Toddlers turn from TV to tech

Toddlers are using technology but turning away from TV, according to a national survey. Thirty-eight percent of children under age 2 have used a mobile device, up from 11 percent two years ago, according to Common Sense Media, reports the San Jose Mercury News. At the same, young children are spending less time watching TV.

Three-quarters of children ages 0 to 8 have access to mobile devices such as smart phones, tablet computers and iPod Touches, the survey found. The proportion of young children using the devices nearly doubled, from 38 percent two years ago to 72 percent, and average duration of use tripled from 5 minutes to 15 minutes daily.

Children up to age 8 average nearly two hours a day in front of video screens. That’s 21 minutes less than they did two years ago, according to Common Sense Media.

Half, or 57 minutes, of screen time is spent watching TV, a drop of 9 minutes a day from two years ago. Of TV time, one-third is spent watching prerecorded programs on a DVR. Ten minutes a day is spent playing video games, down by 4 minutes from two years ago.

Children are more likely to watch educational programs on TV than on smart phones, the survey found.

A third of children have televisions in their bedrooms. Lower-income families were more likely to have a TV on all the time compared to than higher-income and better-educated families.

Where there is still a gap between the rich and poor in ownership of mobile devices, it is narrowing. Among poor families — those earning less than $30,000 a year — access to smart phones increased from 27 percent to 51 percent in two years, while tablet ownership went from 2 percent to 20 percent.

Yet Common Sense pointed out an “app gap,” partly because only 46 percent of lower-income families have access to high-speed Internet, and therefore have less access to downloadable educational programs.

There’s also a huge reading gap. About half of parents said they read to their children under 2 ever day; a quarter read every week. One fifth never read to their children under 2.

Touch-screen kids

In The Touch-Screen Generation in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin visits a Monterey conference for developers working on phone and tablet apps for children, starting with babies and toddlers. Some brought their own children.

The 30 or so children here were not down at the shore poking their fingers in the sand or running them along mossy stones or digging for hermit crabs. Instead they were all inside, alone or in groups of two or three, their faces a few inches from a screen . . .  A couple of 3-year-old girls were leaning against a pair of French doors, reading an interactive story called Ten Giggly Gorillas and fighting over which ape to tickle next. A boy in a nearby corner had turned his fingertip into a red marker to draw an ugly picture of his older brother. . . . Some of the chairs had pillows strapped to them, since an 18-month-old might not otherwise be able to reach the table, though she’d know how to swipe once she did.

Rosin, the mother of three, worries that digital technology will turn out to be bad for children’s development. The developers worry too, she discovered. A mother of four, who helped develop an app that teaches spelling to preschoolers, said her children don’t play many games.

“We have a rule of no screen time during the week,” unless it’s clearly educational.

. . . “On the weekends, they can play. I give them a limit of half an hour and then stop. Enough. It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.”

Other developers who were also parents had similar restrictions. “One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home.”

Yet interactive games can help children develop skills, writes Rosin. And they can be a lot of fun. She likes a Swedish game called Toca Tea Party, which lets kids throw a party for their dolls and stuffed animals, spill all the tea they want and wash up afterwards.

The game is either very boring or terrifically exciting, depending on what you make of it. . . . Maybe today the stuffed bear will be naughty and do the spilling, while naked Barbie will pile her plate high with sweets. The child can take on the voice of a character or a scolding parent, or both. There’s no winning, and there’s no reward.

When she let her toddler son play with the iPad as much as he liked, he devoted three two-hour sessions a day to it — for 10 days. Then he forgot about it for six weeks. “Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often.”

Drill, student, drill

Despite the education world’s rejection of “drill and kill, rote learning has its uses, writes Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine.

By e-mail, E. D. Hirsch Jr., the distinguished literary critic and education reformer, told me that far from rejecting drilling, he considers “distributed practice,” the official term for drilling, essential. A distributed practice system, Hirsch explained, “is helpful in making the procedures second nature, which allows you to focus on the structural elements of the problem.”

For knowledge that must be automatic, like multiplication tables, “you need something like drilling,” adds Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

“Colorful, happy apps” can make drilling less boring, Heffernan writes.

Apps devoted to specific subjects always have the right answers in reserve. They unfailingly know stuff that might elude more fallible human drillers, like atomic weights, the order of cranial nerves and African geography. And they can make almost any exercise feel like a video game.

. . . even as they profess reluctance about drilling schoolchildren, adults who themselves are looking to learn something new — from foreign languages to bar-exam material — increasingly turn to apps that animate some version of a multiple-choice or flashcard narrative.

I tutored a girl in algebra who hadn’t memorized the multiplication tables. She had to slog through the arithmetic on every problem, which made it hard to “focus on the structural elements.”

Ten years ago, I tutored a sixth grader who was an excellent phonetic reader with poor comprehension because of her limited English vocabulary. She asked me for the definition of every word she didn’t know and memorized the definitions. I just found her high school-era web page, which lists her favorite books, including The Scarlet Letter.