Do smart de­vices in class­rooms help kids learn?

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - BY RUS­SELL MARKS

“Some­times it’s re­ally dif­fi­cult to tear their at­ten­tion away from the screens,” says Ruby. In her mid 30s, Ruby is a mother of two preschool chil­dren and also teaches prep and first grade at a gov­ern­ment school in Mel­bourne’s south-east­ern sub­urbs. I’ve asked Ruby to talk to me about tablets and other “smart” de­vices in class­rooms. “To be hon­est it’s a bit of a prob­lem,” she says. “I re­ally try to limit how much time they’re on the tablets, but pack-up time tends to be a bit fraught. And there’s al­ways a few who have left theirs at home, and an­other one whose tablet doesn’t work prop­erly.” What does she mean by “fraught”? Ruby pauses. “Well, I guess it’s dif­fer­ent to pack­ing up other ac­tiv­i­ties, like art and craft, or hand­writ­ing. With those, some of the kids grum­ble a bit but ev­ery­thing’s pretty smooth.” But Ruby says the tablets bring out a lot of ag­gres­sive and ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour. “I find my­self need­ing to be much firmer, much more of­ten, when it comes to the tablets.”

I’ve since spo­ken to more than a dozen pri­mary and sec­ondary teach­ers from schools across the coun­try that re­quire tablets in class­rooms. Un­prompted, most com­plain of sim­i­lar prob­lems. Magda teaches in a school that re­quires stu­dents to leave their de­vices at each class­room door, and says the con­trast with the school she used to teach at on Vic­to­ria’s west­ern coast is stark. “It was al­most like kids were ad­dicted to their iPads,” she says of her pre­vi­ous school. “They’d get in this weird zone and it was just im­pos­si­ble to get them to put their iPads down.” How many stu­dents in each class ex­hib­ited this kind of be­hav­iour? “About half.”

Par­ents share Ruby’s and Magda’s con­cerns. “We both get the whole thing about kids and screens,” says Matt, a lawyer whose daugh­ter is six. “It doesn’t stop Pr­isha and I

hav­ing some pretty big bar­neys over it. But I think we both prob­a­bly have too many mo­ments where we just give in and let her play with one of our phones. It’s a lot eas­ier than deal­ing with the tantrums.”

Most par­ents of young chil­dren were born be­fore the World Wide Web went pub­lic in 1991. Their ex­po­sure to it was lim­ited by the tech­nol­ogy it­self. If we agree that the dig­i­tal world as we know it now re­ally only dates from the mid 2000s – when so­cial me­dia and then in­ter­net-en­abled smart­phones be­came ubiq­ui­tous al­most overnight – no par­ent is a “dig­i­tal na­tive”. Their kids, how­ever, were born into this world. Just as par­ents once had to work out how to reg­u­late their chil­dren’s TV and Nin­tendo habits with­out be­ing able to draw on their own ex­pe­ri­ences, to­day’s par­ents have no idea what it’s like to have Face­book or In­sta­gram in school, or per­son­alised screens – with their never-end­ing streams of mes­sages and up­dates – in the class­room.

Aus­tralian par­ents are anx­ious about screens in their chil­dren’s lives. In­cred­i­bly anx­ious. In De­cem­ber 2015, the Aus­tralian Child Health Poll, a quar­terly sur­vey run by the Royal Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Mel­bourne, listed “ex­ces­sive screen time” as Aus­tralians’ num­ber one con­cern af­fect­ing the health of chil­dren and teenagers – above child abuse, fam­ily vi­o­lence, bul­ly­ing, un­healthy di­ets and obe­sity. Even above in­ter­net safety.

For that rea­son, the Royal Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal de­voted its most re­cent poll, re­leased in June, to the is­sue of chil­dren’s screen time. It found that two thirds of pri­mary school chil­dren – and more than a third of preschool­ers – have their own mo­bile de­vice. Close to half are us­ing them at bed­time, which is linked to sleep prob­lems. Half of tod­dlers and preschool­ers are us­ing them with­out su­per­vi­sion. All par­ents know that the in­ter­ac­tive dig­i­tal babysit­ter is much more ef­fec­tive than the pas­sive tele­vi­sual one. Preschool chil­dren on aero­planes are con­stantly plugged into their own de­vices (with or with­out head­phones), as I dis­cov­ered on re­cent flights. “We found that 85% of par­ents of young chil­dren say they use screens to oc­cupy their kids so they can get things done,” says Dr Anthea Rhodes, the poll’s di­rec­tor.

