How smart is our cell phone habit?
March 28 2013 12:00 AM

By Sakshi Vashist

When decades ago, Nokia was introduced with its catchy tag line “connecting people”, who knew mobile phones would eventually become more than just a necessity? For years after the first mobile phone was introduced, it remained a luxury item, out of reach to most middle-class users. With the advancement in technology, the number of players in the market increased and mobile phones became more affordable, and therefore ubiquitous.
The first phones had just the bare minimum function of dialling or receiving a call. Later, there was a phenomenal growth of SMS or Short Message Service. With these two functions, the requirement of a “mobile telephone” was met. And today, ‘smartphones’ feature many different useful functions like alarm, calendar, portable camera, Internet connectivity, media players, video recorders, and even GPS units.
Lately, the mobile phone industry took a step forward to introduce smartphones. And like every new product in the market, it remained exclusive for the richer class of customer. In the last few years, however, even this trend has completely changed.
More than two dozen companies have now introduced affordable smartphones in the market. So how has this trend affected the recent generation of users?
The requirement of a mobile phone surfaced when there was a need to stay connected to people while one was on the move.
Without a doubt, a mobile phone allows a child travelling alone, for instance, to have a means to connect with his or her parents or dial emergency numbers.
Nowadays, even if a bunch of kids are going out together for classes/tuition, their parents prefer that they carry a cell phone along; although a few teenagers feel otherwise. Mohamed, a Class 10 student says, “Landline calls are free in Qatar and people are very co-operative, they let you use the land line even if they don’t know you. I don’t feel the need to carry a mobile.”
Smartphones are no longer only a tool for communication but a necessary instrument of social and work life for most of us. In a developed country like Qatar most people have adapted the use of mobile phones in education as well. They are an attractive tool for communication and interpersonal relations, and have become increasingly used in an educational context.
This is the reason why the craze for smartphones has traversed all age groups. Specific applications are designed to meet the need of businessmen, working executives, women and children.
The most ambiguous area of concern for this smartphone technology remains its effect on the developing brains of children. As smartphones have, with unsettling speed, gone from a useful novelty to a practical requirement, their availability has also broadened — and they’re found in the hands of young children, for placation and entertainment.
Designed to be incredibly intuitive devices, children have been widely observed to quickly grasp the technicalities of a smartphones. There are now even several apps (short for “applications”) designed for preschool age children.
Not surprisingly, as the number of apps for children has grown exponentially, so have the number of apps aimed at making kids smarter. One look at Apple’s iTunes App Store confirms this trend. Currently, there are over 4,000 education apps available for download at the iTunes store, with a large number of them targeted for children between the ages of two and five.
In a recent study, Carly Shuler, a researcher, developer, and author in the children’s media and toy industry, explains how younger children get into this habit. It is called the ‘pass-back’ effect, where the parent passes their own device to the child. Parents’ devices like phones have always been amongst children’s favourite ‘toys’, so as these devices become more functional for adults they simultaneously get more fun for kids.
Certainly, teens have varied views on the need for smartphones. On one hand some confide that engaging in conference or video calls, playing various video or online games are a distraction for them. On the other, some students argue certain apps actually help them improve their IQ.
Dr Amira Najah, a clinical psychologist practicing in Qatar cites an example. “Just chatting on BBM (Blackberry Messenger) or Whatsapp does not engage children in a healthy way. But certain apps aim at testing and improving mathematics and logistic skills of its users like specific apps which prepare students for SATs and GRE. So if students are accessing such apps, it does benefit them.”
Studies on the effects of texting in teenagers concluded that the concrete social anticipation combined with the chemical reward that came with receiving, opening and replying to the message was what made it so addicting.
Smartphones, with their unprecedented amount of offerings, take that subconscious formula and multiply it many, many times. Dr Amira explains, “Kids between the ages of 10 to 18 are going through a phase of emotional development. They seek out to make more friends just to feed their self-esteem. They seek attention by engaging themselves on sites such as Twitter or Facebook on their phones and checking notifications time and again; it becomes an addiction.”
