For parents worried about how much time their kids spend glued to their iPads, a new study from the University of British Columbia brings a little bit of good news.
Researchers found that in certain circumstances, children using tablets to learn factual information perform just as well as children being taught through face-to-face instruction.
The number of screens in the average Canadian household has reached new peaks during the past few years, effectively transforming the childhood experience in ways yet to be fully grasped. And the change is ongoing. Back in 2014, the number of mobile devices in use around the world passed the 7.19 billion mark, meaning that there are now more screens in use than people living and breathing. Projections continue to head northward, with an estimated 11.6 billion devices expected to be up and running (our lives) by the year 2020.
But the news may not be all bad, at least not on the educational front, as the proliferation of tablets in the hands of toddlers could potentially be of benefit rather than detriment to their intellectual development. So says a new study from UBC’s Department of Psychology, where researchers tested 86 children between the ages of four and eight on their ability to learn new information in the form of facts about animals. Half the children were taught via face-to-face interaction with a female researcher while the other half were given tablets and taught with the aid of a pre-recorded female voice represented on screen by a cartoon llama. Both groups were then tested for their retention of information, with the tablet-taught group faring equally as well as the humanized group.
Putting aside the fact that cartoon llamas are impossible to resist, the researchers say their work reveals a potential upside to technology’s new ubiquity, mostly due to the interactive capacity of today’s tablets and mobile devices. “On its face, interactive media has significant advantages over traditional toys and over other forms of media such as television or video,” say the study’s authors, who point to the reactivity, tailor-ability and progressiveness (the ability to become increasingly more challenging) of interactive media are all potential pluses in comparison to analogue toys.
But the researchers are quick to insist that their results should not give parents the idea that screen time is always going to be beneficial, as the type of program and context of interaction are crucial to the learning process. “A lot of parents even give their toddlers apps to play with, but they give reasons such as ‘to calm them or to entertain them,’ they’re missing an important opportunity to teach,” says Susan Birch, UBC psychology professor and lead author of the study.
Birch says that with 80 per cent of the top-selling paid educational apps on iTunes already geared towards children, there needs to be more research on how effective interactive technology can be in helping children to learn and grow. “One of my goals for my team and my students is to develop more of these apps and test them so that maybe I can assuage parents concerns by providing evidence that these apps can be effective learning tools,” says Birch.
The new study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.