Want high achieving STEM-focused kids? Take away screens and think about their toys

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 3, 2015
Skills are an important subject today. Are the internet and more screens a good thing for the younger generation? How do we get more women into tech? We take a look...

The impact of modern technology and the internet on the younger generation, which from a very young age view devices and software as integral to their everyday lives, is largely unknown. Does having more information and increased automation at our fingertips make us smarter or make us lazy? Can we measure intelligence in the same way when processes can be carried out far more quickly and the need to remember things becomes less important? What impact will digital natives have on the world we live in as they quickly climb the ranks of organisations? Or even create new organisations that question the old way of doing things?

Equally, research has shown time and time again that parts of the western world, including the UK and the US, are desperate for people that are proficient in STEM-based subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Being able to use a smartphone isn't the same as being able to build one. Even more concerning is the amount of women choosing STEM-focused careers as they enter higher education and the workplace. Attracting and retaining female talent in the technology sector is a huge priority.

This is a complicated area and there are often conflicting views on what is thought to be the best approach. Is a three year old using a smartphone a good thing? Do women 'naturally' just prefer 'softer' subjects? Should students be forced to study using traditional methods or should schools adopt the latest technology?

There are no clear-cut answers.

However, there are two stories grabbing the headlines in the UK this morning that provide some interesting food for thought in this area. The first is a piece of research that suggests that actually giving teenagers more time in front of the screens can have a detrimental impact on their school grades. And the second comes as a senior researcher at Cambridge University suggests that we need to think carefully about gender-specific toys, if we want to foster balance in STEM-focused careers.

Take the screens away

First up, a Cambridge University Study has found that the more hours students spend in front of a screen, whether that be browsing the internet, watching TV or playing video games, has a detrimental impact on their school results. The study focused specifically on recording the habits of 14-year olds through to getting their GCSE results when they turn 16.

The study, which was published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, looked at the activities of more than 800 students and found that those who spend an extra hour a day on screens saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

Two extra hours in front of a screen was linked to dropping a grade in four subjects overall.

Unsurprisingly, students that spent an extra hour focusing on homework or spent an extra hour reading did better in their GCSEs. However, what's most interesting about the research is that even if pupils spent more time studying, extra time online or in front of the TV still harmed their results.

The study's conclusion reads:

Screen time was associated with lower academic performance, suggesting that strategies to limit screen behaviours among adolescents may benefit academic performance. Homework and reading were positively associated with GCSE results and can be seen as legitimate targets for policy makers and educationalists in the early teenage years.

Findings suggest an optimal policy is required whereby neither low nor excessive practices are encouraged. Implementation of greater priority by parents to reduce screen based behaviours involving TV, Internet or Computer Games, are also suggested.

Physical activity does not appear to be either detrimental or beneficial to academic performance, suggesting that emphasis on physical activity promotion for health benefits might be most appropriate.

Lead author of the research, Dr Kirsten Corder, told the BBC that there could be a number of reasons for the

link between extra screen time and poorer grades, including “substitution of television for other healthier behaviours or behaviours better for academic performance, or perhaps some cognitive mechanisms in the brain”.

But either way, according to the this study, if we want our kids and the younger generation to perform better academically then we need to take away their mobile phones, laptops and TVs and put some books in their hands. That still doesn't quite answer the question about whether or not traditional academic results are relevant in a world where apps are replacing jobs, but the findings are interesting nonetheless.

Out with the Barbies, in with the Lego

Elsewhere, Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, has said that parents need to carefully consider the impact of gender-specific toys on their children's future. Specifically referring to their future career choices and the need for more STEM-focused graduates and employees.

Donald was speaking ahead of her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association and, according to the Guardian, said that toys that are marketed at young girls are enforcing behaviour that steers them away from science and engineering before they even reach school age.

She said that toys that are traditional considered to be 'for girls' often lead to passive play, instead of encouraging creative skills and the sparking the imagination. Donald also attacked schools for being “lazy” when it comes to finding work experience for students that encourage and reinforce gender stereotypes. For instance, Donald claims, girls are more likely to end up in a hair salon, whilst boys went to work at the local garage.

Donald also tweeted the following image that reinforces this point:


She said:

We need to change the way we think about boys and girls and what’s appropriate for them from a very early age. Does the choice of toys matter? I believe it does.

We introduce social constructs by stereotyping what toys boys and girls receive from the earliest age. ‘Girls’ toys’ are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.

There are people who think what children do at four is irrelevant to their A-level choices, but I’m not so sure. The evidence suggests that many children make up their minds, certainly about what they don’t want to do, around the time they go to secondary school.

If they have never had the opportunity to take things to pieces and build them up again; if they have always just played with dolls and dolls in a stereotypically female situation, such as worrying about hairstyle or making tea, then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists?

Whereas I am no fan of battles, the idea that active behaviour is to be encouraged, as opposed to being passive and relying on magic to solve your problems, seems to me to be the real distinction between how things are being portrayed here for the genders

My take

My key takeaway from these stories is that minor changes to how we raise the younger generation can have a big impact on future society. If we want to be a competitive digital economy, these are the sorts of things that we need to be thinking about.

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