Smartphones dumb kids down
"Smartphones are psychologically addictive, encourage narcissistic tendencies and should come with a health warning." That was the conclusion of a study at the University of Derby in the UK, which highlighted the disturbing downside to our digital obsession.But it could be even worse than that. Smartphone addiction could be damaging educational standards and exacerbating inequality. Digital technology is now an everyday component of classroom and community, but we need to think much smarter about its long-term impact.As Britain's shadow Education Secretary, I have a recurring conversation in the schools I visit. Primary head teachers explain to me the challenge they face in getting their pupils up to the relevant level of progress. In particular, more children are presenting with serious difficulties when it comes to speech and language.When I ask if the condition is getting worse, all heads say yes - and they blame the iPhone.The impact of parents not talking to their children - scrolling through e-mails, checking the football scores, ordering on Amazon, and catching up on Twitter - is leaving school kids unable to speak properly.Research from the Department for Education has revealed a stark increase in the number of children beginning primary school struggling with speech. And children who find it difficult to communicate during their early years are often more likely to struggle at school.The unfortunate irony of this situation is that the new digital economy we are entering - in which young people will hold numerous careers over their lifetimes; in which the ability to innovate and be creative is paramount - will demand even higher levels of communication skill. Speaking and listening, rhetoric and "oralcy", are essential 21st-century skills for the information age, even as the very tools of this era are potentially undermining those skills at childhood.All too often it is schools which are left to address the learning gap, but it is poor parenting that is at faultWhat the smartphone conundrum speaks to is the broader challenge of how we marshal technology in education. Because even as the internet allows access to some of the world's greatest learning tools, the thirst for the nurture of human skills in education has intensified. Today, parents don't want their children sitting at home just watching online lectures. They want them performing in the school play, up front in the First XI, and playing in the orchestra. Speaking, singing, leading, collaborating.Yet it is those schools playing catch-up with children's speech skills which are often most inclined to strip out the character-building and extracurricular activity as they seek to focus on the fundamentals. This is the inequality ratchet which information technology poses. On the one hand, it is a source of liberation and enlightenment - the world's learning at the touch of a button. On the other, it threatens to exacerbate structural disadvantages already present in society.All too often it is schools which are left to address the learning gap, but it is poor parenting that is at fault.What to do? The University of Derby researchers suggest a health warning on mobiles and apps. Maybe. But we also need young parents to be made aware of the power of speech and play; we need advertising and outreach work to warn of the dangers of digital addiction; and we need to appreciate the risks of parents tapping on an iPhone rather than playing with a child.This is about parents, not schools; society, not government. In a communication age, we are in danger of raising a generation speaking and listening less.