We sometimes forget just how much life has changed in the last ten years. Go back a decade, and the main concern was that children were watching too much TV and that it was affecting their eyes and ability to learn. Fast forward a decade, and time in front of the TV seems like a minor concern. Do kids watch television anymore? Or are their eyes glued to their smartphones and tablets? And is it affecting their ability to read?
In 2011, only 7 per cent of kids had access to a tablet, according to data from Ofcom. By 2015 it was well over 70 per cent, marking the most significant change in the way that kids interact with media since the invention of the TV itself, nearly 100 years ago.
For some people, that’s a great thing: for others, it’s terrible news. While children can enjoy wholesome activities on digital devices, many parents are sceptical of whether they actually do. It’s a constant source of concern.
What Does The Evidence Say?
The gut instinct of many parents is that smart devices harm children’s literacy, not help it. The idea that something could be both fun and educational seems like a long shot.
However, when you think about it a little, the idea that tablets are all bad for reading isn’t as clear cut. While it is true that kids could spend the entire time playing games, that’s rarely how it works in practice. What tends to happen more often is that the child becomes more active in both reading and writing because that is how he or she must communicate on the platform.
Evidence suggests that the advent of the tablet may have rescued child literacy. Data from 2005 to 2014 on the number of children who read outside of class was falling towards the end of the noughties, going from 38.1 per cent down to 29.1 per cent by 2010 – the year that the tablet came out.
After that, the per cent of kids reading outside of the classroom began to grow again, hitting an impressive 41.4 per cent by 2014. While the introduction of the tablet is likely not the only factor involved, it certainly makes for exciting reading. Over the last decade, the amount that children read has gone up.
Part of this trend has to do with Apple itself, and the continuous updates that it has made to its operating system which you can read about if you click here. The tech giant knows that if it wants to get the public on its side with its new devices, it has to make them learning-friendly. So, not only does it include a plethora of educational apps as standard, but it also contains powerful digital learning tools that may be making kids more intelligent.
Kids Are Losing Their Ability To Focus
While the amount of reading going on outside the classroom might be going up because of the tablet, the level of focus is not. There’s evidence that the length of time that kids can concentrate on one thing is going down. Attention spans are falling.
The psychological reasons behind this are complicated, but some experts think that the tactics that tech companies use to grab our collective attention are to blame. Facebook, Apple and the rest know that if they drip feed us digital rewards, we’ll continue going back to their platforms, over and over again, in search of more “feel-good” factors. Concentrating on learning a problematic subject doesn’t produce the same drip-feed reward response. Instead, it takes many days, if not months of hard work to master a skill before you finally get that dopamine hit telling you that you’ve done it.
Never before have children been drip-fed rewards in this way. Throughout history, they’ve had to earn their keep to get the accolades. With likes and shares on Instagram, that’s no longer the case. It’s a very different world from the one that parents grew up in.
So what does this all mean? Well, it seems to suggest that the way kids process information is changing. While they are reading more outside of school because of these devices, they’re also losing their ability to concentrate. Thus we could see reading standards improve while things like creativity and determination wane.
The counterbalance to this is the school system itself. While digital devices have free reign in kids’ private lives, they don’t while they’re in the classroom. Both parents and teachers need to make it clear that the only way to get good at something is put in the effort.