Reading Apps for Kids

YouTube Reads Aloud- Reading Apps for Kids?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My granddaughters were staying overnight and I found out that they like an app on their dad’s phone before they go to bed. The app reads stories to them in the evening before they fall asleep. So, I downloaded the app (called Calm) to my own phone and they were happy. But, do you think that children this age (3 and 5) should go to sleep with apps that read to them?   Myra, Berkeley

Dear Myra: It sounds like you are a thoroughly modern grandmother as you downloaded the reading app for kids, but I don’t think you need to be. As you intuit, it’s wholesome to read bedtime stories from books, not phones.  Today’s busy frazzled parents might prefer than an app do that, but IMHO you should question the routine. By the way, the app you downloaded has many features just for adults.

But back to the grandkids. They and their parents are missing out on a wonderful time to come together as a family and share. Reading aloud is a great opportunity for families to wind down the day and indulge together in a flight of fantasy, historical fiction, nature or other literary genres.  Since the girls are close in age, they might like the same material. Young children get to cuddle with Dad or Mom and learn that reading is entertaining.

The Spoken Word:

There’s an academic plus to this: hearing words spoken together will increase the girl’s vocabulary. Since the 1980’s researchers have studied what happens if more of children’s first language learning take place in front of the television, and less from adults that read aloud. The TV  raised kids suffer a large “vocabulary deficit. ” In school, no Head-Start programs can catch them up. Meanwhile, the children who are read to also become better writers. They are more proficient with sentence structure and grammar.

Regarding the Calm story, podcasts and phone apps seem like radio a when it comes to learning new words.  Unlike watching on TV, listeners have to use their imagination to fill in the details. Perhaps they pay more attention. Still, reading from a book is the most expansive. Kids can control the pace of the story- speed up, slow down, or pause. And, adults provide soothing cues to help interpret scary or sad stories. The classic narrative about this is Bambi, the deer who loses his mother. 

Sleep Interference:

There is one further reason why I would encourage your son and daughter-in-law to limit reading apps for kids at bedtime. Research is linking difficulty falling asleep and adverse health outcomes with using smartphones before bed. It’s thought that the bluelight from the phone or other factors (unknown) interfere with melatonin production. Children are thought to be even more susceptible to these sleep disruptions.

Read Forward:

There are plenty of  good children’s books out there, and they are free for you to browse and borrow from your local library. Also, I recommend this classic on children’s reading. Get a copy for your kids and grandkids, so that they can cultivate a read aloud habit. The author wrote the book as he investigated why SAT scores were falling since the 1970’s and why contemporary kids were stressed, sleep-deprived, and anxious. He was critical of the ‘No Child Left Behind Curriculum’.

My take-away is that if do not wish to leave your grandchildren behind, then ‘read forward’ with them. Since your granddaughters are only three and five years old, you have many years to grow that habit together.

News Makes Me Anxious

A picture of a smartphone and a set of hands handcuffed to the phone with the auxillary phone cord.
News Makes Me Anxious: Take a Digital Sabbath?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I feel  bad-tempered these days and my ex says it’s because I am watching so much news on my phone. It’s true that my phone is my main source. There is a lot happening out there and I want to stay informed. Maybe the news makes me anxious and worried? I want to keep up but not feel so stressed about our future. Suzanne, Sausalito

Dear Suzanne: The news has indeed been grim these past few weeks. It’s doubtful that anyone can view it and come away feeling positive about the social order. So lighten up and do not be so hard on yourself.  But does the news make people anxious? If so, you are not alone. Nearly half of adults say that they get primary news on social media and a third on Facebook.

If you step back and ask what is “broadcast news”  it was only one- hour long 40 years ago. Then, in 1980 Turner’s Cable New Network (CNN) launched 24 hour news and it changed the business model. A similar innovation around 2012, was the round-the-clock news feed that you participate in using your phone, say on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Social media sites beckon you in if you are engaged, informed or just passionate about a topic.  However, as you engage, you will never be sure if others there are legitimate, or if they have a special interest lurking behind the posts. Even worse, they could be bots fabricating elements of the story or pictures. 

So, it may be that your anxiousness – or bad temper as you put it- comes from the hard work it takes to engage with social news media and keep it straight. When you go online to these news sites you process a large volume of information, but you process it out of context, in pieces, and without full trust in the sources. When you think about it that way, it’s not about you. Following the news on social media is tricky and cognitively taxing.  This is not the only reason that the news can make you anxious, but I think this one gets downplayed.

