Can Smartphones Make Kids Smarter?

It should come as no surprise to parents that as “smartphones” (cell phones with advanced capability such as Internet and full keyboard) become more popular, the number of children with access to mobile technologies is also increasing.

Carly Shuler, a Cooney Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, estimates that almost 20% of children ages 5 to 7 use a cell phone.  Younger children, she says, are also getting in on the act.

One look at Apple’s iTunes App Store confirms this trend.  Not surprisingly, as the number of apps (short for “applications”) for children has grown exponentially, so have the number of apps aimed at making kids smarter.  Currently, there are over 3,400 education apps available for download at the iTunes store, with a large number of them targeted for children between the ages of two and five. One of the top selling iPhone education apps is “Wheels on the Bus” and that “13 of the 20 top paid apps in this area are clearly child-directed.”

Which leaves parents and educators asking one question:  Will smartphones make my kids smarter?

While some might view smartphones as yet another digital distraction, Shuler insists that the potential advantages of mobile learning outweigh any disadvantages. “First, these devices are mobile and allow the parent to encourage anywhere, anytime learning,” she says. “The second advantage is that, because of their relatively low cost and ubiquity, these devices allow educators to reach underserved children that are geographically or economically disadvantaged. The third is that these devices can encourage 21st century skill like communication and collaboration.”

Still, some parents and educators are bound to be skeptical.  At this point, however, it seems that mobile technologies are here to stay. “These devices are a part of children’s lives today whether we like it or not, so we might as well be using them for good,” Shuler says. “Mobile devices aren’t going to solve our education crisis, but they are another tool in the toolkit that, if used properly, can enable meaningful learning experiences.”

For parents and educators who aren’t sure what kinds of apps or podcasts are best for kids, Shuler recommends using the “Three C’s” approach.

  • Content – What is the basic premise of the app? How is it designed?  Is it research based?  Is it age appropriate?  Does it come from a trusted source such as Sesame Workshop?  There are a few great resources to help parents evaluate content, such as Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review
  • Context – Who is interacting with the child? How do parents talk about what’s on the screen? Is the child learning through a game, then applying that in another activity? Is the child telling stories about what he or she has experienced?
  • Child – How much stimulation can this child take? What types of media trigger the most curious questions, playful reenactments, engagement and joy?  What is she missing out on by spending time on the device – is she still exercising, socializing, and doing her schoolwork?

With a little common sense, smartphones and other mobile devices can be useful learning tools for children of all ages:  “Just as Sesame Street introduced children and their families to the potential of television as an education medium two generations ago, today’s children will benefit if mobile becomes a force for learning and discovery in the next decade.”

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