Does New Media Help Or Hinder Learning?

The last few years have seen no shortage of new technologies designed to help people to learn, but there is also a strong sense that technology can also hinder as well as help us to learn.  Many parents, therefore, decide to limit the use of new media to try and reduce the distractions their children experience.

A recent study from the University of Zurich suggests that such a practice may be counterproductive, especially if ‘doing your homework’ is cited as the reason for denying them access.  The researchers surveyed over 1,100 college students to understand how their parents approached technology when they were younger, before then comparing this with their grades since then.

Unintended consequences

The analysis found that when parents provided clear rules on technology use for their children, their children did not outperform peers with more relaxed parents.  Indeed, when the reasons cited for restricting usage were to do with completing homework, the children went on to perform worse in later life.

“Parents normally set these rules to promote their children’s scholastic development and to make sure that they invest enough time in schoolwork. But that evidently can also backfire: The well-intended rule can have unintended adverse consequences,” the authors say.

Now, correlation does not imply causation of course, and you could argue that rules were imposed upon children who were already struggling in school.  The researchers attempted to mitigate this by taking into account scholastic aptitude during high school.

So were there reasons for restricting access that had a positive impact?  Interestingly, the answer appears to be yes.  When parents cited health reasons, such as eye strain or getting exercise instead, then those children tended to do better than their peers in later life.  The researchers suggest that parents who have such concerns are likely to be a positive influence on their child’s education.

As the range of digital technology expands, the team believe their findings highlight the importance of parents taking a proactive approach with their children, and try and take the unique facets of each application into account when deciding how to respond to it.

“Certain games, for example, can help to develop strategic thinking and analytical skills,” the researchers say.  Indeed, in many instances it can make sense for the family to play the games together. “That’s a really practical way for parents to explain the benefits and drawbacks to children in a straightforward manner.”