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The Question Isn't Whether Technology Is Good for Your Kid

You’ve heard the worry—or maybe you harbor it yourself: App mania, video games, and TV are sucking children into a vortex of mindless entertainment, replacing the social interactions they need to help develop their minds as well as the focused concentration on letters, words, and sentences they need to become strong readers. Digital media is so powerful that it is essentially crippling their chances of success.

But last Thursday, guests at New America’s Washington, D.C., office heard my co-author Michael H. Levine and me provide a different narrative.

Yes, digital media is a powerful force in the lives of children and families, which is exactly why we have to harness that power to promote literacy. No more cheerleading for technology nor chastising parents and teachers for the use of it. Parents, educators, and policymakers should take a “third way” approach that is human-powered first and tech-assisted second.

That third-way message comes to life via five video stories in Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, a book and multimedia project based on three years of research by me and other policy analysts in the early education and learning technologies projects in New America’s Education Policy Program, and by Michael and his research team at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Videos showcase sites around the country, such as the rural town of Milbridge, Maine, where recent immigrants such as Juana and her preschool-aged son Jayden participated in an unorthodox family literacy program. The program, Comienza en Casa, was supported by a suite of apps on a touchscreen tablet but was rooted in regular home visits from mentors, backyard science, and language-arts projects, and a chance for children to become creators using media of all kinds. At first, says Juana Vasquez of her son, “I didn’t really know what to teach him.” But the program opened her eyes. “The videos and apps give you a lot of ideas,” she said. “They get you thinking of what he needs to learn to get ready for kindergarten.”

Four additional videos are available free at tapclickread.org, and on Vimeo and YouTube. They bring viewers into places around the country that are harnessing digital media to support children’s language development and literacy—from the homes of first-time parents in Houston, to the television studios of Univision, to the living rooms of families using e-books in Chicago, to the first-grade classrooms of an elementary school in Washington, D.C.

Instead of simply focusing on whether kids have new tablets, these videos and other stories from the book ask how state and community leaders can make a real difference. Policymakers need to take stock of whether children truly have literacy opportunities everywhere they go, and assess whether they are meeting the needs of their most underserved families. Is there a cohesive strategy to the way they use libraries, child care and early learning centers, public media stations, elementary schools, and afterschool programs—and the way technology is integrated in those programs? More than 75 percent of children live in homes with mobile technologies, but little attention gets paid to how they are using those devices and the ways in which parents, teachers, and librarians should be helping them use media to learn.

Lisa Guernsey is Director of the Learning Technologies Project and the Early Ed Initiative at New America. Follow her on Twitter.