Par­ents may in­stinc­tively know that it’s not the health­i­est thing to do, but they also get a lot of con­tra­dic­tory ad­vice about screens. The anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing pub­lic health mes­sages im­plor­ing them to limit screen time sit along­side ed­u­ca­tors’ claims that they are use­ful tools to pro­mote lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy. “The dis­cern­ing use of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies in the class­room can max­imise learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties,” the Vic­to­rian Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing’s web­site of­fers. “Re­search shows that there are many ben­e­fits to your child hav­ing a per­sonal de­vice.” Claims like this are rife. In June, the fed­eral as­sis­tant min­is­ter for in­dus­try, in­no­va­tion and sci­ence, Craig Laundy, launched the re­port of a re­search project co-fa­cil­i­tated by the Univer­sity of Can­berra. Its re­sults ap­par­ently showed that tech­nol­ogy can turbo-charge stu­dents’ maths skills so that they make a whole year’s worth of gains in just three weeks. Last year, spe­cial­ist preschool ra­dio sta­tion Kin­der­ling seemed to de­liver both mes­sages at once – to screen and not to screen – when it di­rected lis­ten­ers to its down­load­able app so that they could par­tic­i­pate in its “Screen Free Chal­lenge”. And more and more Aus­tralian pri­mary schools are urg­ing par­ents to equip their chil­dren with tablets.

“I was pretty adamant that we were go­ing to try to limit Chelsea’s screen us­age un­til she was older, maybe 12 or some­thing,” says her mum, Emily. Chelsea is now eight. “We both re­ally tried hard not to let her use our phones much at all. I’d seen other par­ents give in to the tantrums and I was like, ‘No way.’ But then she started school and her school wanted her to have an iPad.” So Emily and her part­ner bought one for more than $700 (in­clud­ing in­sur­ance and a sturdy case to pre­vent dam­age). “Now we strug­gle to get her off it, es­pe­cially at bed­time.”

When the 19th-cen­tury re­form­ers were ag­i­tat­ing for free, com­pul­sory and sec­u­lar state-pro­vided ed­u­ca­tion, they didn’t an­tic­i­pate that “com­pul­sory” would ap­ply to tablets that can cost up to $1000. Many par­ents’ own school sta­tionery re­quire­ments were lim­ited to pens, pen­cils, ex­er­cise books, glue sticks and maybe a floppy disk. The story of how tablets came to be in Aus­tralian class­rooms can be traced to Kevin Rudd’s Dig­i­tal Ed­u­ca­tion Revo­lu­tion (DER), which in Au­gust 2009 be­gan its long march through Aus­tralia’s schools, aim­ing to pro­vide a state-spon­sored lap­top to ev­ery stu­dent in years 9 to 12. The DER hic­cuped through

Two thirds of pri­mary school chil­dren – and more than a third of preschool­ers – have their own mo­bile de­vice.

cracked screens, hard­ware ob­so­les­cence, Rudd’s clogged in-tray and a very limp buy-in from the states. In 2013 Tony Ab­bott, then the prime min­is­ter, did not re­new the DER fund­ing – a de­ci­sion that mir­rored those made in many other coun­tries that had em­braced sim­i­lar lap­top pro­grams. Peru, for in­stance, spent US$200 mil­lion pro­vid­ing lap­tops to 800,000 stu­dents in its pub­lic schools be­fore pulling the plug; the United States spent $100 bil­lion pour­ing tech into schools be­fore wind­ing the cam­paign right back.

