Understanding How 'Screen Time' Affects Learning


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Presented in parts with Faith Rogow at NAEYC 2013, the annual meeting for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington, DC on November 23, 2013.

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  • As our next generation swipes and pinches its way through the new media onslaught, the question is: Are these children learning differently than we did 30, 40 years ago? Will they arrive with different understandings of how to learn, what to learn? How is this shaping our citizenry of the future?
    Several years ago, when my kids were much younger – even younger than what you see in this picture -- I had a similar question.
  • Beth: Can I add a poll like this to my presentation somehow? I’ve got three slides here with examples of polling questions I’d like to ask.
  • Beth: I’d like to do a poll that includes this slide and the next two. How should I go about that?
  • And no doubt, children have access to so much more media, of different kinds, then ever before. Not only that, they are using media everywhere, in the home, the car, the bus, in restaurants, at the pool. For parents, it can feel like digital media is raining down upon us. The number of apps in the app store on iTunes has grown to more than 700,000. The same numbers are in Google Play for Android phones and tablets.
  • For low-income 18-39 yr olds, smart phones are a must-have. 77 percent of even those making less than $30K a year have a smartphone.
  • We talk a lot about the time that children are spending. (Here’s some recent data on time: In 2011, it was more than 2 hours a day for children ages 6 mo-6 yrs, an increase from around 90 minutes a day in 2005). We talk a lot about how young they are. But we haven’t started a deeper conversation about what they are *doing* with different forms of this electronic media.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoVNBfPEQu8
    We talk a lot about the time that children are spending. (Here’s some recent data on time: In 2011, it was more than 2 hours a day for children ages 6 mo-6 yrs, an increase from around 90 minutes a day in 2005). We talk a lot about how young they are. But we haven’t started a deeper conversation about what they are *doing* with different forms of this electronic media.
  • When I started the research for Screen Time, I expected to find what many of us have been brought up to believe: As long as a program is teaching the children something, as long as it seems to send positive messages, as long as it is produced by an educational station I trust—everything is fine. But I wasn’t prepared for the wide variation among programs that label themselves as “educational.” Many parents wrongly assume that their children will automatically understand what is happening on screen. But the way information is presented can support or get in the way of a child’s ability to comprehend. Simply having characters utter nice new words, for example, doesn’t mean that toddlers or preschoolers will learn what those words mean. A show that has characters pointing to and labeling objects can be a big help, but a show designed by people without a clue about the language development under way among its audience (in my book and presentations I pick on Veggie Tales and Bob the Builder) may not be building language skills at all.One eye-opening study focused on the program Clifford the Big Red Dog. Researchers (Mares & Acosta 2008) asked whether kindergartners were grasping messages of tolerance and kindness in an episode about a three-legged dog. Although the point of the story was to show that friendship overcomes physical differences, the University of Wisconsin researchers found that children were likely to be more intolerant after watching the show. How could that be? The researchers theorize that the story’s delivery backfired. Because the bulk of the episode was focused on the dog’s physical differences (with only a few minutes at the end dedicated to all the characters joining happily together), children may have been too preoccupied with the dog’s three-leggedness to catch the moral lesson. The designers of the show didn’t seem to recognize how kindergarteners interpret, recall, and learn from what they see. 
  • The images on screen, the way they play, the behaviors that they model – all of this matters to children’s ability to grasp and learn from what they see.
    Research from the TV world has taught us a lot. Consider Barney for example. Toddlers who watched Barney showed more signs of imaginative play and civil manners than their non-Barney watching counterparts. I know this runs counter to what society tells us about TV, but it’s true: Kids who watched TV were doing better than those who didn’t. In preschoolers, Barney + teacher instruction produced the most significant gains on manners, vocabulary, awareness of content. Research on programs designed for children – from Sesame Street to Blue’s Clues to SuperWhy – has shown that children as young as 2 and 3 years old are learning about new concepts, words and letters, problem solving.
  • Newer studies have found the video deficit is lessened by repetition, touch-bar interactivity, favored characters & mom’s face on screen.
  • Nearly 40 percent of families with children up to 4 years old have the television on most or all of the time (Rideout, Hamel, & the Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). When my daughter was 1, I remember thinking that it didn’t matter whether the television was on or not. Look, I would tell myself proudly, she barely notices. She’s not lured in the least. But once I delved into the research, I learned that even if young children don’t seem to be paying attention to it, background television can have a more negative influence than one might think.Some of the most potent research on background TV comes from a series of experiments in a lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Schmidt et al. 2008). The lab was set up to look like a living room, with toys, a TV, a couch, a coffee table, and some magazines. Mothers brought their 1-, 2- and 3-year-old children to that room, where for 30 minutes of their visit the TV was on. For another 30 minutes, it was off. Careful observation of the children in these experiments showed a significant difference between the way children played with their toys in each condition. When the TV was on, children bopped from toy to toy, spending significantly less time with one toy than when the TV was off. Even when they weren’t looking at the TV, and most children in this study weren’t, it seemed as if something was distracting them. The background TV, whether it was the noise or the flash of images, was interfering with their play.University of Massachusetts researchers also looked at how parents’ interactions with their children differed under TV-on and TV-off conditions. They found that when the TV was on, there was a 21 percent decrease in the amount of time that parents spent interacting with their children. And the quality of those interactions (as measured by how actively they played together) decreased too (Kirkorian et al. 2009).
