Apps That Aim To Give Parents 'Superpowers' : NPR Ed A new wave of educational technology focuses on building family connections. Here's a look at two new approaches.

Apps That Aim To Give Parents 'Superpowers'

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American kids spend more than four hours a day on average looking at a screen. Adults check their phones nearly 50 times a day. So we are staring at our screens while they are staring at theirs. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way. On this week's All Tech Considered, we're going to look at the alternatives.


MCEVERS: NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been testing some new apps that promise to help parents and kids bond and help kids develop the social and emotional skills we now know they need. She joins us now. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: There's a lot of kid tech out there, for lack of a better phrase - iPad apps for reading and drawing. There's kid podcasts. What's good about these new parent-kid apps?

KAMENETZ: This is really a totally different take on educational technology. The two apps that I looked at here are called Povi and Muse. And both of them are directed at the parents. They go on parents' phones, and they offer reminders or prompts that the parents can use to actually talk to their kids and have a conversation or engage in an activity or tell a story.

MCEVERS: And you actually tested one of these apps with your daughter. How did that go?

KAMENETZ: That's right. Povi's still in beta, and the idea with that one is it's going to tell stories actually through a plush, huggable character. And those stories are going to help kids and parents talk about emotions.

The one that I tested out is called Muse, and the way that that worked was, I'd be home with my daughter, or I'd be at work. And I'd get a buzz, and it would ask me a yes or no question designed to gather information about my kid, like, does Lulu like to try new things? And then it would suggest an activity. And the activity would be something really simple like, next time you're reading a book, stop the story and ask your daughter to predict what happens next.

And so this is kind of a typical developmentally appropriate way of reading - it's called dialogic reading - to start a conversation, to get empathy, perspective taking, to get the kid to make predictions. And so it's supposed to be educational and build social and emotional skills at the same time.

I didn't do the suggestions every time, but when we did, it was pretty fun. You know, it's easy to get stuck in a run when you're playing with your kid, and it's nice to have somebody at your shoulder suggesting something new to do.

MCEVERS: How do we know this kind of thing works, or how do they know - the people who made this app? How do they know it works?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's interesting. You know, they're drawing on a relatively new field that actually comes over from the health world. And so mobile health information apps that provide timely information to parents have been tried, and they've been succeeded in several different settings.

There's one program that's well-known called Text4baby, and it's been used in a lot of different countries to give parents, mothers, from the time that they're pregnant, week by week information that's relevant to their children and all the way through childbirth and then afterwards.

And so these types of just-in-time reminders or nudges have been shown to improve attitudes, to improve knowledge among parents and also to improve health outcomes for kids. So the creators of these apps are kind of extrapolating to say, we know that just-in-time information can be helpful. It can motivate behaviors. Maybe we can improve social and emotional development as well.

MCEVERS: I don't want to be a total naysayer here, but I do have to say that when I first read about this, I was like, do I really need a buzz on my phone to remind me to talk to my child and how to talk to my child?

KAMENETZ: You know, I think it's a really key question. It's something that some of the experts I talked to brought up - that on the one hand, we all feel extremely distracted. And when we're with our kids, it seems like the phone is often buzzing and taking us out of the moment.

But the beta testers that I talked to - I talked to three different women who have all been trying out the app Muse, and they all said, you know, usually I'm getting taken out of the moment when I get a buzz on my phone, but in this case, using this app, I actually get a chance to think about my kid; and it's actually pretty helpful to bring me back in the moment.

And one person I talked to made the comparison with Fitbit or a health app. Do you really need a reminder to go to bed on time? Do you need a reminder to go climb the stairs...


KAMENETZ: ...Instead of the elevator? Maybe not, but on the other hand, it could be helpful.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

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