Just be­cause the fund­ing stopped didn’t mean it was the end for “the Net’s grow­ing hege­mony over in­for­ma­tion”, as tech­nol­ogy writer Ni­cholas Carr calls it. Stu­dents and par­ents be­gan de­mand­ing that chil­dren be al­lowed to bring to class their own lap­tops and tablets and ph­ablets and iThings, which tended to be bet­ter qual­ity than the state-pro­vided de­vices. In line with ju­ris­dic­tions around the world, Aus­tralia’s state and ter­ri­tory ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ments adopted a lais­sez-faire ap­proach that ef­fec­tively left the ques­tion of whether stu­dents could bring their own de­vices to class up to in­di­vid­ual schools. That sat hap­pily within ex­ist­ing philoso­phies like de­vo­lu­tion (em­pow­er­ing school com­mu­ni­ties to make key de­ci­sions) and “stu­dent­fo­cused” learn­ing. Some schools sand­bagged them­selves from the dig­i­tal flood, ban­ning de­vices en­tirely. Crin­kling News – a hard­copy news­pa­per for up­per-pri­mary-aged chil­dren, named af­ter the sound it makes when it’s read – is just one of many un-dig­i­tal in­no­va­tions aimed at get­ting kids off screens. But many high schools – and in­creas­ing num­bers of pri­mary schools – now have in place vari­a­tions of a BYO ap­proach when it comes to de­vices. The Queens­land gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy, for in­stance, is called “BYOx”, the “x” stand­ing for more than mere hard­ware: “it also in­cludes soft­ware, ap­pli­ca­tions, con­nec­tiv­ity or carriage ser­vice and ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iours”. In other words, stu­dents can bring any­thing they like. Even man­ners. But if it costs, they pay for it – and that in­cludes any dam­ages, re­pairs or re­place­ments.

This user-pays ap­proach is even seen in some of Aus­tralia’s poor­est sub­urbs, as Mel­bourne so­cial worker Tina found when her client Casey asked for $700 so she could pay for an iPad for her six-year-old daugh­ter, Ella. When Tina phoned the school di­rectly, a staff mem­ber con­firmed that they re­quired an Ap­ple tablet (for the school’s spe­cial­ist learn­ing apps) with at least 32GB of mem­ory. “You must have lots of par­ents who aren’t that well off,” Tina im­plored. “Don’t you have al­ter­na­tive ar­range­ments?” The li­ai­son told her that each class­room has six backup iPads. “But we can’t have every­body re­ly­ing on them – they’re mainly re­served for stu­dents whose iPads are be­ing re­paired or were left at home.”

Dr Mau­reen O’Neill, a mother of six and a for­mer P-12 teacher, wanted to en­sure that eq­uity re­mained a cen­tral con­cern in the re­port she con­sulted on for Queens­land’s ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment. The re­port looked at the ex­pe­ri­ences of five schools ex­per­i­ment­ing with par­tic­u­lar approaches to de­vices. Each school tried to mit­i­gate its eq­uity con­cerns with in­no­va­tions such as daily loan schemes or pay­ment plans, but the start­ing point was that all chil­dren should have tablets, and the state wasn’t go­ing to sup­ply them. What’s more, some school prin­ci­pals had al­ready adopted vari­a­tions of uni­ver­si­ties’ BYO poli­cies, and it seems the ap­proach Queens­land ul­ti­mately took built on these ini­tial de­ci­sions.

But do smart de­vices pro­mote learn­ing? Most ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy doc­u­ments don’t re­ally an­swer the ques­tion. Queens­land’s BYOx re­port stated that “the depart­ment recog­nises that 1-to-1 pro­grams are a crit­i­cal com­po­nent in an in­ter­na­tional move to­wards in­di­vid­u­alised learn­ing”.

Very few peo­ple dis­pute the propo­si­tion that tablets should be avail­able to up­per sec­ondary school stu­dents, who will shortly be work­ing in a world in which it seems ev­ery oc­cu­pa­tion – from lawyers to de­liv­ery con­trac­tors – is find­ing a handy use for smart de­vices. But while kids are learn­ing to read? Re­search ev­i­dence tends to show that al­though dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy can im­prove stu­dents’ in­ter­est in learn­ing, in­creases in ac­tual achieve­ment are only mod­est. Sto­ries are told and re-told of Sil­i­con Val­ley par­ents send­ing their chil­dren to tech-free schools, be­cause they know more about both re­search find­ings and what the com­pa­nies are do­ing to “hook” users in. And there’s very lit­tle in­de­pen­dent re­search that in­ves­ti­gates the util­ity and ben­e­fit of smart de­vices in pri­mary class­rooms.