  • In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its recommendation discouraging parents from using media with children under 24 months of age. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age 2; a few studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems; and some studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. From a “do no harm” perspective, AAP’s reliance on this research makes sense, and much of it is based on respectable peer-reviewed work in medicine and health.
    But the fact is that many children under 2 do use screen media, so some researchers point to the value of paying attention to how those families select and use that media. Researchers are coming to agree:  How parents approach media matters. For example, Alan Mendelsohn, a pediatrician and researcher at New York University, has shown that negative impacts typically associated with television watching can be lessened when parents talk to their babies about what they are seeing on screen (Mendelsohn 2010).
    Another way of looking at young children and screens is to explore whether a child might learn from watching or playing with what is on screen. A growing number of studies show that what is on the TV or tablet (the content) can make a big difference. For example, when researchers followed up on their study that originally showed links between television viewing and attention problems, they determined that the content of the programs mattered. When they looked at children under 36 months old who had watched “educational” programming (defined in part by programs that contained no violence), the link to attention problems disappeared (Zimmerman & Christakis 2007). 
    Also important is how parents manage media use in daily routines and interact with their children before, during, and after they watch and play (the context). The needs of the child have some bearing here too. Even at the same age, children can be very different developmentally. A verbally precocious 21-month-old may be able to learn some words directly from a video while another 21-month-old may not, as was shown in a 2005 study on Teletubbies (Grela, Krcmar & Lin 2004). That study, it should be noted, was conducted in a laboratory and designed to look specifically at whether babies could pick up the meaning of a word when it was connected to a particular object labeled by speakers on screen. As shown in other studies, the way words are used in children’s programming is an important factor in determining whether children will learn them. And a vast collection of findings from other studies makes clear that learning language (not just learning words) is dependent on social interactions between people.
    By synthesizing the studies on children’s health, learning, and media interactions, I’ve concluded that we as parents could do the most good for our children by focusing on the three C’s—content, context, and the individual child.
  • AAP rec: discourages passive use of screens, concerned about diminished interaction.
    With “passive” screen media:
    Only a few studies show word learning at 21 or 22 mo -- under tightly controlled lab conditions. One study shows possibility at 15 mo.
    “Pictorial competence” – understanding pictures as symbols -- may not be fully formed until 19 mo or later.
  • In my interviews and conversations with parents, I have come across a fair proportion who don’t worry about showing their preschoolers movies or TV shows that were made for older children and adults. Their children, they say, don’t seem to be bothered by moments of aggression or distressing scenes. And surely they are too young to really understand what they are seeing anyway.
    But research on the content of TV and video programs watched by young children suggests that parents may want to pay more attention to what appears on their TV set or tablet after all. A growing number of studies are finding links between children’s cognitive development and “adult-directed television” (think C.S.I., the evening news, or even PG-rated movies that have scary scenes). A study at Georgetown University, for example, gathered data on family media habits and tracked children’s growth over several years (Barr et al. 2010). It found that children who performed poorly on cognitive tests at age 4 were the same children who were put in front of adult-directed TV when they were 1 year old. Poor scores also were linked to the watching of these programs at age 4. One theory is that when watching adult-directed TV, children’s minds are in fact quite busy trying to figure out what is going on, but the scenes and characters are appearing faster than they can fully understand and mentally process given how little background knowledge they have to draw upon.
    Research (Garrison & Christakis 2012) reported in the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics highlights another reason to pay attention to content: sleep schedules. Anyone with a young child understands how critical sleep can be—especially for parental sanity—so it’s worth examining whether exposure to violent content could interfere with bedtime and naptime. Using data from a randomized controlled trial with 565 families in Seattle, researchers Michelle Garrison and Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington examined the impact of a parent-support program intended to help moms and dads choose age-appropriate and nonviolent media for their 3- to 5-year-olds.  The program worked. Sleep problems declined for children of parents assigned to receive the support (coaching and educational materials) compared to those who didn’t. And the support was most effective for families that initially reported watching higher levels of violent media than other participating families. In other words, the mechanism for reducing sleep problems was the reduction in exposure to violent TV.
