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What Does Screen Time Really Do to Our Kids?

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, through her organization Kidskintha, is hosting the 2021 World Early Years Summit, a virtual conference featuring expert presenters on a range of topics in early childhood and elementary education. Learn more about the summit here

We are living in unprecedented times, with the pandemic having accelerated our learning curve and adaptation to new uses of technology. Well, if not new, sustained use of technology for old purposes. The education industry is one of the most disrupted sectors because it involves even our youngest children. 

Digital learning has become the norm for most of us, so much that it’s hard to imagine that most of us thought it impossible or simply crazy to teach children with the screen between us. Concerns about screen-time have been on the rise – many parents feel powerless over the screen-addiction building in their kids. It’s not for nothing that the NetFlix movie ‘The Social Dilemma’ created ripples everywhere – people everywhere, especially parents, could clearly imagine the unfolding of such a thing in their lives. 

However, there’s good news. Technology can be great. Screen time can motivate children. Mobile apps can accelerate learning- and if this is done early enough – it carries an astounding multiplier effect. 

There’s a growing body of evidence that interactive apps have helped increase proficiency in literacy skills, knowledge of the alphabet, phonological awareness, and numeracy skills, and in many cases, have proven to be much more effective than classroom instruction alone.

Many might recall the much-viewed TED talk by Dr. Sugata Mitra, where he spoke about his “school in the cloud” experiment that demonstrated the ability of children to miraculously self-organize and learn on their own. The good news with the proliferation of technology is that the trend only seems to increase at a dramatic pace with smartphone penetration putting learning apps in the hands of parents – even illiterate ones, and thereby, in the hands of the children who need them. 

Curious Learning, an organization with a mission to empower everyone to read, works with the partners to curate, localize and distribute free, open-source apps to children in under-resourced countries. The results have been staggering so far. 

Curious Learning’s results from the pilot research with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and Georgia State University across seven countries and 4000 children pointed to evidence that touch-interface apps for learning to read are very helpful in aiding personalized intervention for literacy skills. The team found that learning times were slashed significantly with the use of appropriate apps for learning. 

Here’s an example: The usage of the ‘Feed The Monster’ app in Arabic-speaking refugee children showed that an average of just 22 hours on the app resulted in learning outcomes equivalent to 2-3 months of learning in a well-resourced school. Another example would be increased reading fluency and accuracy after using a game created by the Behavioral Science Institute in Holland. 

From the pilot study, the Curious Learning