Video games, screen time and early childhood development

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there must be a screen here somewhere, where could it be?
there must be a screen here somewhere,
where could it be?

At 9:00 am this past Monday morning, almost 30 people crammed into a small conference room at the World Bank in DC to talk about ... videogames. (A good number more were queued up online to join in, but unfortunately technical snafus prevented them from participating -- our continued apologies if you count yourself among that group.) The featured presenter at this discussion, my colleague Mariam Adil ("Meet the Woman Who's Shaking Up Pakistan's Social Gaming Industry"), the founder of GRID (Gaming Revolution for International Development), shared some of the interesting and innovative things she has been doing to help create and roll out a number of educational mobile apps, as a contribution to broader discussions on topics related to 'early childhood development' (ECD).

Providing children and their caregivers with access to quality pre-school education opportunities is a primary activity of the World Bank's work related to early childhood development. No one who participated in Monday's discussion expressed the view that 'technology is the answer to the challenges of ECD'. That said:

Are there approaches and activities related to early childhood development worth pursuing that can be complemented, and in some cases helpfully enabled by, new technologies?

As the related World Bank strategy states, "Investing in young children through ECD programs—ensuring they have the right stimulation, nurturing and nutrition—is one of the smartest investments a country can make to address inequality, break the cycle of poverty, and improve outcomes later in life."

Given the proliferation of mobile phones in communities around the world, there can be no denying that such things are increasingly in the hands of parents and caregivers (and, for better or worse in the hands of children as well, both briefly and for extended periods of time).

What are we learning about what is possible, and what is useful, to do with these devices that can complement and extend many ECD activities and programs?


'Deliver information and services to people where they are, don't make them come to you' -- this can be a rather useful approach to helping meet many of the inter-related objectives common to early childhood development programs. And: Like it or not, increasing numbers of caregivers are to be found via their mobile phones. As Jan Chipchase observed many years ago in a presentation to the World Bank, for a good number of people around the world (and for better or for worse), the last thing they touch each night before their head hits their pillow is not their spouse or children, but rather their phone.

Traditionally, and currently, most such phones in most so-called 'developing countries' have been 'dumb phones' or 'feature phones' with limited functionality, but this is now starting to change in earnest. While we may not (yet) be at an inflexion point when it comes to access to and the affordability of smartphones in most poor countries, such a point may slowly be coming into sight in many places around the world. Myanmar, most of whose citizens have until recently not been able to access mobile telephony, was recently predicted to be the world's first "smart phone first" country. The first quarter of this year saw more smartphones shipped to Africa than feature phones.

This isn't to contend that (just to cite a random example that I made up ... or did I?) developers sitting in Silicon Valley developing a smartphone app for young mothers in poor communities in Kenya optimized for devices running iOS9 are likely to find that their target demographic is able to use their application, no matter how whizz-bang or 'revolutionary' it may be. While recognizing the large installed base of feature phones around the world and that active trade in second hand feature phones means that such devices will continue to outsell smart phones across the continent for a while, it is nevertheless also becoming clear that initiatives to develop apps for smart phone users in many communities in developing countries aren't as crazily off-target as they used to be.


During the course of her presentation on 'Games for Parental Education', Mariam commented that "parental engagement and stimulation during the early years of a child’s life are critical to set the child on a positive lifelong trajectory". With this context in mind, she explored a number of the ways that games, and 'gamification' (the use of game design elements in non-gaming contexts) more broadly, can help promote increased engagement in activities meant to promote early childhood development by targeting caregivers, or groups that work directly with them. Citing a common use case scenario for many 'casual games' -- that people in advanced economies play on their mobile phones while waiting in line to do something (at a store, at a government office, etc.) -- she hypothesized that such use cases may be especially relevant in many low income countries in developing countries where waiting on line is an even more common occurrence. (I'll note parenthetically that she acknowledged a number of cultural conventions and practices that may complicate such scenarios in many places -- context is always king.) Might the use of mobile games provide one way to engage with caregivers, briefly but in a constructive way, and share information that might be helpful for the development of children in their charge? 

Of course, merely because something comes wrapped in the bright colors and blinking icons of a videogame doesn't mean that it will necessarily be engaging. In too many cases, the defining characteristic of an "educational video game" is that it is not fun to play. But the potential is there.


30 million words: how many text messages is that?
30 million words:
how many text messages is that?

While the potential to use video games and game-type approaches to help meet some goals common to many ECD-type programs, especially where such use can complement and extend other activities, the trick is of course in the 'how'. Many international donor and aid agencies are recognizing the potential utility of things like mobile phone games within some of their related projects but face a number of challenges when trying to realize this potential in practice. Generally speaking, however: They don't have much related in-house experience. They don't (yet) have the expertise to manage such efforts terribly well, nor cost them out, let alone the technical chops to do this stuff themselves. (Within the World Bank, examples like GRID or EVOKE are notable outliers, exceptions that prove the rule.) They don't know the landscape of developers and providers. They don't (really) know users either, or to be more specific: they don't understand usage contexts or constraints. It's possible to make some informed guesses, of course, which can provide an important starting point for action, but if you're pointed in the wrong direction, using technology can help get you there more quickly. Most successful app development is a result of a highly iterative development process, something that traditional donor practices, which often can be notably 'traditional', risk-averse and which insist on clearly pre-defined and immutable metrics for 'success' upfront, can make rather difficult. Such capacities and capabilities will inevitably be developed over time, but in the meantime no doubt some mistakes will be made (and there will probably be a few spectacular failures along the way). One reality that many donor groups, headquartered in highly developed OECD countries, are only slowly becoming aware of is the number of folks doing mobile app development within middle and low income countries. While such groups may not themselves be good proxies for the types of caregivers targeted by donor aid supporting ECD, they are a lot closer to them than are game developers in, say, Tokyo or Tampere, Berlin or Brooklyn.

