Can Smartphones Make Kids Smarter?

Can Smartphones Make Kids Smarter?

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Updated on Aug 27, 2013

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 and author of the report Pockets of Potential, estimates that almost 20% of children aged 5 to 7 use a cell phone.  Younger children, she says, are also getting in on the act. “It’s very common to observe what we call the ‘pass-back’ effect, where the parent passes their own device to the child," says Shuler. "And it makes sense - parents’ devices like phones have always been amongst children’s favorite ‘toys’, and as the devices become more functional for adults they simultaneously get more fun for kids.”

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.  Shuler notes that the top selling iPhone education app continues to be 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.”  

Most promising, though, is that mobile learning technologies enable a more personalized learning experience. Shuler points to a Sesame Workshop program called iRead (Interactive Reading Experience with Adaptive Delivery) which is funded under the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn initiative. The program, which combines classic footage from Sesame Workshop’s The Electric Company and newly designed interactive games, uses student’s DIBELS scores to create individualized interventions where “each student is evaluated on their reading and gets a personalized ‘playlist’ of content that targets their individual reading challenges.”   

Still, some parents and educators are bound to be skeptical.  At this point, however, Shuler maintains 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," she 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.”

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