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More evidence that smartphones harm kids’ literacy

In recent days, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop has attempted to defuse relations between US President Donald Trump and Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull. Transpacific literacy academics may be able to help her, diplomatically. Unlike their nation’s leaders, they’ve found common ground.

On the American side, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the director of the Temple University Infant and Child Laboratory in Philadelphia, studied what happens to 2-year-olds when a person converses with them then halts the discussion to use a smartphone. This was found to impede the child’s literacy.

Lisa Kervin, an associate professor in language and literacy, suspected this might be the case. She studies the impact of phones on children’s literacy at the University of Wollongong, and thinks there’s cause for even greater concern: it’s not just that phones can stop conversations, it’s that they can prevent them from the get-go.

“Whether looking at the phone, checking email, or taking calls … we miss valuable opportunities to interact and enhance a child’s language development,” she said.

And this missed dialogue, according to Kervin, is key to children’s development.

She explained it thus: “If we think about a young child at play, they’re often engaged in quite extensive dialogue … and we know from theory that when a child is playing, they’re operating at their highest cognitive level”.

Parents who work from home might be more susceptible to phone time over child talk and play time. Both Kervin and Hirsh-Pasek pointed out that, unlike in many other literacy studies, this technological literacy obstacle doesn’t correlate with socioeconomic status.

In fact, Kervin would like to see guidelines imposed on parents and their iPhones, tablets and laptops. But, unlike negative child ‘screen time’ guidelines, she wants these to be affirmative.

“Screens aren’t all doom and gloom, and not all apps are created equal,” she said. There are positive ways to use technology, such as if devices are used to interact with kids.

Kervin described how she witnessed the use of a fishing app by a grandfather and his granddaughter as part of her digital play project. The pair conversed about the types of fish they saw on the screen. This vocabulary, said Kervin, might not have been explored without the app.

While Kervin progresses her studies on the potential benefits of digital play, Hirsh-Pasek continues to analyse the undesirable consequences of a parent’s incessant texting, Facebook scrolling, or email-checking on their child’s literacy. She and her team will test if it matters whether the phone interruption is 1-sided, like a parent using their phone while a child silently waits, or 2-sided, like a doorbell ringing, where both parent and child stop talking to answer it.

Their research matters. Not only is sustained conversational engagement essential for our political leaders, it’s also vital for children’s literacy.

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