A little over 10 years ago I was a technology reporter at The New York Times and I was supposed to be looking at how technology was affecting education and family life. So you might think least i thought that that meant that I knew how technology would affect children until I actually had children. When I was working on a book about how media affects children and if it looks in the picture like they are concocting some sort of plan to keep me from writing my book then you would be right but as I watched my kids using technology as hard to have so many questions in fact before they were even this young when they were babies I was starting to have some serious questions about what i thought at the time was a pretty simple technology. The TV screen and they were looking at the screen and they were just babies do they understand what they were seeing on it.
Those people that were showing up on the screen that they get that these were like maybe three people who represent what was happening in real life. The sounds that came out of the TV set do they understand those sounds that they know that those were words. The way they seem to understand what was coming out of my mouth I mean honestly I just wanted to know was it bad for them to be looking at the screen. Is it going to affect their attention span or where they actually trying to learn something from it. So I decided to find out I immersed myself in child development research that a lot of media researchers interview cognitive scientists met with families in their homes.
I was really trying to understand the world through my children’s eyes but I think I was also trying to get at how we as human beings have come to understand the world through the screen and I’m doing this because let’s face it you know this thing the screen it has some real power over us. It’s got a hold on us not just because it’s a great disseminator of talks that it is but it’s really a storyteller. You know a reflection of reality but also a spinner of fantasy and it took us a while as a society to understand what the screen meant to us in fact it took almost twenty years if you look at this graph which is growth in TV ownership from this very earliest aid days that that TVs were commercially available. You see that it wasn’t until about nineteen sixty one when the FCC chairman of the time Newton Minow gave a speech about what he considered kind of pretty rotten content on TV he called that speech “The Vast Wasteland” and it wasn’tuntil after that that producers of programing started to look at how to actually create something for children.
So it wasn’t until after that we got Mister rogers neighborhood and sesame street or creating children’s content that actually was aimed to help them learn something I should say. So what’s interesting now is that we are at another really pivotal moment we have in our handsmost of us these days this thing called a smartphone our screen is now portable we have it with us and I’m wondering are we going to have that in the same delayed national conversation about what this screen means to the development of our children and maybe I’m channeling anxious parents out there everywhere when i say i really hope we can take a different path this time.
Let’s not have such a long-delayed national conversation but to do that we really first have to understand how children understand the screen and this is where there’s a lot of assumptions that we make so we adults think kids are seeing what we’re seeing but it turns out that they need to have first a real story of background knowledge they have to have gone through life to understand things the way that we adults understand them right. Here’s what here’s a study that will give you a little bit of a sense of it i like to call it the popcorn study and it was done in the nineteen seventies researchers brought a bunch of three-year-old into a room put them in front of a television set and on the TV set there was a photograph of a bowl of popcorn. The researchers asked the kids if I were to pick up this television set and turn it over with the popcorn fall out. Yes the kids said, their four year olds who are writing letters to Mister Rogers and they were asking Mr. Rogers how did you get into my TV set.
There’s a young viewer of Sesame Street who once declared I know that big bird is not real it’s just a costume and there’s just a plain bird inside. Yeah so we know who the kids are seeing things a little differently than we might be seeing them. Does that mean they’re not learning anything from it. So it turns out that there’s some really good studies on preschool TV that are showing us that yes actually children can learn from television at pretty young ages but we need to be looking at is the content on the screen. So we know from these studies that we really want to look for basically the same aspects we look for in a preschool teacher we want to find someone on screen is warm and engaging someone who might repeat something a couple times because you kinda if you have children you know you got to kind of say things more than once. You certainly want to give a chance to pause the chance for children to react to what they’re seeing on the screen.
You don’t want any violence or aggression because children especially at very young ages are going to imitate whatever they see. Right so we have a pretty good sense of now of what good content looks like what we don’t necessarily know with how young you can go and this is where kind of scientists and media researchers are focusing their attention now and they’re looking at the age of about 24 months something’s going on around 24 months 30 months of age and children’s brains and they’re in their growth and development.
