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Tablets and texts nudge parents to read to kids

Text messages that help parents set goals and offer follow-up reminders can double the time parents spend reading to their children, a new study shows.

“Previous research has shown that reading to young children is associated with greater literacy and numeracy skill,” says Susan Mayer, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and one of the designers of the Parents and Children Together (PACT) experiment.

“Yet we know that many parents, especially lower-income parents and parents with limited education seldom read to their children. So we created a program that uses behavioral tools to help parents overcome cognitive roadblocks to spending time reading to their children.”

tablets with books on them - read to kids
(Credit: Robert Kozloff/U. Chicago)

For the study in the Journal of Human Resources, researchers invited parents from eight preschools in Chicago to borrow an electronic tablet for six weeks. The tablets included a library of more than 500 children’s books along with an application that would record the time, audio, and video of parents reading to their kids. Parents were randomly divided into a treatment group and a control group.

Parents in the treatment group set a goal each week for how much time they would read to their child. Then they received several text message reminders each week to work toward their goal and weekly feedback on the actual amount of time they spent reading. Parents also received a social reward in the form of a digital badge for meeting their goals.

After six weeks, researchers discovered two key findings:

  • Parents in the treatment group doubled the amount of time they spent reading to their child.
  • Parents in the treatment group read an average of almost five books per week, while those who were not, read an average of two or three.

The most “present-biased” parents increased their reading time in response to the PACT program much more than parents who were the least present biased.

Present bias is the tendency to focus on activities that provide immediate satisfaction over activities that have a payoff sometime in the future. It’s a common cognitive bias that we all experience to some extent, such as when we procrastinate.

Vending machines boost kids’ reading in ‘book deserts’

The results suggest the behavioral tools in PACT increased reading time by helping parents manage their present bias and mitigate their tendency to procrastinate when it comes to reading to their children every night, researchers say.

Using behavioral tools to boost parental engagement with their children to promote cognitive, emotional, and physical development, and health is still in the very early stages, but the PACT findings point toward cost-effective approaches to improve the skills and futures of young children, researchers say.

To boost baby’s learning, read these books together

“Our goal is to identify ways to implement low-cost, light-touch behaviorally informed programs that help bolster parental engagement on a large scale,” says Ariel Kalil, professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “The development of such approaches offers a significant and compelling new opportunity to improve the lives of families and children.”

Additional authors are from the University of Toronto and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Source: University of Chicago

The post Tablets and texts nudge parents to read to kids appeared first on Futurity.

Stress in utero harms cognitive skills of poor children

Exposure to an acute stress in utero can have long-term consequences extending into childhood—but only among children in poor households, according to a new study.

The study, which took place in Chile, did not find the same effect among children in upper- or middle-class families.

“These children performed worse on a diverse set of skills critical for educational success, including arithmetic reasoning, verbal fluency, spatial analysis, logical thinking and problem-solving skills,” says study leader Florencia Torche, sociology professor in the Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences.

Torche also found that while middle- and upper-class families have the resources to mitigate the effects from the event, disadvantaged children without extra help can fall up to half a year behind, according to the research in Demography.

The ability to catch up depends on the family’s socioeconomic resources, she finds.

“This is a troubling finding because it shows that acute stress exacerbates disadvantages that poor children already face,” Torche says.

Stress doesn’t occur on its own

While previous research has examined the effects of chronic stress, little is known about the long-term consequences of an acutely stressful event during pregnancy, says Torche. An acute stress a pregnant woman could experience include witnessing a violent event, falling victim to a crime, almost suffering a serious injury, or losing a job.

But because stress is often correlated with other challenging situations—like family turmoil, relationship difficulties, or financial problems—it can be difficult to study, says Torche. That’s why she used a disaster event to create a natural experiment: a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred June 13, 2005, in Tarapaca, Chile.

“If we want to disentangle the effect of stress from these other common correlates, we need to isolate it,” Torche says.

“It was only when I broke the results down by socioeconomic status that I found a very strong negative effect among the most disadvantaged families.”

Unlike most natural disasters with devastating consequences—such as property damage, long-term displacement, or public health emergencies—the losses from the Tarapaca earthquake were relatively small: 11 people died, 130 were injured, and 180 homes were destroyed. With limited spillover effects that could have influenced health outcomes of a mother and her unborn child, Torche was able to more clearly isolate the direct impact of an acute stress on pregnant women.

Torche then combined birth records with a random sample of 591 children whose mothers experienced the earthquake during their pregnancy and compared that data with a control group of 558 randomly selected children born in the same time period in Chilean counties the earthquake didn’t affect.

Torche has closely studied these children since birth. Her 2011 study found that exposure to an acute stress during pregnancy increased the number of preterm births.

“Given that preterm birth is associated with health and developmental problems during childhood, this finding provided initial evidence that prenatal exposure to acute stress could have negative consequences for children,” she says.

Half a year behind

Here, Torche checked in with these children who were now 7 years old and starting school.

With a team of trained field researchers, Torche conducted a series of cognitive tests with each child in the treatment and control groups.

“The effect of prenatal exposure to an acute stressor emerged only among the most disadvantaged members of society.”

