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Touch screens offer learning potential, parental challenges

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on April 24, 2013)

You have probably encountered this scene: at a restaurant, a toddler at a nearby table grows increasingly fussy until a parent intervenes by launching an application on her smartphone or tablet and handing it to the child. Suddenly mesmerized, the child quiets down, to everyone’s relief.

You are no longer being disturbed, but do such pacifying strategies constitute good parenting?

As author Hanna Rosin points out in “The Touch-Screen Generation” in the April issue of The Atlantic, even experts are unsure how much we should expose young children to new media, or whether it’s beneficial to do so. Will that iPad serve as a gateway to learning or a gateway drug to a numbed-out future?

Smartphones and tablets are so new that researchers have had little time to investigate their merits or drawbacks. We can, however, take some cues from existing research on television and video.

In her article, Rosin points to research by my Vanderbilt Peabody College colleague Georgene Troseth showing that children younger than about 30 months learn less from TV than they can from a real person offering the same information. Television is not a substitute for a parent or teacher. As a parent and teacher, I am pleased and relieved.

However, interactivity can take several forms, Georgene says: true social interactivity, as in a conversation between parent and child; quasi-interactivity, in which an onscreen character asks a question and pauses for an answer; or the physical interactivity of a touch screen. Shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “Blues Clues” make use of quasi-interactivity, with some benefit to children. Touch screens, says Georgene, are “like when children figure out the joy of clicking a light switch on and off or how to use the remote control — their action is rewarded with an outcome.”

Tablets’ responsiveness to a child’s touches is one reason developers are excited about their potential as learning tools. Much hinges on design. “For instance,” Georgene says, “if a voice begins to give instruction on how to play a game, but the child’s touch changes the scene before the instructions are completed, children may then touch the screen in an undirected fashion, not knowing what they must do to succeed.” The opportunity for learning is lost.

Some guidelines

For parents concerned about the technology in young children’s lives, Georgene offers the following practical suggestions:

  • First, handing children smartphones to keep them entertained in a restaurant or in the car going home is no different from handing them crayons and coloring sheets.
  • Limit screen time as just one part of a balanced diet of daily activities that include outdoor play, hands-on play with physical objects and reading books.
  • Look for apps that lock the screen from touches until the instructions finish.
  • Look for apps or e-books in which the child’s actions will emphasize what the story is teaching.
  • Look for open-ended apps and games that allow creative play.
  • Finally, use television viewing as a chance to talk with your children about content and your own values.

Sounds like good advice for children of all ages!

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.