I want to tell you about a study that was done at Georgetown University in their children’s digital media center they are by a woman named Alexis Laura cell and she now is at Northwestern University and she’s been trying to figure out how toddlers understand the screen. So she set up a study with two and a half year old children on some three-year-olds as well and in it she showed them a video that actually Nick jr. had created that was of Puppets hiding in a laundry room and so as you see on the screen behind me there’s a laundry room that’s been set up and there’s these three little puppets in the bottom of the screen and this video was set up to have these puppets go hiding behind that laundry basket are hiding behind the scenes that were hanging there. The researchers created a complete replica of what was on that screen and that’s what you’re seeing behind us that replica and then they brought children in and they had three conditions in one condition the two and a half year old and the three years old watch the video play out of where these puppets were hiding. In another condition the kids watch but they actually interacted with what they were seeing it was a computer game where they had to press a button to make something happen to see where the puppets were hiding and then the third condition they watch the live action but they watched it through a window that was cut out to be the same shape as the TV screen and then they unleash the kids after they had seen this into the real room and they said show me where the puppets are. Guess what those two and a half year old who just watch the video they did not know where to go they do not know what to look for as if they hadn’t really seen what was happening or somehow haven’t processed fully what was happening on the video. The kids that have watched the live demonstration they knew exactly made a beeline know exactly where to find those puppets. Here’s what’s interesting as well this ones who have that kind of computer game experience those kids acted like the kids would see the live demonstration they knew where to go to find the puppets. So that 24 month mark 38, 30-month pretty interesting time in terms of what children might be learning from the screen and how they can apply it and that particular study I just told you about is one that app developers love because there’s a lot of apps out there for preschoolers and they’re thinking that’s it we just need interactivity and children will be able to learn.
Well let me show you something else to give us a little bit of a pause here so this this is a video I found on YouTube of a little boy is probably a year or year and a half years old and he’s and he is playing the talking Tom, the app talking Tom. Now tell me raise your hand if you have heard of talking Tom many of you have. This is an app that has been downloaded millions and millions of times. This is basically a cat on a screen who’s repeating back everything that you said. Now I watch this and I’m like oh my gosh if there is any example of how much we as human beings from our earliest years want someone to like react to us this is it right but there’s also something a little troubling about this because we know from the brain science and there’s a lot more of it now on how children learn and develop that children learn from a conversation even at younger ages before they even can learn to talk. They learned by having a back-and-forth interaction with someone this hate to say it but this was not a conversation.
So this is the kind of thing that just makes you wonder wait a second you know how much do we want to to make sure that we have interactions with our children when they’re around the media? We have some studies from an older type of technology called the children’s picture book and in these studies we have learned that you need to help children not just hear the words that are written on the page but to actually understand the story can interact with kids talk to them about what they’re seeing on the page. Ask them questions about it and it turns out and this is where the good news is for those of us who are surrounded by screen media with our children it turns out that there are some hints now that this same logic applies to using screen media with young children as well. Thinking about that media the same way we think about using children’s books and picture books with young kids. So to me all of this kind of tells me all right there’s some things we can know we know now. The 3 c’s basically are where we are we need to focus on the content on the screen, the context how were interacting with children around that media and making sure that they have good interactions when they’re not with the media and then the child. Our children we understand our kids we know what’s going to delight them. No what kinds of questions they might ask around and we need to just tune in to understand and see what they understand from it but I am also not so naïve.
Just to think that we just need to give parents the 3 c’s and all will be well and will avoid some sort of new vast wasteland out there. These days I am at the New America Foundation where I focus on how to scale up learning environments for young children and make sure that they have what they need especially kids who might be growing up in struggling families and of course for focusing on preschool access and better child care quality and affordable childcare better public schools but what if we were in the middle of all that add something else so here’s what I want to ask today. What if we were to commit to ensure that every family with young children had access to a medium mentor this could be someone like a children’s librarian a child care professional a preschool teacher even parents themselves.
We have the power to talk with our kids about what they’re seeing to understand the media and new ways with them to help them see how it might relate to the outside world to help them look up from the media and do some activities in the kitchen and go out to the backyard and and google for treasure on we can learn from the media and then apply that outside. My kids today they’re nine and eleven years old and they have screens all around them. I think about the world that they’re growing up and I think about this next generation that’s coming up behind them. I want our kids today to have people around them who are interacting with them while they’re interacting with the media even at their youngest ages.