  • It’s true that many e-books for children come with so many bells and whistles that children merely click around on the screen without paying much attention to the storyline. It’s also true that some research has uncovered parents’ tendencies to focus on the technology (telling their kids when and where to click) and not the story when reading an e-book with their children. This is leading children to recall very little about what was read. In a small study conducted at Temple University, for example, “behavioral directives went through the roof” while reading comprehension sunk (Parish-Morris, Collins, & Hirsh-Pasek 2006).
    But after reading these studies carefully, it becomes clear that at least two factors are at play: the design of the e-books and the behavior of the parents. Tackle these issues, and electronic books could be no different or better than printed books. Some e-book companies, for example, are designing picture e-books to favor highlighted text and engaging storylines over distracting playthings. As e-books become less of a novelty, parents may also become less inclined to order their children around on how to use them. A more positive approach to e-books, however, will require parents and educators to stress the importance of content, context, and the individual child (the Three C’s) in choosing media for our children.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoVNBfPEQu8
    So when we think about this little baby and what his future looks like – how his brain will develop as he uses and interacts with media – it becomes more obvious whey we need to be vigilant but also multi-dimensional in how we think about media. It’s not just about TIME. -- though I wouldn’t go so far as to say TIME isn’t important. It’s certainly a calculation I make every day with my own kids. But it’s much more complicated too, and recognizing the Three C’s is a start. Recognizing that he is growing up in a BooksPlus world. We have to get better about what we’ve learned about books and apply it to how we think about children’s interactions with media.
  • Throughout my research, there are two driving forces. One is to avoid the hazard: to avoid being so enchanted, so mesmerized, by the technology that we forget that it’s not the devices that matter, it’s HOW WE USE THEM. Our fixation on hardware and software is dangerous.
  • The other driving force: Digital Divides, Participation Gaps, Missing Mentors
    Almost 1/3 of households still don’t have access to broadband. (ESA & NTIA, 2011), but there is a dearth of information on how low-income families gain access to technology, what kinds of technology and digital media they are more prone to use, what resources are most meaningful to them, and how families learn together (or not) via the media.
    A seminal study by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano, described in their new book, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance, showed differences in the quality of interactions that parents and children engaged in while playing digital games or using ‘educational’ software in two libraries in Philadelphia.
    In this talk, I should be plugging my book – here it is Screen Time. And I should be plugging a paper on early literacy in the Digital Wild West. But I will close by telling you about a new book out called Giving Our Children A Fighting Chance. IT’s about two libraries in Philadelphia, one in the distressed part of town, the other in the affluent part of town. What surprises you, as you read about these libraries, is that they both have lots of patrons, lots of children, and lots of resources – plenty of books and computers with computer software, games, you name it. But after years of watching how people interacted with children in these libraries, how parents guided (or didn’t guide) their children to look at new books, to try challenging games on the computer, it becomes very clear any conversation about equity and technology cannot be ONLY about the devices and hardware. It has to include a focus on the people around the children.
    How can we make sure there is equity in innovation, so that all children are growing up with access to highly engaging technology but also with adults around them – in child care centers, preschools, elementary schools, libraries – who are conversing with them, guiding them and leading them to self-discovery at a challenging level?
    It’s going to take new focus on early education, on parenting programs, on building a workforce of preschool and elementary school teachers who understand how children develop AND who see what media could mean to them at different stages of their development. It’s time for a new era in early childhood research and early childhood policy – one that examines how much growth is happening with these children’s growing brains, but also how much their learning changes based on their environment, and that includes both the adults and the media within it.
    Thank you.
  • What about the very young kids who DON’T have adults in their lives to give them those face to face and webcam experiences that make media meaningful? What about the babies in rooms with adult-directed TV on all day? What about the children who are growing up without media mentors – without someone to guide them to good content, to stretch their thinking as they watch something on a smartphone or video screen?
  • Understanding How 'Screen Time' Affects Learning

    1. 1. Understanding How ‘Screen Time’ Affects Learning Becoming Media Mentors for Young Children Lisa Guernsey NAEYC 2013
    2. 2. About me      Director, Early Education Initiative at New America in Washington, DC Researcher and policy analyst Edu, sci & tech journalist Author, Screen Time ScreenTimeBook.com Published by Basic Books * Paperback Spring 2012
    3. 3. Today’s talk 1. 2. 3. 4. Quick poll 5 assumptions about screen time How the The Three C’s may help The need for media mentors Photo: Messina1017 on Flickr
    4. 4. How old are the children in your life? __ Infants (0-1 yr olds) __ Toddlers (1-3 yr olds) __ Preschoolers (3-5 yr olds) __ Early elementary (5-8 yr olds)
    5. 5. Which screen media did they consume/interact with yesterday? __ Traditional TV and DVDs __ Video games via console with TV set __ Packaged computer software (like Jump Start) __ Apps and other games on a tablet (like an iPad) __ Video clips/photographs on a computer or tablet
    6. 6. How would you describe your feelings about children’s media use? __ I don’t worry very much about my kids using screen media. __ I worry about the impact of screen media on their development. __ I don’t know whether to be worried or not because I don’t know enough about how screen media is affecting them.
