Are Smartphones Making Our Kids Dumber?

November 16, 2019 Topic: Technology Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: PoliticsEducationSmartphonesSociety

Are Smartphones Making Our Kids Dumber?

Falling test scores raise uncomfortable questions.

In the wake of disappointing test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an unbiased set of tests often referred to as the nation’s report card, I spoke with a number of reporters and education policy folks who were searching for explanations as to why. The search for the answer to why NAEP results are what they are is an exercise in speculation and conjecture, as I have made clear with this round of results, and in previous rounds.

A reporter at Education Week, Sarah Sparks, was one of the folks I spoke with.  And in a story last week she quoted my conjecture as to what could be the cause, which focused on screen time. As brief quotes often do, this one doesn’t reflect the speaker’s broader thoughts, and for consistency, it’s worth putting down a bit of context, and a bit of elaboration.

In context of the latest NAEP declines, the story quoted me saying:

“I really think it’s important to just take a look at that and say, well, maybe it’s more something in the culture rather than specific policies,” said Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noting that states’ demographic and policy changes in education do not explain the widescale declines.

“My suspicion rides on the ubiquity of screens and our attempts to make those useful in educating kids, and the concomitant increase in their use outside of school,” Malkus said. “It could just be that actually technology is not the answer for education, but that it’s sort of the enemy … wearing down the attention span that it takes to develop a sense of reading for pleasure.”

I stand by these statements, but do so much more comfortably with the context that they are conjecture. As stated previously, and repeatedly, I don’t know what to pin the test declines on. I can only guess, and this is one of the guesses I would make.

Part of the rationale for my conjecture is that policy centered explanations are not looking so strong.  Many want to attribute declines to policy changes, but to do so the scope of the policy has to fit the scope of the changes. In this and in previous years with declines, the estimates for NAEP score declines for all US schools, public and private, were larger than the estimates for public schools alone. Though this falls short of statistically significant evidence, the consistently broad trends suggest private schools’ declines are at least as large as, if not larger than, those in public schools. An easy leap to connect policy changes to public school declines, turns into a real stretch when we blame them for a wider trend.

Another part of my thinking is that both the timeline and the mechanism behind screens lines up with the patterns of declines. We have seen the plateau in NAEP for 8 to 10 years, roughly the timeframe during which most of us have been able to put the internet in our pockets, ready to suck up any spare free time and brain space we have, no matter how small. The effect that mobile screens may be having on our kids is agnostic to school sector, widespread, and worrisome. I have concerns based on the effects I think I see in the children I interact with, my own kids, and myself. As Sparks wrote, the declines in reading are largest for literary skills, and that is precisely the area I imagine screens would take a toll on students skills and the way they spend their time. There is also some evidence, alluded to in the Sparks article, that employing digital devices in schools—which has become part of expectations for a modern education—can actually work against student learning.

The screen time as culprit theory also lines up with why NAEP declines are greater in reading than in math. Mathematics instruction mainly comes from school and—especially the content assessed on tests—is likely to have a smaller footprint in students’ lives outside of school. In contrast, reading is taught in school and practiced in a much broader slice of life. If screens do erode the behaviors that occur outside of school and add up to reading skills we assess, it’s plausible that we should see larger declines there than in the math skills and competencies that NAEP captures.

I try to limit how frequently I indulge in this kind of conjecture. Smarter people than me are doing good work on these exact questions. That said, there is little doubt that screens, and the digital devices behind them, are making fundamental changes in our lives that include some significant downsides, and we should expect the same to surface in our schools. We need more research on these changes, but I won’t suggest waiting on that research before taking commonsense steps to limit potential downsides.  For teachers and school leaders, that may include trusting tried and true instruction more than the promises of the next tech learning tool. For parents, that may take pushing back on the rising digital tide in your children’s day-to-day life. And for me, and you, it probably means the same.

This article by Nat Malkus originally appeared at The American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Reuters.