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TEDx Toronto

This is the second in a three-part series that looks at the impact of new technlogy on kids and teens. Read part one: How digital culture is changing the way kids play. Read part three: How the Internet affects teen identity.

When Kevin Donahue got his daughter an iPad, she wasn’t doing much of what he intended it for: Reading.

“All she was doing was playing Angry Birds,” Donahue said.

At the same time, developer Suren Markosian had just quit his job with gaming company CrowdStar, giving him more time with his son Max. But Markosian found himself getting frustrated at story time.

"I couldn’t really find any good books on the iPad. Kindle wasn’t great for kids at all. There was no encouragement and you had to buy the books individually," Markosian said. "It was upsetting to me. So I decided to make it my personal mission to fix it."

So Donahue and Markosian teamed up to try and improve children’s digital reading experience with their app, Epic!

Nicknamed “Netflix for e-books,” Epic! is an app that allows children access to thousands of age-appropriate books, includes badges and encouragement for further reading and provides reports for parents about what and how long their kids are reading.

One of the main goals is to keep kids reading by minimizing device distraction, kind of like ensuring a book is so good it can be read without being distracted by the TV.

“We just want to encourage kids to read more,” Markosian said. “We don’t want to prevent kids from doing what they want to do. We want to make Epic! so great that they choose that over other things.”

That’s a relatively novel idea for technology that, while new, has rapidly taken up residence under toddlers’ fingers. A Common Sense Media report published last year found that about as many children have their own tablet as adults did two years prior.

As a generation grows up glued to a screen, how will this change the way people read?

A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American children ages 8-18 spend about 7 hours and 38 minutes with digital media daily. The study also found that with multitasking, kids were able to crunch almost 11 hours of content into that time if they were, say, listening to music or watching a movie on a digital device while crusing and web or doing homework.

Statistics like these should sound alarm bells for parents, says Jim Taylor, a psychologist and the author of “Raising Generation Tech: How to Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”

“Technology is neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s used,” Taylor said. “The fundamentals of learning and thinking haven’t changed. To learn something requires sustained focus. The inability to focus will limit or at least change their ability to engage in other, more complex forms of thinking.”

The exception, not the rule

The main problem, Taylor says, is that too much exposure to this kind of media too early can spell trouble for developing kids.

“A child’s brain is very malleable and they will adapt to whatever kind of stimulation they’re exposed to,” Taylor said. “If they’re exposed to, for example, little bits of information, that’s the way they will learn to predominantly process information. The problem there is that real learning takes time and focus to occur.”

While there’s evidence that reading on a screen vs. paper impacts comprehension, the research has been called into question.

Norwegian researchers conducted a study among tenth-graders where students were quizzed on material some read in a book and some read in PDF form. The study found that the students who read from print scored “significantly better” than those who read digitally.

But digital literacy teacher John Jones balked at the study, saying in an online column that the screen differed greatly from that of an e-book. The interface allowed for students to look at only one page at a time in the same window where they had to answer questions. Jones said these students were limited by the type of technology they used rather than the fact that they were reading from an electronic document.

Children’s technology expert Warren Buckleitner says that in many ways, mobile technology is a blessing for parents, but the content is more important than the platform.

“A parent and child with an iPad is very powerful. They have a lot more options. That’s good because I’ll tell you, when you have a baby that’s teething, you want options,” Buckleitner said. “The biggest enemy right now is wasted time. It’s kind of like junk food. It might keep them quiet in the car, but they could be playing with something engaging, like animation."

Taylor also worries about overuse.

“Technology has evolved so quickly that we can only evaluate the effects in the rearview mirror,” Taylor said. “My single greatest concern with overuse of tech is opportunity cost. I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t be allowed to use tech, I’m saying it should be the exception, not the rule.”

More screen time at school

With as many as 33 states advocating in some way for mobile technology in classrooms as of 2007, the time kids spend staring at screens could increase even more.

Why are so many schools eager to put iPads in the hands of young kids?

Canadian game developer and tech guru Ryan Henson Creighton sums it up like this: Many schools are trying to fix problems in education by hitting it with “a big, technology-shaped stick.”

“It’s not about technology. You can teach a binary counting system without a computer in the room. And what do you need to be able to do that? A good teacher,” Creighton said. “[The iPad] is not a device for creating things. It’s a device for consuming things.”

Whether or not reading on a screen definitively impacts comprehension may still be open for discussion, but in the meantime, some schools that jumped on the one-to-one computing wagon early are not seeing overwhelming improvement.

A recent article by Mashable visited a Maine school district a decade after the state signed a $37 million contract with Apple that provided 36,000 laptops to students and teachers.

The 2001 proposal for the tech boost stated that the laptops would “prepare young people to thrive in a world that doesn’t exist yet.”

The results have been mixed due to a variety of problems. While there was program training available for teachers, none of the modules actually trained them how to use the software. Additional training was available on a web-based resource page.

A report released in 2008 by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) credited the laptop program with greatly improving children’s writing proficiency; 29 percent of eighth-graders were writing at proficiency in 2000, wile 41 percent met the bar in 2005. But those numbers can be a little deceptive, since test scores improved overall — not necessrily as a result of the laptop program. Another study also published by MEPRI in 2011 depict a minimal difference in test scores between kids who took the test digitally and those who took it longhand format.

"The scale scores are almost identical," the study reads. "In other words, writing improved regardless of the writing test medium."

While there was a miniscule difference between scores, the study went on to say that the laptop program was "positively related" to the "significant" improvement of students' writing test scores. While neither study expressly states why educators believed that the laptops directly impoved test scores, more than 80 percent of the teachers surveyed said that the laptops helped them explore topics in greater depth, teach more effectively and tailor cirriculum better than before.

Finding the magic

In a future where parents may have to reconcile that their children will spend more time on screens in school, Buckleitner says it’s important to remember that they still have control at home. Try to plan activities and vacations where screens are off-limits, for example.

Taylor says in his practice, families that make time to disconnect are happier.

“Over time, they realized they didn’t need technology,” Taylor said. “Their lives actually got better.”

Taylor said the best thing parents can do is make sure they have a healthy relationship with technology to set a good example. Some suggestions? Force small children to disconnect, have designated hours or vacations without technology and no devices until homework is done.

"Kids have become addicted to connection. If parents are constantly on their phones, they're rolemodeling an unhealthy relationship with technology," Taylor said. "It's about the act of using technology, not what's in the technology. Parents need to show kids how to use technology in a positive way and that's a challenge for us because we aren't digital natives."

Another suggestion from Buckleitner is to let technology enhance real-world experiences. Taking the kids to the zoo? Check out the website before hand. Afterwards, Google information on the kids' favorite animals to make the experience live on through education.

"Above all, play along," Buckleitner said.

The key for Buckleitner is to give kids options and remind them that there’s a real world out there waiting for them.

“It’s a real art to seamlessly blend the real world with the abstract experience. To a young child, a light switch is just as intimidating as a tablet. It’s all new,” Buckleitner said. “The biggest job for parents is to make the connections and that’s the same job that every parent has ever faced, whether it’s analog or digital. What we want to do is help them find the magic.”

Read part one: How digital culture is changing the way kids play

Read part three: How the Internet affects teen identity

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Twitter: ChandraMJohnson