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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Mobile Technologies Are Changing Young Children’s Social Interactions

By Molly Schleisinger, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek & Roberta Michnick Golinkoff — June 17, 2018 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is co-written by Molly Schleisinger (Postdoctoral student, Temple University), Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Professor of Psychology Temple University), and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (Professor, University of Delaware)

Today, 98% of households with 2- to 8-year-old children include a mobile device, like smartphones, tablets, and iPods or other smart-mobile devices, an increase from 75% in 2013. Moreover, 45% of these children have their own dedicated device - up from just 12% in 2013.

This great natural experiment has largely erased the digital divide for families with young children - today, 96% of low-income families in the United States have access to some sort of mobile technology. Connectivity has completely transformed our lives, from accessing the limitless universe of information to our daily social interactions. And this world of overwhelming connectivity is transforming the lives of children in unfathomable ways. Mobile technology provides young children with more and easily accessible educational content than ever before. But, research is piling up suggesting that social interactions (which are the foundation of human learning) completely change when young kids are face to face with mobile tech.

The issue isn’t that mobile devices aren’t educational, numerous (surely, not all) apps and e-books are high-qualityand teach kids what they claim to teach. The concern is that digital devices are purposefully designed to encourage solo activity at the expense of social interaction - especially when a willing adult is sitting next to the child eagerly wanting to interact.

Think about e-books for preschoolers as an example - picture books in app form that often include narration, music, moving images, or games that the traditional paper version does not.

When reading traditional paper picture books, caregivers tend to ask questions (why did the mouse want a glass of milk?), encourage the child to make guesses about the plot (what will the mouse do if you give him crayons?), and connect the story content to the child’s life (do you like to drink milk when you eat cookies?). Children also ask questions (why is the mouse wearing overalls?) or start conversations about the story content (I like to use a straw when I drink milk too). These social interactions discussing story content is how children learn best from books.

When reading e-books, caregivers tend not to ask questions or start conversations because it interrupts the audio narration - obliterating social interactions. And the conversation that does occur is mostly focused on behaviors involved with physically manipulating the technology, not the story. As researchers Marina Krcmar and Drew Cingelhave explained, time spent talking about the iPad distracts children from the story in a way that talking about the story content does not. This effect likely resulted in the 2 to 5-year-olds who read the e-book in their study to have lower story comprehension than children who read the traditional paper book with their parents.

Similarly, non-digital toys naturally create roles for parents in children’s play, like playing board games together or parents sorting Legos while children build. These rich social interactions consist of sustained conversations and social contingency, include varied language and countless opportunities for learning during play, and are inherently part of play.

However, during digital games that require children’s continuous attention, social interaction with caregivers nearly disappear compared to adult-children non-digital play. Alexis Hiniker of the University of Washingtonand colleagues studied 4- to 6-year-old children’s play with their favorite digital apps. The digital apps did not afford parents opportunities to assist or even ask their kids questions without disrupting the flow of the app. When parents did interject, children were unlikely to respond, or would begin speaking and trail off mid-sentence. During app play, social interaction was massively diminished compared to the elaborate and complex contingent interactions and learning opportunities during more traditional play.

This isn’t just about kids playing on iPads. Very young children behave in striking ways when their parents are distracted by digital devices.

One study by Sarah Myruski of The City University of New York and colleagues working with 7- to 24-month-olds found parent mobile device usage related to infant distress. In this study, infants and moms started off playing together - play was disrupted when moms used an iPod touch, ignoring their infants for two minutes. Moms resumed playing with their infants again. Unsurprisingly, infants were distressed when moms ignored them for the iPod. Critically, even after moms resumed playing, distress lingered for infants’ whose parents frequently use mobile devices in front of them.

Our lab has reported similar findingswhen it comes to mobile devices distracting parents during toddler word learning. Moms were instructed to teach their two-year-olds two unfamiliar words. One word was taught without interruption, and in the middle of teaching the other word, moms were interrupted by a phone call. After hanging up the phone moms continued teaching the new word. Toddlers were more likely to learn the word taught without interruption, even though they heard both words the same amount of times and the interrupted lesson was longer - meaning the children’s lack of learning can be attributed to mom being interrupted by a phone call.

Research on the nature of social interactions when children and parents are using mobile tech is just beginning. Although far more work is needed to understand long term effects and cultural shifts, it is clear that both children and adults interact differently in the presence of mobile technology. In particular, very young children absolutely notice when their parents are distracted by digital technology, and there are hints that this distraction has emotional consequences. Overall, the compiled research clues us in that mobile technology changes the social nature of adult-child play.

Mobile devices are quickly closing one aspect of the greater digital divide. In the larger complicated discussion of flooding children with mobile technology, we cannot forget that digital mobile devices have inherent benefits. Young children can navigate games and read books solo and on the go! Learning from educationally-tinged activities without any sort of adult intervention is an unparalleled intervention strategy for households where children would not get much language input or cognitive stimulation otherwise. However, we must be keenly aware of the tradeoffs between young children receiving educationally-tinged input and diminished social interaction, especially for households with a willing social partner.

Particularly, as schools begin integrating one-to-one tablets or laptops into the classroom, we cannot ignore the changing nature of social interactions. We are an inherently social species and thrive on connecting. It is not enough to scientifically determine that young children can learn from apps that claim to be educationaland choose to only connect kids to the “educational” apps. We need to critically examine how in a rapidly advancing technological age, young children’s social interactions (the foundation for learning) are changing when they are face to face with mobile technology.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.