It’s a void that is be­ing filled by con­sumer de­mands and tech com­pa­nies’ strate­gic lob­by­ing. Un­til re­cently, the only re­search that the Vic­to­rian Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing pointed to on its web­site to sup­port its BYO pol­icy was com­mis­sioned by hard­ware and soft­ware com­pa­nies like In­tel and Black­board (a de­signer of elec­tronic “learn­ing man­age­ment sys­tems”). For in­stance, the DET’s web­site links to an eval­u­a­tion re­port of a five-year project in Hen­rico County, Vir­ginia, US, where 30,000 In­tel lap­tops were dis­trib­uted to all mid­dle- and high-school stu­dents. The re­port is branded with In­tel’s logo, be­cause, as the re­port states, In­tel, Ap­ple, Cisco, Dell and Ver­i­zon are “strate­gic col­lab­o­ra­tors”, not just sup­pli­ers. Lloyd Brown, the county’s di­rec­tor of tech­nol­ogy and in­for­ma­tion ser­vices, can­not praise In­tel enough through­out the re­port.

The DET’s web­site also links to the New Me­dia Con­sor­tium’s Hori­zon Project, a qual­i­ta­tive lon­gi­tu­di­nal study that be­gan in 2002. The New Me­dia Con­sor­tium is a USbased in­ter­na­tional not-for-profit that was founded in 1993 by com­puter hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers, soft­ware de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers “who re­al­ized that the ul­ti­mate suc­cess of their mul­ti­me­dia-ca­pa­ble prod­ucts de­pended upon

their wide­spread ac­cep­tance by the higher ed­u­ca­tion com­mu­nity”. In other words, the whole in­tent of the Hori­zon Project is to push tech­nol­ogy into schools. Mean­while, the June 2017 Univer­sity of Can­berra project that “proved” in­cred­i­ble gains in nu­mer­acy was un­der­taken in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics.

Prac­ti­cally ev­ery liv­ing Aus­tralian who at­tended pri­mary school here will re­call the Com­mon­wealth Bank’s en­dur­ing Dol­lar­mites pro­gram, through which the bank has sent agents into pri­mary schools since 1928 to en­tice chil­dren to open in­ter­est-earn­ing, fee-free ac­counts in their own names. The bal­ances are in­signif­i­cant for the bank. What is not in­signif­i­cant is the brand loy­alty the Com­mon­wealth Bank has en­joyed across generations – an as­set as valu­able as any, es­pe­cially af­ter the bank’s pri­vati­sa­tion was com­pleted in 1996. The pre­vail­ing BYO ap­proach to tech­nol­ogy could be Dol­lar­mites on steroids. If Ap­ple and Sam­sung have suf­fered rep­u­ta­tional dam­age over con­trac­tors’ labour prac­tices, the ori­gins of source ma­te­ri­als, tax avoid­ance and ex­plod­ing de­vices, all of that is likely to be off­set if they can hook very young chil­dren and their fam­i­lies into life­long re­la­tion­ships with their shiny prod­ucts.

In short, most of the re­search that finds cog­ni­tive im­prove­ments in ar­eas such as spa­tial aware­ness, nu­mer­acy and mem­ory is funded or fa­cil­i­tated by tech com­pa­nies them­selves. These “tech­nol­o­gists” ask how dig­i­tal tech is trans­form­ing stu­dents’ learn­ing for the bet­ter, and then go look­ing for an­swers. But there’s a whole sep­a­rate clus­ter of re­searchers ask­ing a very dif­fer­ent ques­tion: what’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on in­side our brains – and our kids’ brains – when we make these screens our close com­pan­ions? There are still very few brain imag­ing stud­ies in this field, but some of the emerg­ing re­sults aren’t promis­ing. A ma­jor Cana­dian study, which be­tween 2011 and 2015 looked at 894 tod­dlers, was pre­sented at this year’s Pe­di­atric Aca­demic So­ci­eties Meet­ing in San Fran­cisco. It showed a very strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween tod­dlers’ use of smart­phones and sig­nif­i­cant lan­guage de­lays. A Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia study re­ported in 2014 that up­per-pri­mary-aged chil­dren who went screen-free for just five days were “sig­nif­i­cantly” bet­ter at read­ing the emo­tions of others than kids who had kept us­ing screens. Causal links be­tween evening screen time and sleep prob­lems have been ac­cepted for some time. The frontal cor­tex ap­pears to be stim­u­lated by much of what hap­pens on smart de­vices in the same way that it’s stim­u­lated by co­caine and sex.

Ac­cord­ing to the Syd­ney My­opia Study and Kate Gif­ford, for­mer pres­i­dent of Op­tom­e­try Aus­tralia, the num­ber of 12-year-olds suf­fer­ing short-sight­ed­ness dou­bled in just six years – an in­crease at­trib­ut­able to screen use and sim­ply not go­ing out­side enough.