    7. 7. Smartphone ownership by age Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project, May 2013
    8. 8. Trends in time spent Minutes spent w/screen media per day among 6 mo – 6 yr olds *2011 results reflect answers to the use of apps, iPod and iPads across all four types of activities. In 2005, apps did not exist and were not part of the survey. SOURCE: Common Sense Media, 2011; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005.
    9. 9. What media means to family life and children’s learning Daily routines: Where does digital media fit? How is it connected to what children want to learn and need to learn? What kind of content are they watching or playing with? And where: Bedrooms? Living rooms? Libraries? Why are children captivated? Does that mean they are learning? What *aren’t* they learning?
    10. 10. How True Are Our Assumptions About Screen Time? In recent issue of NAEYC for Families http://families.naeyc.or g
    11. 11. Assumption 1: As long as the content is “educational,” it’s good for children. What the research shows: Children don’t always learn what the program creators intend; sometimes they actually learn the opposite.
    12. 12. Well-designed video: Positive impact on emergent literacy skills at age 5 Study: Could SuperWhy! give children a leg-up on being able to identify sounds, letters and words? Results: •Reduced many of the typical gaps in pre-reading skills seen between disadvantaged children and well-off children •Even just 3 or 4 episodes made a difference SOURCE: Linebarger, 2010, retrieved from http://pbskids.org/read/files/SuperWHY_Research_View.pdf
    13. 13. Interaction via a screen Evidence of learning when children are interacting with character on screen. Toddlers who show signs of participating with the person on screen were the same ones who used the on-screen information successfully in a “find-the-toy” task • (Troseth & Saylor, 2006)
    14. 14. Touchscreens with 3-year-olds Touching a spacebar to “find the puppets” in a computer game led children to find the puppets in a physical version of the game as well. Interacting with the content seemed to improve the ability to learn from the screen. - Lauricella et al, 2010
    15. 15. What to look for in screen media  Straightline storytelling  Participation  Labeling on screen  Engagement  Repetition, review, routine  Non-violence
    16. 16. Assumption 2: The TV may be on in the background, but my children aren’t affected. What the research shows: The TV shows in the background may be impacting your child more than you think.  
    17. 17. When the TV is always on… Study: Does background TV impact play and parent-child interaction? Results: Worse play. Reduced interactions. SOURCE: Anderson, 2007; Kirkorian, 2009 “Parents were less responsive to their children in the presence of television.”
    18. 18. Assumption 3: All media for children under age 2 is damaging. What the research shows: If parents use media with children under 2, they should make sure that screen time leads to social interactions with their babies and toddlers, instead of replacing those interactions. Parents should avoid exposing their very young children to adult-directed programming.  
    19. 19. Scratch, scratch, what are you? With permission from Judy DeLoache, UVa
    20. 20. Before age 2 • • • • Attachment and security are paramount Social interaction as foundation for learning AAP guidance Mixed evidence of learning from passive viewing
    21. 21. Assumption 4: Scary movies and TV shows just go over children’s heads. What the research shows: Scary programs influence children’s sleep and more.
    22. 22. Video not designed for preschoolers: Negative effect on executive function A small but growing number of studies are pointing to a critical difference between programs made for young children and those that aren’t • Adult-directed TV longitudinal study by Barr et al, 2010 • Spongebob experiment by Lillard & Peterson, 2011
    23. 23. Assumption 5: E-books are distracting to young children. What the research shows: It’s all about how they are used. Photo by JGCC Research Team
    24. 24. In short, the science says: Content matters • Ask yourself: Can children follow the story? What are the signs that they are absorbing its lessons? Context matters • Focus on social interactions, back-and-forth conversation, setting healthy daily routines Every child is different • Parents should tune in to the needs of each individual child, foster curiosity & exploration
    25. 25. The Three C’s  Content  Context  Child See ScreenTimeBook.com Published by Basic Books * Paperback Spring 2012
    26. 26. The hazard
    27. 27. The Imperative
    28. 28. Media Mentors
    29. 29. Trying to fill the need for curation & evaluation •Common Sense Media •Early Learning Environment (Ele) •Children’s Technology Review •Little eLit blog •ASLA “best apps for teaching and learning” •Parents’ Choice •Appolicious, YogiPlay
    30. 30. On route to media mentorship - Remember the Three C’s - Limits are part of raising kids, but probe why you’re imposing them - Consider how to introduce media as springboard for co-learning and coexploration, online and offline Photo by Joan Ganz Cooney Center Research Team
    31. 31. Contact Information Lisa Guernsey Director, Early Education Initiative New America Foundation education.newamerica.net Author, Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012) www.screentimebook.com