Additionally, some kids try to get attention from their busy parents by finding a new function or app which fetches them praise.
So, it should come as no surprise to parents that as smartphones become more popular, the attraction of children towards them is also increasing. A few parents fear the detrimental effects of smartphones while many have claimed to have witnessed positive educational effects. Lots of parents let their kids carry and use smartphones even in their young, formative years.
The convenience and accessibility offered by these modern devices are indeed advantageous for most people. These parents need to be aware of the negative effects that smartphones can bring to their kids in the long run.
While young children are probably free of the intoxicating social anticipation of the smartphone, the fact remains that it discourages social interaction. Children need to be used to being in tune with their surroundings and free from digital distractions as much as possible. “Touching, talking and physical playing and movement ensure a child’s full development. If they don’t go out and experience the world, how will they develop their personality?” exclaims Dr Amira.
Additionally, smartphones can weaken children’s eyesight. Excessive exposure to the use of smartphones at an early age can trigger poor eyesight for kids. Their eyes would constantly have to adjust to the phone screen which can also be a cause for headaches and even migraines at a very young age.
Doctors also claim that the radiations emitted from these devices have harmful effects on the heart and the brain.
The mobile learning technologies enable a more personalised learning experience. Still, some parents and educators are bound to be sceptical. They ask only one question: ‘Will smartphones make my kids smarter?’
While some might view smartphones as yet another digital distraction, some argue the potential advantages of mobile learning outweigh any disadvantages. First, these devices are mobile and allow the parent to encourage anywhere, anytime learning. Secondly, because of their relatively low cost and ubiquity, these devices allow educators to reach underserved children that are geographically or economically disadvantaged. Thirdly is that these devices can encourage 21st century skills like communication and collaboration.
Using smartphones in initial ages can help teenagers to silently learn the user interfaces and operating systems. There are many examples of great engineers who were introduced to computing devices in early childhood and hence by the time they completed school, they were much ahead of peers. Bill Gates was familiarised to computers and Steve Jobs to electronics at an early age.
Mobile devices are a part of children’s lives today whether we like it or not, so we might as well be using them for good purposes. The greatest advantage of mobile learning is the instantaneous access to information. Phones using the Google Android software platform, for example, now have barcode scanning which enables users to get instant information about products and services. Imagine a time when students on a field trip can simply scan a barcode next to a monument and have a wealth of information appear at their fingertips. Or designing lecture notes to be viewed by the students on their mobile phone for their preparedness for school work.
For parents and educators who aren’t sure what kinds of apps or podcasts are best for kids, the “Three C’s” approach is proposed to evaluate children’s media:
Content — What is the basic premise of the app? Is it age appropriate? Does it come from a trusted source?
Context — Who is interacting with the child? Is the child learning through a game, then applying that in another activity? Is the child telling stories about what he or she has experienced?
Child — How much stimulation can this child take? What types of media trigger the most curious questions, playful re-enactments, engagement and joy? What is he/she missing out on by spending time on the device — is he/she still exercising, socialising, and doing schoolwork?
Dr Amira suggests parents find fresh ways to keep a check on the use of phones by their kids. For example, handing over the phone only for a limited time in a day or only on the weekends (some parents are practising this). Or contacting agencies and setting a bar on the outgoing calls on the connections of the younger ones. The most effective way, although, is to be strict in supervision and explain the kids about repercussion of disobeying them.
With a little common sense, smartphones and other mobile devices can be useful learning tools for children of all ages. Today’s children will benefit if mobile becomes a force for learning and discovery in the next decade.
The smartphone is doubtless a tool that has the power to make its user master of his or her own sector of the digital world. But, as is true for most tools, the smartphone can harm its consumer as much as it can help them.
Used without caution and self-awareness, it can cause self-damage, wastefulness, and depersonalisation just as easily as it can be a gateway to easier living and enlightenment.