Prom­ises that the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion would trig­ger a revo­lu­tion in lit­er­acy and learn­ing have been around since the 1980s, but de­spite the fre­quent re­search claims about the ben­e­fits of dig­i­tal tech, most mea­sures of ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment – lit­er­acy, nu­mer­acy, mem­ory, re­call, crit­i­cal think­ing – show steady de­clines over the course of the dig­i­tal era. There are myr­iad non-dig­i­tal fac­tors be­hind this de­cline, but a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence sug­gests that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy – with its web-en­abled, hy­per­linked, so­cial me­dia–loaded, blip-rid­den, back­lit screens – ac­tively dis­tracts from pro­cesses in­te­gral to learn­ing, such as mem­ory for­ma­tion. Ni­cholas Carr calls the in­ter­net a gi­gan­tic “dis­trac­tion ma­chine”, and it’s this ma­chine that chil­dren’s brains are plugged into – and de­vel­op­ing around. Cal New­port, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of com­puter sci­ence at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, DC, says we’ve built this dis­trac­tion ma­chine at pre­cisely the mo­ment when sus­tained con­cen­tra­tion is most valu­able to our knowl­edge econ­omy. “This is some­what lu­di­crous,” New­port told the ABC last year. “I think we are leav­ing a lot of eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity on the ta­ble.”

“All the ev­i­dence to date [mea­sur­ing de­vices as learn­ing aids] is pre­dom­i­nantly anec­do­tal,” says Dr Kristy Good­win, a re­searcher and con­sul­tant well known among par­ents of young chil­dren for her fre­quent me­dia ap­pear­ances on the is­sues as­so­ci­ated with screen use. While Good­win hov­ers pro­vi­sion­ally on the side of the de­bate that favours the use of tech­nol­ogy, she says ex­trap­o­lat­ing find­ings from sec­ondary stu­dents is par­tic­u­larly fraught, given younger chil­dren’s much ear­lier stages of brain

Most mea­sures of ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment – lit­er­acy, nu­mer­acy, mem­ory, re­call, crit­i­cal think­ing – show steady de­clines over the dig­i­tal era.

de­vel­op­ment. “I’m the first to say we’re con­duct­ing a bit of a liv­ing ex­per­i­ment.”

The old anx­i­eties about the ef­fects of TV and com­puter game con­sump­tion on chil­dren’s health are now mag­ni­fied, in­ten­sively, be­cause of smart de­vices. In his book Glow Kids, ad­dic­tion ex­pert Dr Ni­cholas Kar­daras brings to­gether most of the ex­ist­ing ev­i­dence that shows con­nec­tions be­tween ex­ces­sive screen use and var­i­ous men­tal health con­cerns in­clud­ing ag­gres­sion, de­pres­sion, ADHD and psy­chosis. It reads like a mod­ern hor­ror story, though it scares par­ents more than chil­dren. Kar­daras re­counts the time Su­san dis­cov­ered her six-year-old son, John, sit­ting up in bed next to his glow­ing iPad, his wide eyes blood­shot. In the pre­ced­ing months, John had in­ex­orably re­placed phys­i­cal and so­cial ac­tiv­ity with Minecraft, a game that one of John’s teach­ers had de­scribed to Su­san as some­thing like “elec­tronic Lego” and that formed the ba­sis for a sanc­tioned club at the school.

By the time I spoke with ex­perts such as Good­win and Dr Philip Tam, a Syd­ney-based child psy­chi­a­trist work­ing with young peo­ple whose in­ter­net be­hav­iour cre­ates prob­lems in other ar­eas of their lives, I’d heard too many peo­ple de­scribe their and their chil­dren’s use of Face­book and In­sta­gram and Twit­ter and Minecraft and An­gry Birds and Candy Crush in metaphors com­monly as­so­ci­ated with ad­dic­tion. “There’s no ques­tion that the hu­man brain has evolved to seek out flow-in­duc­ing ef­fects,” Tam says.

We don’t gen­er­ally de­scribe read­ing a book or play­ing a vi­o­lin as ad­dic­tive, be­cause the plea­sure only comes af­ter we put sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort in – ef­fort that’s dif­fi­cult to sus­tain. Gam­bling and drink­ing are com­par­a­tively pas­sive ac­tiv­i­ties. Where do smart de­vices fit on this spec­trum? They’re cer­tainly easy to use for long pe­ri­ods of time. “The fact that they’re mo­bile is im­por­tant,” says Good­win. “It was very hard to smug­gle a TV or a Com­modore 64 into your bed at night.”

