore and take in the information available rather than Facebook and games.

    I was taught from books, I wish I was able to learn geography or history by a projector screen, travel to the country I'm learning about, even walk the streets and view the area, go to any museum or art gallery in the world. Read and forget - do and learn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Conform to the shiny screen kids. And make sure your parents get you the most expensive one. No one wants to be behind the times (evil laugh...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    > Logically if the smart screens provide greater information than previously open to children then it follows that kids will have the potential to be smarter academically.

    Nope. Naive, wishful thinking. Standards will not be increased so we will just become lazier and seek other peoples answers to problems rather generate new solutions ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I keep finding little finger marks on my new flat screen TV. Damn those touch screen devices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Not to start a flame war, but I have to totally disagree with "Confuciousfred " statement. Kids have never had it so easy, with things like google anything you want to learn about is only a click away. I don't believe devices do take away from our problem solving, if anything they help us problem solve. Without goggle my job would be impossible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Schools & exam boards the world over now need sophisticated software to detect plagiarism. Technology introduced the possibility of easily cutting & pasting an entire essay without ever having to engage with the subject of it, or even being able to read it. I use 'technology' all the time, but I take care not be seduced by it because I've seen it fail to deliver what shallow neophytes expect of it

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    "Smart" devices are usually just a way of letting advertisers target you or your children. Apple knows where it's iPads and knows what you download. Most importantly e-books of all kinds are not yours and never will be. You are being granted a licence,usually non-transferable so no giving it to a mate when you've done. I shall stick to paperback an hardback books which will always be mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    There are two dangers here. One is the association of electronic screens with entertainment. There's a limit to how far serious learning can be presented in an entertaining way. The second problem is the ease by which electronic devices can be used to find information, answers to problems, perform calculations and correct texts. Children are already losing the ability to work things out themselves

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I wouldn't buy an e-reader for a child and will encourage them to have books, by reading an actual book you have physical proof of what you've read and covers are easy to reconise for small children so books can be chosen by the child for a bed time story based on looks. I love my kindle and think maybe it should be seen as a "reward" for an older child who enjoys reading!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Like any tool, there are good uses and bad uses. Sounds like the old "gold star" stickers I got at school for reading books - I didn't care about them then and I don't now; I read the books because I liked the books, not to get the stickers. If I wanted the stickers, I would have gone and got a pack of stickers.
    The Magic Town village tree is a modern "gold star" sticker - pointless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The article notes an improvement in the vocabulary of 5 and 3 year olds. But who taught them to read in the first place, and what of those kids who can't read at all by 5? This suggests that some have parental engagement and some do not. Surely that's the crux of it. Even if parents aren't very literate themselves they can at least foster a positive atttitude to education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The obvious solution is to use both. There are clear benefits and drawbacks with both approaches, but any parent with half a brain should be able to combine them.
    Not many parents have half a brian..

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    51. Sidney Monroe: I've got to agree, I thought exactly the same thing. It seems a shallow and flippant way of dealing with a serious point. The article on maths suggest that countries with less individual access to high technology do radically better than the UK in maths. Did computers without touch screens improve education in the UK, it sure doesn't look like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    IT kills original thinking, creativity, criticality and attention span."

    Utter, utter BS. As I've stated in a previous post, I spent nearly 5 hours creating an incredibly complex photoshoped image. That more than covered your first, second and forth points. And your third is covered by online debate forums, much like the one you're posting on now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    "Not all children have access to books at home".

    Cue picture of ethnic minority children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    This seems to focus only on the ability to read and learning, but does not take into account the social implications. Surely there are consequences when children are not being read books by their familes or teachers and interacting with screens, rather than people? The sound of your dad reading you a story at bedtime is priceless bonding time.

  • Comment number 65.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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