I regularly hear that donor support for the development of mobile apps can be very cost-effective because 'they scale up easily'. Once games are shown to be 'effective' (however that may be defined), their digital nature and the increasing ubiquity of mobile networks suggest, or so I am told, that 'distribution is relatively simple'. Maybe. In my experience, distribution of mobile apps to end users in many low income communities in poor countries can be a real challenge. I find myself regularly reminding people that, for example, the Apple AppStore is not a terribly relevant distribution option in most of the developing world. All flavors of Android are not the same. People may not be used to downloading and installing apps themselves -- nor might they want to spend their precious mobile minutes on such activities. For these and other reasons, it can often be useful to target intermediaries (like the folks in local markets who, in addition to selling pre-paid minutes and used phones, offer to download content onto someone's phone for them for a small fee, who repair phones and provide software updates, etc.) who can serve as key nodes in any sort of distribution scheme.

As with any endeavor, understanding what you want to accomplish, understanding your users and beneficiaries, as well as the relevant "use cases", is key. Development efforts informed by co-creation, and which take place as close to the user as possible, are more likely to meet with success (or least make it easier to identify failure more quickly so that you can learn and try something different). As with other initiatives that utilize information and communication technologies, the digital data trails generated through the use of mobile phones can present a treasure trove of information for researchers, while at the same time giving rise to all sorts of privacy concerns. While the potential use of mobile devices to help expand what is possible when it comes to support programs related to early childhood development is undeniable, and indeed even exciting in certain instances, it is important not to get carried away. Kentaro Toyama eloquently cautions in his book Geek Heresy that "Technology -— no matter how well designed -— is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute." Absent such intent and capacity, efforts to explore and promote the use of games for parental education and to support early childhood development, however well-intentioned and shiny, are unlikely to amount to much.


Almost none of Monday's discussion discussed the potential use of mobile games by young children themselves. While the 'pass-back effect', where parents hand their phone to a child to occupy him or her while a parent is engaged in doing some else (driving, checking out at the supermarket) was first observed in circumstances in 'highly developed' countries, the phenomenon isn't limited to such environments. However one feels about such things, this is a reality that is hard to deny. There is much we don't know about the effects of 'screen time' on young children, and related conversations are, in my experience, typically informed more by speculation, personal experience and emotion than they are by 'science' (although related 'pseudo-science' may often be invoked in seemingly authoritative ways and findings from 'research' may be cited in ways that are rather, um, problematic). There is no shortage of good (and bad) resources available on the Internet to become informed about such things (for what it's worth, here is the most current related factsheet from the World Health Organization on "Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones") and I don't intend to wade into related debates here.

That said, it is worth noting that this week the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its official guidance related to "promot[ing] positive media use and discourag[ing] potentially harmful use". Back in 2011, the AAP released a widely-cited and influential policy statement which discouraged screen time for children under the age of two and advised that screen time be limited to two hours a day for children over the age of two. Earlier this year the AAP brought together pediatricians, researchers, cognitive neuroscientists, educators and others to discuss the current state of related research, practice and informed opinions and has now released a set of key messages for parents. Noting that "Media is just another environment" and that "children do the same things they have always done, only virtually", the AAP provides some quite common sense and practical advice based on emerging research. (Some examples: "Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold." "Content matters" and "co-engagement counts".) Combined with similar sorts of guidance from the (U.S.-based) the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families and other responsible groups, it is clear that our related understanding is becoming more nuanced than the blanket "no screens" directive that is increasingly impractical in many contexts. That said, when it comes to these sorts of things: There is still a lot that we don't know.

For those looking to make sense of what we do know, Tap, Click, Read, a just-published book and website from Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine, might be worth checking out. There is some really great stuff here: Clear, easy-to-read, practical, nuanced, hyperbole-free and informed by evidence. (Such a combination of modifiers is regrettably rare to encounter in books and discourse about technology and learning, imho.) That said, it is worth noting that much of what we do know, or purport to know, arises from research in rich and 'highly industrialized' countries, and as a result of interactions with certain user communities in such places. As 'screens' and new technological devices continue to become increasingly available across societies, even in some of the poorest places and among people in the poorest and least advantaged communities, the extent to which lessons from such 'developed' places are relevant to the conditions of young children and their families and caregivers in 'other' parts of the world will be an increasingly important area of research attention in the years to come.


Monday's discussion was the first in a miniseries of talks at the World Bank exploring what is known about approaches to utilizing new technologies as part of projects designed to help meet objectives related to early childhood development. We'll highlight messages and debates that arise during discussions at future events in later posts on the EduTech blog.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the World Bank EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this post of a toddler scrambling after some blocks ("there must be a screen here somewhere, where could it be?") comes from D Sharon Pruitt via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The second image of a lady looking at her phone ("30 million words: how many text messages is that?") comes from Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons and is used accroding to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. (The oblique reference is to this groundbreaking study.)


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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