Opinion — iPad kids and the illiteracy crisis

Can Gen Alpha read?
Opinion — iPad kids and the illiteracy crisis

Every generation critiques its successor generation. There are accusations that the children are getting softer, less teachable, disciplined and motivated, even though the accusers were also called soft, less disciplined and unteachable, when they were growing up. So how do we know that there’s any truth to these criticisms? There are a few quantitative statistics and qualitative testimonies from those who are educating our future America.

There has been a downward trend in reading levels across K-12 students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “The long-term trend assessments show the average reading score for 13-year-olds dropped four points between the 2019-20 school year and the 2022-23 school year.” According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company for their public and social sector, the researchers found that “by the end of the 2020–21 school year, students were on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Returning for the 2020-21 school year, students were at “a slower pace than usual.” 

There are two common explanations for this staggering decrease in literacy in K-12. The first is the impacts of the pandemic on children’s mental health. The second is the impact of unlimited access to technology in developmental stages. The causes of these dropped literacy rates shouldn’t solely be blamed on one issue or the other; the gravity of these numbers suggests that this phenomenon is from multiple environmental factors. 

There is a lot of blame on the generation itself for its faults – for instance, millennials are scrutinized for being overprotected even though it was their parent’s reaction to 9/11 that spurred increased protectiveness of them. It is a very similar situation with Generation Alpha and COVID-19. The isolation and disruption of normal life during these children’s formative years had a ripple effect on the rest of their adolescence. They lost years of normal social interaction and security during critical periods of development. The pressure for a child to conceptualize that a global sickness is stopping them from learning and seeing their friends is so weighted that it makes sense that it would set back their education long-term. 

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What came with the increased time students spent at home during the pandemic also came with the parents’ way of coping with it. What the media is calling the “iPad Kid” is a child who has unregulated access to technology, which is often used to pacify the child when upset, or distract the child during social situations or when the parent is busy. According to this study on increased ADHD diagnoses in children which was published in 2010, the year the first iPad was released, this creates attention deficit and behavioral problems both in and out of the classroom. 

Teachers online are confessing their issues with getting students to engage with coursework, pay attention, participate, and strive to do well in school. Forums on YouTube and TikTok: #teachersoftiktok, and #teachersofyoutube, are littered with videos of educators expressing their stress and concern. One fifth grade teacher said, “These kids can’t read, they have no vocabulary, no background knowledge, I’ve never seen anything like it […] they can’t even write a sentence.” Another teacher says “I teach seventh grade, they are still performing at the fourth grade level. They just keep passing them on.” 

However, other educators tell a different story. A camp counselor and secondary education English major at NMU said, “It’s not about pushing a student to the standard, it’s about changing the standard to fit an individual’s needs.” When asked about what she’s seen the most struggle within students, the student said, “I see a lot of stuff in the media about students struggling academically, but I work as a camp counselor with 4-13-year-olds, and the majority of their struggle is social, especially after the pandemic.” The student does believe that there is hope for future generations and stresses the importance of redefining the standard as circumstances change through the years.

Time will tell what this means for America’s future after these children get older. It is not the responsibility of the educator to monitor how the student spends their time outside of the classroom, it is the responsibility of the parent to read to them, spend time with them, and help them engage in social environments, especially after a global crisis. The parents can’t control the pandemic’s impact on their children, but they can control if they take their kids to the museum and library or sit them in front of a screen. The damage is not irreversible, but if Gen Z doesn’t learn from the millennial’s parental misstep, it could be catastrophic when their kids don’t “put that damn phone away.”

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