They assessed abilities such as verbal comprehension, spatial reasoning, memory, and how quickly children processed information needed to perform a task.

At first, Torche found no statistically significant effects when she looked at the results for the entire sample. But as she dug deeper into the data, she made a striking discovery: only the children from poor households showed negative effects. There was no effect on children from middle- and upper-class families.

“It was only when I broke the results down by socioeconomic status that I found a very strong negative effect among the most disadvantaged families,” she says.

Torche then broke it down even further. Because poor children face a range of educational disparities, how did disadvantaged children who experienced the earthquake compare to poor children in the control group who did not?

Torche found a difference that amounted to more than half a year of cognitive development. In other words, a low-income child in the second grade who experienced stress in utero was performing closer to a first-grade level.

Access to resources

After establishing an unequal effect of stress, Torche conducted a set of qualitative interviews to understand why children from middle- and upper-class families were unaffected. At the time of these interviews, the children were mostly 9 years old and in fourth grade.

In their interviews, upper- and middle-class parents shared that they constantly assessed their children’s strengths and weaknesses. If a child showed signs of struggling in any way, they mobilized resources to intervene. This included hiring tutors, signing up for structured activities, and interacting more with teachers and the school to help their child inside and outside of the classroom.

Racial health disparities start early in life

“While some disadvantaged families have also resorted to the assistance of experts and educators, and have requested institutional support, they face substantial barriers in terms of time, economic resources, and, equally important, access to social networks and mastery of cultural resources to effectively negotiate with institutions for advantages for their children,” Torche writes in the paper.

Torche notes that this finding shows that class-based parental responses that minimized effects of prenatal stress could further exacerbate social class disparities.

This research is yet another piece of evidence that shows the importance of supporting disadvantaged women and their children, Torche says.

“The effect of prenatal exposure to an acute stressor emerged only among the most disadvantaged members of society. Given that these women are particularly vulnerable, and less likely to have access to health care, increasing access to health care and sources of support for this population is an important task,” she says.

Source: Stanford University

The post Stress in utero harms cognitive skills of poor children appeared first on Futurity.

Giant cancer cell properties probed for potential treatment targets

Brown University scientists have studied giant cancer cells, seen in the middle of the image surrounded ...

As if cancer wasn’t scary enough already, it turns out the cells have video game-style boss versions that are bigger, more resilient and can travel further. These so-called “giant” cancer cells contribute to many of the disease’s most dangerous abilities, but they remain relatively unstudied. Now, researchers from Brown University have investigated these troublemakers, revealing some physical characteristics that could eventually unlock new forms of treatment.

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Category: Medical

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Hanging Bivymok tree tent holds half a ton

The Bivymok system can be suspended from trees to lift campers off the ground

Suspended tents are one of the big trends to sweep through the camping scene lately, with a range of shelters available that hoist adventurers into the air and away from the creepy crawlies, the cold, and anything else that might threaten a good night’s rest. The Bivymok is a new two-part solution for those fed up with ground-based sleeping, consisting of a single-pole tent and a tree-suspended hammock platform built to hold some seriously heavy loads.

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Category: Outdoors

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Porsche goes rallying with wicked Cayman GT4 Clubsport concept

Porsche will use this Rally concept as the course car for the upcoming ADAC Rallye Deutschland

Porsche has rolled out a very interesting course car for the upcoming ADAC Rallye Deutschland – a rallified version of its Cayman GT4 Clubsport, complete with whopping great rally lights and underbody protection. If the interest is there, Porsche might even start selling the thing.

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Samsung taps Harman audio expertise for premium soundbar launch

The HW-N950 (pictured) and HW-N850 soundbars are due for release on August 20

Samsung has announced its first major collaboration with Harman since it bought the company early last year. Two premium soundbars sporting logos from both brands have been revealed, both with up-firing and side-firing speakers for the promise of immersive three dimensional sound thanks to included Dolby Atmos and DTS:X technologies.

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Category: Home Entertainment

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FM Synth Bass lights up the low end

The FM Synth Bass has 120 addressable LEDs embedded in the neck

A few years back, Dean Miller created the Tele Servo Bender, a modified guitar that used servos to sound like a lap steel. His latest project moves to the low end, with a self-contained, battery powered FM Synth Bass with four voices and six operators. And lots of LEDs.

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Category: Music

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White stuff from tomb is world's oldest cheese

A sample of the cheese, in a modern container

Ptahmes was the mayor of Egypt’s capital city of Memphis during the 13th century BC, and when his body was entombed, a mysterious substance was put in with it. According to a new study, that substance has turned out to be what is the oldest solid cheese ever discovered.

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We have an ethical obligation to end individual animal suffering

Last winter, unforgettable video footage online showed a starving polar bear, struggling in its Arctic hunting grounds. Because of global warming, the ice was thin and the food supply was scarce. The video generated a wellspring of sympathy for the plight of this poor creature, and invigorated calls for stronger efforts to combat climate change–and rightly so.

