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Boys Have a Touchscreen Learning Problem

Thanks to the proliferation of interactive learning applications, the sight of a 2-year-old, face bathed in an electric grow, tapping, dragging, and swiping away has become common. But researchers are now questioning the efficacy of interactive educational experiences on touchscreen devices — at least for boys.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University set out to test if children’s physical interaction with a touch screen via tapping or swiping was actually beneficial. In one study, they placed iPads with a lab-designed, flashcard-based, word-learning app in the hands of kids between the ages of 2- and 5-years-old. The app featured a portion where children were instructed to not tap the screen, followed by an activity where tapping the screen made butterflies flutter. Researchers then tested children to determine if the words had been learned.

A second study also included a university-made word-learning app, though this time on a Galaxy tablet. The game included a passive learning portion and an experimental portion. The experimental portion required the kids, this time between the ages of 2- and 4-years-old, to help an object cross a river by tapping or dragging, or simply watch the object cross the river. They were also tested on word-learning ability.

In both studies, researchers found that boys learned fewer words when asked to interact with the app through dragging or tapping. On the other hand, girls learned more when asked to interact with the app, than when instructed to passively watch. They were also less likely than boys to tap at a screen willy-nilly when instructed not to.

Researchers concluded that the incessant tapping from boys “is consistent with a reliable sex difference in self-regulation reported in the research literature – specifically, that young males have lower self-regulation than females do.” And as far as having trouble learning through dragging objects on a screen, researchers suggested, “a partial explanation for this sex difference may be more advanced fine motor development in girls during the preschool years.”

In a nutshell: little boys may lack too much self-regulation, or require too much concentration on tasks that involve fine motor skills for certain interactive learning apps to be effective. Those tidbits would help parents select learning apps if there were an ability to preview before download. But often the learning mechanisms for apps aren’t fully revealed until purchase. That makes it imperative to read descriptions and reviews more thoroughly prior to purchase.

boy using tablet

That might be a tough ask. Eighty percent of all apps in Apple’s store are educational and designed for children — primarily toddlers and preschoolers. Additionally, the.category has seen a 23 percent growth in recent years and shows no sign of slowing.

But researchers note that children’s experience with media is constantly shifting — the tapping of today may be the eye tracking of tomorrow. So parents need to remain vigilant about what they’re downloading to help their kid learn. Because it may not be helpful at all.