I would recommend that you take a Digital Sabbath. A Digital Sabbath is not religious- it’s a designated break from using your phone, in this case for news watching. You begin with just one day a week. You are likely to find that you are not missing anything during this 24 hour break. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to incorporate  more  time-offs into your routine. 

By the way, there are a number of studies in mental health that link depression and anxiety to news watching. Longitudinal studies  done after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 paint a grim picture. The academic researchers found that viewers who saw the devastating pictures over and over again were more likely to be anxious and have prolonged stress going forward. If you search, you will find many studies that vet a relationship between anxiety and news viewing.  A noteworthy branch is now called “climate anxiety.” Since 2011 psychologists have observed a relationship between indirect exposure to climate stories transmitted by the media and feelings of worry, despair, and guilt. 

That said, researchers still do not know, and they may never, whether people who are more anxious and stressed turn to media, or if this association is fueled by media viewing.  That’s key!

Since both mental health research and your own experience point to the out-sized role of social media I offer some final advice. If you want to keep up with the news but become less emotionally involved in it then subscribe to a daily newspaper. There is compelling evidence (from the Covid era) that the written stories and pictures are less involving, so readers stay more emotionally distant. Research finds no significant association between newspaper coverage of natural disasters, wars, and trauma and psychological outcomes such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Newspapers should equip you to take in the daily complement of worldwide events without getting irritable, crying, or sad.

NoPhone Zone Party

A picture of a football and in the background the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills. This is for the Superbowl in LA, Feb. 2022/
NoPhone Zone Party photocredit:

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am invited to a Super Bowl party at a private club in Los Angeles and it should be a fun time. But I am wondering about the invitation. My friend says that I will need to leave my phone in a Yondr bag they provide, and the club will return my phone after the game. They call it a NoPhone Zone Party. I don’t see why they are making me do this! I always use my phone when I watch games on TV! Sean, Camarillo

Dear Sean: It sounds like you are going to be close to the action! For readers who don’t know: it’s the Rams vs. the Bengals, and a Yondr pouch “locks up” your phone when you enter a phone-free zone, like the party you were invited to. When guests arrive at the venue, phones and smart watches are placed in these proprietary, zipped pouches. As you exit, there’s staff with a tap reader to unlock the case.  That’s the essence of a NoPhone Zone Party.

The interesting question is why this club is enforcing a no-phone zone during the game. If they were part of the old Nielsen ratings, I would say it would be to get your undivided attention for those million dollar ++ ads or the half-time show. Today, I surmise it’s to get your focus in a more mindful and immediate manner.

Most likely the hosts want their guests to have personal interactions, not distant ones. Like you, many people watch television with a phone in hand- especially during sports. They talk aloud or send out pictures, text, and email.  A Nielsen poll from 2019 says that 73 percent of US adults use a digital device at least occasionally while watching TV, and 45 percent of those respondents do so “very often” or “always.” 

But, it’s not just about social media. The same poll says people use their phone while watching TV to look up information related to the content. In this case, what are the favored odds in this game and how are they updating?!

Betting on you and Them!

And that brings up another reason why phones might be barred from the Super Bowl event you are attending. Mobile betting is growing exponentially. Last month, New York State launched it and within four days the sites handled $603.1 million! (albeit, the Buffalo Bills were in the playoffs). It was convenient- no traveling to New Jersey or a casino to place the wager anymore.

It’s likely that your LA event planners are trying to keep you engaged in their space-  talking and interacting person-to-person, while you watch the big screen game. Perhaps it’s the first time since Covid restrictions began and they want to normalize relationships. Or, more speculatively, they have their own planning for a blow-out half-time show!

It’s been a while, but removing the phone is going to change the dynamics of this party. Instead of interacting outside the room, you will have to intermingle within the room and have a shared group experience. That’s a throwback! 


Speaking of throwback, a few days prior to SuperBowl XIV, the LA Rams General Manager commented that defensive end Jack Youngblood was a “throwback” because like other legendary players, he played through injuries and pain. More commonly, today throwback refers to wearing a jersey from a past year or era of your team. 

Who knows, perhaps that Yondr bag will be the throwback to Super Bowl LVI!