Conscientious parents may soon become anxious about not giving their toddlers enough screen time.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups encourage parents to ration their kids' use of tablets, smartphones and televisions as if they are refined carbohydrates, new research indicates that some of the media transmitted through these devices may actually make your kids smarter.
Last summer, New York University spent six weeks monitoring how four and five-year-olds at a Brooklyn preschool were learning how to read. Half the students were given unsupervised access to an iPad app called Learn with Homer, which teaches foundational reading, while the others were given a math app as a control. At the beginning of the study, each set of students scored equally on the standardized Test of Early Preschool Literacy (TOPEL). When tested again six weeks later, the students who used Learn with Homer for approximately 15 minutes each day saw their scores double in the area of phonological awareness, while the control group scored lower in this area.
Admittedly this is just one test with a small sample size. Yet it signals that the right combination of educational media and technology, far from being a brain drain, can have a positive and immediate impact on learning.
"I believe very much in developmentally-appropriate activity," said Dr. Susan B. Neuman, the NYU professor who administered the study and Chairs the Department of Teaching and Learning at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Neuman also served as Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education in the US Department of Education, and played a huge role in the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Neuman added that the children who were observed during the study came from economically disadvantaged areas, and in most cases had little or no previous exposure to iPads and other touchscreen devices. The mission was to see how students would respond to the challenging skill-based learning activities in Learn with Homer that focus on sounds and word construction.
Rather than distract, Neuman said the app -- combined with headphones and an engaging touch-based interface that the iPad provides -- is causing her to consider "whether this (type of learning) can encourage concentration for children."
Not all apps will make your kids smarter
As an educational app reviewer with a four-year-old who was born a month before the debut of the iPad, I can verify that Learn with Homer is among the best apps available that teaches foundational reading.
The iPad-only app, which is free to download and has a number of premium sections that combined cost up to $8 per month, features extensive content structured around engaging characters, exciting field trips, songs and other activities. Neuman said she was confident enough in the app's efficacy to use it as the basis for her study.
Very few alternatives would qualify at this point. This is because the vast majority of apps, educational or otherwise, are not worthy of our time and attention and very well could contribute to the decline of Western Civilization as we know it. Yet this point is not exclusive to touchscreen-based media. You can say the same thing about most books, periodicals, movies and television shows.
"Every parent parents differently," explains Stephanie Dua, founder and CEO of Learn with Homer. "My own parenting is focused on what my kids are engaging with, not for how long. As long as they are engaging with content that is stimulating, I feel good."
Prior to starting Learn with Homer, Dua served in the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and consulted on the development of Common Core State Standards. Her company, which has 13 full-time employees or full-time equivalents, is generating significant revenue from the approximately 520,000 registered parents who use it (she wouldn't specify how many are paying subscribers). Learn with Homer also has 1.3 million kid accounts, and since launching in August 2013 than 33 million lessons have been viewed. Last November, the company raised $3.4 million from seed investors.
While Dua and her colleagues are touting the success of the NYU study - they scooped the university on reporting the results! - the benefits of Learn with Homer are not limited to the development of phonological awareness in toddlers. For children who are raised literally and figuratively along touchscreen devices, apps like Learn with Homer, Bugs and Buttons 2 and and Motion Math: Hungry Fish provide a safe, engaging introduction to the new medium. Digital media fluency will be essential for social and professional development in the years and decades ahead, and this type of exposure (rather than arbitrary limits on screen time) will serve them toddlers ways not possible to track through a six week study.
"The genie is out of the bottle," says Keith Meacham, director of partnerships for Learn with Homer. "Screen time is here. Our kids are using digital technology to learn themselves. I want to make sure that what my children are consuming is of high quality and that they understand the limitations and promises of technology."