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Q&A: Raising reading kids while navigating the minefields of digital devices and apps
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It's a question of balance, say authors of new book on raising literate kids in a world of ubiquitous digital devices. - photo by Eric Schulzke
A growing body of literature is now addressing the collision of the digital age with the rapidly advancing sciences of parenting, brain development and reading acquisition.

In March we highlighted a new book by Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia on raising kids who enjoy reading. More recently the Deseret News spoke with Dana Suskind, a surgeon at the University of Chicago and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which focuses on getting parents and caregivers to build a richer verbal environment for very young children.

Tap, Click & Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, by Lisa Gurensey and Michael Levine, now takes its place on this bookshelf. It looks at how parents, caregivers and teachers can navigate digital media devices, using them to enhance learning.

We spoke with both authors by phone. Gurensey is director of the Early Education Initiative at New America, and Levine the director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Street Workshop. This interview as been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is really not just about screens. You cover a lot of the groundbreaking research on early childhood brain development and reading acquisition. How do you see your work situated in this landscape?

Lisa Gurensey: Our aim is to map out a modern approach to learning not just decoding words on a page, but all aspects of brain development starting in the earliest months of life. So to write this, we needed to absorb a lot of the cognitive and social science that has ramped up over the past two decades. So much learning happens in the really early years. We also want to help people rethink what technology could look like in childrens lives. We want to reimagine what it can do to help start conversations, to get families learning together, building some of those foundations that will help them become strong readers.

Im sure it was not lost on you that the American Association of Pediatrics in early October came out with new guidelines for screen time for children. The new guidelines are much more open to screens, are they not?

Michael Levine: The new guidelines have not been completely disseminated yet, but they have been previewed in a piece published a few weeks ago. They recognize what a number of scholars have come to conclude: that is, that not all screens are equal. The amount of screen time is clearly important, especially for a very young children. But it's context, content and the child that matter most. So there is a nuance that the AAP is indicating. We need to have caregivers in childrens lives who are intentional and interactive.

There is a widely-noted study out of Philadelphia this week, conducted at a pediatric office, which noted a surprising level of mobile device use and even ownership at every young ages, and we are talking about phones and tablets, among very young children in a very poor neighborhood. Is the digital divide that is thought to separate lower-income from the middle class is not nearly as wide as we once thought?

Gurensey: I think the question of the digital divide needs to start moving toward "mentorship divides" and "participation gaps." We shouldnt simply assume that because people have technology in their hands that this is all we need to do. There is a lot to do still and many gaps to close.

Michael, what was your biggest takeaway from the Philadelphia pediatric study?

Levine: My biggest worry is the independence and the lack of adult guidance reported in the pediatric study. If in fact half of 2-year-olds are using mobile media every day without any or much adult guidance, that is cause for concern. We need to get the adults in childrens lives more aware, more intentional. Im not particularly concerned about preschoolers having 20 minutes here and 30 minutes there with their parents playing educational games. What concerns me is the mass consumption and the lack of supervision, especially for kids under two.

You write about these interactive toys that respond to kids' questions with a programmed path that simulates a real conversation. That sounds fun, but isnt it also a bit creepy? Is this going to produce humans who are radically different and less adaptive that we would like?

Gurensey: The concern is that we will confuse empty interactivity with authentic conversation. And we know from brain science how important true back-and-forth interactions are, that are contingent on what the other person says, in building the pathways to learning. Its not about a piece of software parroting something back. So I think its really important for the scientific community to keep striking this note of how important adults are, but to not do it in a way that demonizes all technology. There are some tools that can augment those kinds of conversations.

Are you worried that we might lose something essential here, something as simple as facial interaction and even the literal touch of a parent?

Levine: Every single time a new technology emerged, whether the printing press or the radio, there were worries about moral menace. I dont take those concerns lightly. What we are trying to do here is take a middle path between treating it as a great elixir and treating it as a frightening poison.