Early Ed Watch

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Children and Media: Saying ‘We Just Don’t Know’ Isn’t Quite Right

Published:  May 31, 2012

Last week, the Diane Rehm Show featured a segment on how touch-screen devices – and any other interactive, screen-based media – affect young children. I had the good fortune to be one of the guests, and the recurring theme was that we just don’t have enough research to make broad statements about what is good or bad for kids.

It’s a line that many of us who follow media and children’s issues have repeated over the years, in part because there are so many unanswered questions and so many variables.  Are children learning anything or being harmed in any way? If so, what are they learning or how are they being harmed? Which device, which piece of software, which moment within the game, is responsible? Which kinds of kids are affected more than others? Are there differences by demographics?  By the interactions they have with their parents? By what they had for breakfast that morning?

The questions can be endless, and so the easy response is to say, “we just don’t know.” But as I reflect on last week’s radio show, I wonder if I misspoke. 

It’s not as if there is a complete void of information. As I learned in writing Screen Time, there is a solid research base on the impact of television and video for children from age 2 on up. (It’s the foundation for my mantra of the Three C’s: content, context and the individual child).  Research on infants and video, an area that was virtually untapped a decade ago, has grown as well. Child Development published a study last month, for example, on how infants are slower to track information on a screen than 4-year-olds. And as Ellen Galinsky shows beautifully in her book Mind in the Making, scientists have gained enormous insight over the years on what affects young children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.  Research centers around the country – at Georgetown, Northwestern, Temple, Vanderbilt, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin and others – are starting to marry those insights with findings on children’s media, including interactive versions.  The interactive-versus-passive-video experiment I described in Slate earlier this month is one example.

The uncharted frontier now is the realm of mobile media for very young children, delivered via a touch screen. Here, yes, there is a lot of “we just don’t know,” though some work is underway. Researchers at EDC, SRI and the Michael Cohen Group  –three research firms conducting work for the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program – are investigating how preschoolers use iPad and Android tablets and apps in classrooms.  Some early, non-academic studies of electronic books, including a report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center this week, are providing hints of what to consider as we examine what is helpful to learning, what is a distraction and how the joint engagement between adult and child matters. (For a helpful synopsis, see this Huffington Post piece by the Cooney Center's Michael Levine.)

Don’t get me wrong. There is a desperate need for more independent, peer-reviewed research. We need larger sample sizes and randomized trials. We need experiments that include children from a multitude of backgrounds. We need research conducted outside of laboratories – in natural settings such as children’s homes, infant-and-toddler care centers, preschools, libraries and elementary schools.

But some of the fear and frenzy around today’s new media might be lessened if we took note of the information that does exist so far and where it points us.  In my interpretation of the existing research, that means educators and parents should be zooming in on the quality of the interactions children are having with their parents, siblings and teachers as they use media. Child development research shows us the positive impact of meaningful back-and-forth conversations and a shared focus on enriching content on a child’s language development. Let’s aim for early learning experiences, with new media and without, that enable children to have those kinds of interactions.

And let’s keep asking for more research too.

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