What we’re do­ing on these screens is dif­fer­ent, too. “So­cial me­dia is end­less,” Tam says. “The in­ter­net is end­less. Com­pa­nies want you to stay on, stay con­nected.” In­deed, so­cial-me­dia com­pa­nies and app de­vel­op­ers are all en­gaged in what for­mer Google de­sign ethi­cist Tris­tan Har­ris, now of the Time Well Spent move­ment, calls “a race to the bot­tom of the brain stem” for the on­line ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lar, which pays ac­cord­ing to the length of time each eye­ball stays on each page or each app.

“We will never have a sense of clo­sure,” Tam says. “There’s al­ways a dif­fer­ent level, a new game, a new site, new tweets and In­sta­grams. The hu­man brain can’t tol­er­ate this un­cer­tainty well.” It’s 90 years since psy­chol­o­gist Bluma Zeigar­nik first pub­lished her re­search show­ing that un­fin­ished tasks linger in the brain – pos­i­tively as mem­o­ries, neg­a­tively as ob­ses­sions – much more than com­pleted tasks do.

There is now a dis­cus­sion as to whether in­ter­net ad­dic­tion should join gam­bling – cur­rently the only recog­nised non-sub­stance, be­havioural ad­dic­tion – in the next it­er­a­tion of the psy­chi­a­trists’ bi­ble, the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders. Tam co-fa­cil­i­tates the Healthy Dig­i­tal Diet project – a metaphor that sug­gests ad­dic­tive con­sump­tion – which en­cour­ages in­di­vid­u­als to ap­proach their use of the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia with bal­ance and mod­er­a­tion. It’s an ap­proach that em­pha­sises the agency of the in­di­vid­ual and over­looks struc­tural or en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors. A de­vel­oper of soft­ware apps him­self, Tam de­scribes him­self as prag­matic. “Dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy is here to stay, and we have to learn how to live with it,” he says. “I don’t like us­ing the term ‘ad­dic­tion’,” he told me – but any dis­tinc­tion may be merely se­man­tic. “I see kids who drop out of school en­tirely, who are vi­o­lent to­wards their par­ents, who with­draw from all their friends,” he ac­knowl­edges. Tris­tan Har­ris is un­equiv­o­cal, telling ABC ra­dio show Fu­ture Tense that slot ma­chines be­come ad­dic­tive two to three times faster than all other forms of gam­bling, be­cause they op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to a “vari­able sched­ule re­ward” prin­ci­ple (some­times we win and some­times we don’t). “Lit­er­ally, our phone is a slot ma­chine. Ev­ery time you turn it around to check what’s on it, we’re kind of play­ing the slot ma­chine to see what we get.”

Teenagers and adults live in a world in which ad­dic­tive sub­stances and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions are ever-present risks. As I was speak­ing to ex­perts I floun­dered for equiv­a­lent risks for chil­dren. Most are ca­pa­ble of be­ing reg­u­lated by par­ents, car­ers and ed­u­ca­tors. Sugar is among the most dan­ger­ous sub­stances read­ily avail­able to kids, but even that is sub­ject to fac­tors like their abil­ity to pay for it au­tonomously. It’s pos­si­ble that with smart de­vices, which once pur­chased are freely ac­ces­si­ble to chil­dren, we’ve de­vel­oped the first real ad­dic­tive threat for them. Or, as we oc­ca­sion­ally glance up at the train carriage full of com­muters star­ing spook­ily into the glow­ing de­vices in their hands, to what ex­tent are we pro­ject­ing our anx­i­eties about our own, ev­ery-wak­ing­mo­ment screen use onto our kids?

Like every­one else, chil­dren are spend­ing more and more time in front of screens. The Child Health Poll of June this year found on av­er­age Aus­tralian chil­dren spend at least four and a half hours ev­ery day look­ing at screens – and that’s just at home. The class­room no longer of­fers much respite. Ruby, the pri­mary teacher, won­ders about where it’s all go­ing. “I’ve asked lots of ques­tions in train­ing ses­sions but no­body is able to tell me whether we’re ac­tu­ally do­ing the right thing,” she says. “There’s no turn­ing back the clock. Though some­times I won­der whether what schools need to be do­ing is teach­ing kids how to not use screens all the time.”

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