Applications to check out
General (an app for everyone)
Wikiweb — a Wikipedia app that serves up the usual content crowd-sourced from willing bodies around the world and also visualises the connections between articles.
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For young kids (age 5-10)
Eye Paint Animals — discovery tools aimed at energising kids to play, create, invent, explore and learn in enjoyable ways without the limitations of set parameters.
Native Numbers — provides a deeper understanding of number concepts and imperative math vocabulary; builds a strong foundation.
Red in Bed — teaches kids about the colours of the rainbow; each colour gets its own musical note, too.
Bee’s ABCs — singing along to the alphabet song, spelling simple words and learning about pronunciation.
I See Ewe — explore more than 50 shapes, colors, objects and animals; adjustable levels of difficulty, verbal prompts and four different languages included.
Preschool Jobs — learn and explore various professions such as a doctor, astronaut, rock star, police officer and a construction worker, see their work environments and examine the tools that they use each day.
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For middle and high school students (age 11-16)
Tense Builder — teaching the tenses; includes the English words that do not follow the rule, otherwise known as irregular verbs.
MyHomeworkApp — keeps track of homework, projects, tests, and other assignments; set reminders for when things are due, set level of priority and keep track of schedule of classes.
TED Talks — customised quizzes, discussion guides, and other supporting materials to facilitate making a great lesson plan.
Ankidroid — perfect for exam cramming; helps students memorise anything through information flashcards which they can create themselves. Once loaded they can quiz themselves anywhere, anytime.
Wolfram Alpha — uses a vast database and various algorithms to answer to any questions of wide range like physics, chemistry, astronomy, maths, etc.
Khan Academy — over 2,500 free videos on everything from basic maths to venture capitalism
Languages — a fast offline translation dictionary app
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For students appearing for tests (age 13+)
BenchPrep — choose your course (high school, higher education, graduate and professional), choose your device, and study independently or with friends.
SAT Vocab Cards — browse and quiz on 1,000 high-frequency SAT words for free, with 1,000 more available for purchase.
SATLadder — a competition-based question answering structure including over 2,000 SAT questions.
MCAT — features over 2,000 flashcards so you can study on the go.
GRE Word Boost — with 500 essential GRE words in its database, study and quiz anytime.
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For teachers
ClassDojo — teachers can create a free account, add their students’ names and customise the behaviours they want to encourage. During class, positive behaviour is reinforced by dishing out feedback points to students; these feedback points automatically compiles the data into reports, letting teachers monitor progress, trends and share information with parents.
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For parents
Famigo Sandbox — a brilliant and free way of making your Android device safe for your kids. It includes a free app of its own for kids to play as well as listing certified safe apps for parents to browse and choose from. There are no ads or in-app purchases and you get shown games and activities that are platform and child specific.
App Timer Mini (ATM) — simple tool to track user’s time on selected apps; the app timer can be set for all the apps, based on how much time should be spent on each which will be shown on the screen while you are using an app.
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Other fun apps
Auryn Ink — digital watercolour-painting app; feels like real watercolour painting, right down to choosing between wet or dry canvases, and watching the paint dry on the page.
Tapestry — offers short stories from various authors, displayed full-screen rather than in e-book style layout; readers are encouraged to give feedback to the authors too.
Celeste — combines 3D graphics of the heavenly bodies with fun facts about astronomy; aim the device’s camera at the sky and see exactly where each object is located, day or night.
Famous Artists and Their Paintings — learn about more than 100 famous works of art from Michelangelo, Rembrandt, da Vinci and more and test your knowledge with a time-trial quiz.
Britannica Kids — encyclopaedias come alive on a range of topics; info presented alongside videos, games and quizzes.
Robots for iPad — learn about electronics and robotics through videos and interactive examples of more than 100 real life robots like Sony’s Aibo dog.
How it Works: Machines by Geek Kids — get an introduction to engineering and learn how various machines work by taking them apart and reassembling them.

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