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App tries to change children’s smartphone habits

With teenagers spending more than four hours a day on their phones, a Massachusetts company wants to slip in a little learning amid the swiping.

PassTask LLC this week launched a mobile phone app that exposes users to a “knowledge burst” — a quick question or fun fact — before they can move on to social media or games.

The mobile app is called TOPs Balance, short for Task Oriented Passwords. The 10-second tutorial, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., is aimed at third- to 12th-graders.

“Mobile devices are one of the most important inventions in the 21st century,” said Fred Curtis Jr., founder of the Harvard company and a father of six. “And no one’s going to change that. So our approach is balance.”

The app engages each time a user tries to swipe into his or her phone, bringing up a short question or fact on a variety of subjects, from science to history. A user can still make emergency calls if they don’t complete the exercise.


At a cost of $2.99, the app is designed for parents to install on their children’s phones. It’s a step that would require communication between the two parties, said Katie Davis, coauthor of the book “The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World.”

“When I see successful communication in the digital age, I see open communication,” Davis said.

Curtis approached Chicago-based Encyclopedia Britannica last year to supply content for the app. In 2012, the company stopped selling printed encyclopedias after 244 years and transitioned to digital, said John Russell, Britannica’s business development director.

The average US teen ages 13 to 18 spends about nine hours a day in front of a screen, according to Common Sense Media, and nearly half that time — 46 percent — is on smartphones.

Curtis said he hopes his “knowledge delivery system” will provide an educational counterweight to all that screen time.

“There’s a genuine addiction amongst our young children,” said Curtis. “They put it ahead of schoolwork, ahead of sleep. It’s like a recess from life.”


Some educators question the app’s value. Kids don’t learn from rote memorization, said Carrie James, a research director at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

“It’s great to be thinking about how kids spend a lot of time online, and how can we make those experiences as learning rich as possible,” James said. “But common sense suggests that assaulting kids, in particular, with more information is not a good idea.”

Amanda Burke can be reached at amanda.burke@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @charlie_acb.