Why the Screen Debate Needs to Happen at App Level

To engage in real debate, critics of screen time need to name the apps they are concerned about, argues Children’s Technology Review Editor Warren Buckleitner, a presenter at the 2014 Fred Forward Conference. He names 10 specific research questions about kids and apps.

The Great Screen Debate is stuck. Despite the forward thinking of the joint position statement on children and technology issued by NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center, critics (Christakis, Levin, Linn & Rowen et al.) have never been busier, with books, articles, position statements, and Huffington Posts that are accompanied by glassy-eyed children, hints of developmental damage, and a dash of dopamine.

But I’ve come to noticebesides the scary stuffthat I agree more often than I disagree with these critics, and I bet you do too. We share a common quest for non-commercial, quality experiences, whether analog or digital, and we express disapproval for lecturing teachers and unblinking, non-interactive TV screens, in part because they can remove active learning opportunities from a child’s day.

What I find most unsettling, however, is how rarely a critic mentions the name of an app. That seems silly.

Let’s say I was a pediatrician, and I wrote an article about something controversial, like the over-prescription of antibiotics. My paper might be called “Antibiotics are Bad for Children.” I would most certainly raise the eyebrows of my colleagues. Such a statement might be true, but under what conditions? How old are the children? Are there allergies? Which dosage and which antibiotic? There are hundreds of types, each with different outcomes. Likewise, there are many types of apps, and each has a very different function. To mention a screen without the app just doesn’t make sense.

As we approach another Fred Forward conference, I’m anticipating that the Great Screen Debate will continue in these general terms, and if it does, I might experience a worrisome surge of dopamine. To avoid any long term developmental damage, here are 10 specific research questions that may be worthy of debate, each designed around a specific app or category of apps. I hope to demonstrate some of these apps during my Fred Forward session, in the presence of smart people on both sides of the debate.

1. Does time with multi-touch virtual manipulative experiences before age 5, such as those found in apps like Hungry Guppy, Shiny Party, Bugs and Buttons and 10 Fingers +, influence the scores on a standardized kindergarten screen instruments?

2. Does informal exposure to apps that have text scaffolding features, such as those found in Oceanhouse Media’s Berenstain Bears Lose A Friend, Nosy Crow’s Jack and the Beanstalk, Peapod Lab’s ABC Actions, or Where’s My Monster?, affect scores on reading tests?

3. How many types of touch screen text scaffolding techniques are there? What are the affordances of each?

4. Do apps like Letter School and Cursive Writing Wizard affect fine motor abilities?

5. Does early exposure to creative apps like Toca Hair Salon Me, Easy Studio, Animate with Shapes, Tynker, and HopScotch increase or decrease the chance of becoming a programmer later in life, with Scratch 2.0, HTML, Unity or the Apple SDK?

6. Do apps like Petting Zoo or ColAR stimulate an off-screen interest in sketching?

7. Is there a relationship between SAT scores and homes with high-speed internet access when combined with access to mobile devices, when confounding factors such as family income are considered?

8. Both Christakis and Levin pair screen use with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is secreted when you are engaged in an intense activity. Which experience creates more dopamine production: Petting Zoo, Angry Birds, Slice Fractions, a foot race, or a debate about screens and children? Dopamine-stimulating video games like “Super Mario Bros.” have been around for now for three decades. Are there any long-term effects of dopamine in the generation of 25-30-year-old extreme players?

9. Age gate verification features are now commonplace in iOS apps. Some ask a child to enter a series of digits and others might say, “swipe up with two fingers.” Is one method better than another? Are there instances where they don’t work, or when the age gate is more educational than the app itself?

10. Is there a correlation toward a high score on the app Dumb Ways to Die and becoming a train fatality?

There’s no shortage of additional questions, of course. Children growing up today need parents and teachers with their own common sense who are willing to construct well-constructed questions that are tied to specific digital experiences. These are people who also understand the principles of access, balance and support (ABS)or the idea that young children need access to high-quality experiences (both low-tech and high-tech) and a balance between real world and symbolic that is accompanied by the support of care givers who understand child development.

Above all, it’s time for all of us, whichever side of the debate we fall, to admit that “screen-time” or “screen-based media” is a throwaway term, unless some specific context is provided.

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