Such advocacy on behalf of wildlife usually focuses on species and the effects of human-caused climate change on their survival and well-being as the ecosystems on which they depend undergo drastic changes. Thus, we should act to save the polar bear–that is, the polar bear species–by doing what we can to preserve its natural ecosystem. I am fully behind this kind of advocacy. Anybody who cares about the future of our planet and its occupants should be.

But I would also like to make a plea not simply for polar bears at large, but for this particular polar bear–the one in the video.

In his book Animal Liberation (1975), the philosopher Peter Singer argues that it is morally wrong to treat non-human animals in certain inhumane ways. To be precise, they should not be treated in ways that make them suffer. As sentient beings–beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain–they have a defensible, prima facie interest in being spared unnecessary pain and suffering. Discussing who and what should be included within the sphere of our moral concern, Singer quotes the 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to ask: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Countering what he calls ‘speciesist’ assumptions, Singer argues that there can be no moral justification for regarding the pain that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain felt by humans. There might, he concedes, be other reasons to give preference to a human life over an animal life. But in the absence of such compelling principled considerations, we must avoid causing suffering in all creatures that are capable of experiencing it.

[Source Image: Blake Guidry/Unsplash]

It seems to me clear that, in light of global warming, Singer’s arguments need to be amended. According to his application of the utilitarian doctrine to the welfare of non-human animals, their suffering must be considered when weighing the utility values of various actions and practices. But the implications of climate change mean that the scope of actions that are proscribed–and, especially, prescribed–by a consideration of animal suffering should be broadened. It would seem to follow from Singer’s use of that doctrine not only that we must not positively treat non-human animals in certain ways, but also that we are morally bound to relieve their suffering where we can do so without a comparable loss on our part. As far as I know, Singer does not explicitly make this extension to non-human animals, but his principles imply it. In the essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972), he proposes that we are morally obliged to provide aid to human beings living in poverty and to the victims of natural and man-made disasters, regardless of their geographical distance from us, provided that our contribution does not entail a significant loss to ourselves (for example, you are not obliged to impoverish yourself to relieve the poverty of others):

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By ‘without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance’ I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent.

This “uncontroversial” principle of altruism, Singer says, ‘requires us only to prevent what is bad … and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important’. Thus, all things being equal, there is no moral excuse for not doing what we can to alleviate the suffering of people who are dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care, regardless of geographical proximity or distance. Just because they might be thousands of kilometers away, for example, doesn’t mean that we are not obliged to take the money that we would have spent on a luxury item and instead donate it to an international relief agency.

In light of Singer’s general views on the moral consideration due to the suffering of non-human animals, the extension of the principle of altruism to such creatures–not species, but individual animals–seems to be trivial. After all, once again, there is no morally relevant difference in terms of the capacity to suffer. In other words, we are obliged to help that starving polar bear.

What happened to this animal? Did the witnesses of its suffering intervene? Did the videographer and his crew take any steps to save it? Usually such efforts on behalf of this or that particular animal meet resistance, even discouragement, on the grounds that we should not intervene as nature “takes its course.”

Now put aside the fact that nature is taking such a course only because it has been altered, perhaps irrevocably, by irresponsible human activity, to the detriment of the members of other species (not to mention our own). Even so, how much weight should we give to this “leave nature alone” argument? Here is an animal that is suffering. Should we (or the people who take such videos) do anything to help it?

From an ethical perspective, the answer seems to me to be clear: yes, absolutely. Moreover, Singer’s brand of utilitarianism and its extension to non-human animals, demands this answer. Anyone who accepts Singer’s arguments that we are morally obliged both (a) not to treat animals in a certain way, because of their capacity to suffer (similar to ours), and (b) to relieve the suffering of human beings (as long as it does not involve a comparable loss on our part) must also grant (c) that we are morally obliged also to relieve the suffering of non-human animals when it is possible to do so and without comparable loss on our part.

Of course, we do often acknowledge such a duty to help animals that suffer, especially when it is clear that such suffering is directly related to human activity. We typically come to the aid of waterfowl harmed by oil spills, sea mammals incapacitated by plastic floating in the oceans, and animals injured by vehicles. But here is the sticking point: why should it be any different with animals whose suffering is less obviously or directly related–and perhaps not related at all–to human activity, suffering for which we less clearly bear responsibility, or for which we bear no responsibility at all?

A failure to help that polar bear–or any individual animal in a comparable condition, regardless of our responsibility (direct or indirect) for that suffering–is callous and morally wrong. Nor can lack of action be defended by some alleged concern for the course of nature (“We must not interfere!”) or the gene pool of the species (“Let the weak die!”). Consider someone who would use those same arguments to justify not intervening to help relieve the suffering of particular human beings during a famine or after a tsunami, or someone who would use such arguments to say that we should not give antibiotics to a child with pneumonia. Such an attitude, reminiscent of various Charles Dickens characters, would be rejected out of hand as immoral. If the only morally relevant factor is “can they suffer?” there is no relevant moral difference when animals suffer pain that we can alleviate.Aeon counter – do not remove


Steven Nadler is the William H Hay II professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life (1999), A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (2011), The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (2013), Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (with Ben Nadler). His biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (2018) has just been published. 

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.