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Technology and Media in Children’s Development

Suzanne Bartholomew, PhD student in Developmental Psychology shares her view of the Technology and Media in Children’s Development Conference – organised by the Society for Research in Child Development, California, USA.

Using tablets

Technology and Media in Children’s Development
October 27-30,2016, Irvine, California

So here I am at my desk, fresh (fighting jet-lag but feeling like a kid at Christmas) and back from Irvine, California no less. I had been attending a four-day special topic meeting organised by The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). Since 1933, this US based society has encouraged multi-disciplinary research on child development and supported the application of such findings in order to benefit both children and families (Hagan, 2000). In the introductory speech, the conference was declared as the SRCD’s first special meeting “SELL OUT” with 100% attendance capacity booked by organiser Stephanie Reich. Not surprising to me as the meeting was titled: ‘Technology and media in children’s development’. Could there be a more relevant topic for conference discussions? (Maybe I carry a slight bias for the topic as a huge section of my research concerns child and parent use of media.)

The timeliness of this conference could not have been more perfect, as The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has recently adapted their recommendations to meet the changing face of media use by younger consumers. Historically, the AAP have stressed the negative aspects of screen time, relying on empirical evidence implying possible interruptions to a child’s typical developmental trajectories. AAP previous recommendations included that parents of children under the age of two years should apply a blanket ban use of all media devices. As we know today, this seems pretty much an impossible guideline for any parent.

childwithphone

With electronic device use, most commonly now the mobile kind, being an integral part of peoples’ lives, it is not any surprise that the UK government (2014) suggests that 87% of UK adults (44.6million) use the internet, up 3.5million since the report in 2011 www.ons.gov.uk. Advances in touch screen technology has enabled younger children to become consumers of this digital world. The newest AAP guidelines acknowledged these changes, scrapping their blanket ban and replacing it with no mention of time limits but instead recommending that online media use for up-to-five year olds should be as much supervised by the parents as the childs’ non-media time (Radesky, Schumacher, & Zuckerman, 2015). Read more details of these changes on the AAP website:


https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/pages/media-and-children.aspx

My mission (if I chose to take it, which I so obviously did; in their right mind, who wouldn’t?) was to fly out to California and carry out a two-hour poster presentation titled ‘Digital effects of touch screen technology on focused attention and executive function’ (EF). The poster incorporated two studies. Primarily, research carried out by Dr Amanda Carr in the Canterbury Christ Church observation labs. The study examined attention in a sample of 18 children aged 10-36 months. Attention levels were recorded before and after both free play and touchscreen tablet play. Results concluded that although there was an overall drop in attention in both conditions, there was no significant difference in attention after tablet play or free play. This suggests that playing on a touchscreen tablet may not have such a negative association with attention span as commonly reported.

The second project was my own work. I looked at the association of screen time with EF and classroom behaviour in an older sample of 8-10 years (N = 276). Correlations hinted at a marginal negative association between screen time and EF skills. However, a larger positive effect was found between screen time and classroom behaviour. We concluded for our samples that, with very young children, screen time had no immediate negative effect on focused attention but, as age and screen time increased, so the effect on EF and classroom behaviour become more pronounced. Both studies have follow up research being carried out as you read.

Presenting both studies to an audience of highly knowledgeable and respected academics was an intimidating prospect that I tried to think about logically rather than emotionally. I was unsure which of the two projects I was more scared about explaining; under pressure to explain Dr Carr’s research 100% correctly, I couldn’t get anything wrong! Or my own, which, surrounded by all these highly educated people, I felt was possibly all wrong anyway. But that was to take place on the Saturday evening, and I had two days of conference before then.

I spent those two days sprinting from one set of talks to another. My conference diary of ‘things to see’ was full from 8.30am until 8pm. The conference offered many different types of talks including keynote speeches, hour long lectures, symposia (a ninety-minute session with three or four researchers giving twenty minute talks followed by Q and A and flash talks), an hour long session with five or six talks in rapid succession with limited Q and A—all offering and delivering valuable insights into contemporary media use research. There was much information I could share here but for space limitations I shall concentrate on reporting on keynote speeches.

Opening the conference proceedings were the principle keynote speakers, renowned psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff with their lecture “Putting the ‘Education’ back in Educational Apps” (Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, Robb, & Kaufman, 2015). The room was full to bursting point as the issues of the development and construction of apps designed for the young consumers were brought up. The conference audience was held captivate (me included) as it was explained how so many apps are being marketed as not just entertaining but also educational.
The psychologists explained that such claims are being made without much consideration of the known psychological processes of child learning and development. They offered us the four pillars of learning: a comprehensive framework designed to enable apps designers and app buying parents alike, the ability to deliberate on the apps associated learning outcomes.

guided-exploration-towards-a-learning-goal

(Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, Robb, & Kaufman, 2015).

Summing up the vast amount of information that was given, the four pillars represented the factors required for learning to take place: active, engaging, meaningful and socially interactive. The added necessity was that all four pillars are embedded with the context of guided exploration towards a learning goal. This framework can be applied to almost any contextual learning situation. However, as a critical element of the digital world, the researchers gave examples of supporting evidence. An example for the social interaction pillar was the teaching of a child via three different social conditions; live video chat between a teacher and the child, the child watching a recording of another child having a live video chat with the teacher and lastly the child watching a pre-recorded lesson from the teacher. Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff reported their finding with equal significant learning gain from condition one and two whilst no significant gains made in learning for condition three. The other three pillars were highlighted by research examples and much to the audiences delight the lecture was interspersed with amusing clips of educational apps and not so educational apps.

A full PDF of this lecture can be found at :

http://kathyhirshpasek.com/

Doing a bit of name dropping now, further to the fantastic Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff session the conference itinerary of keynotes included:

  • Justine Cassell: Addressing the influence of peers and how this intrinsically dyadic interpersonal closeness could be replicated by a child with a virtual friend.
  • Patricia Marks Greenfield: Appling the theory of social change in a world where digital technology is a key aspect of our culture.
  • Ellen Wartella: Addressing public policies and asking how the media can be responsible for childhood issues such as obesity.

I enjoyed all of the above sessions, but as an admirer (dare I say fan?) I was most looking forward to attending the Sonia Livingstone keynote speech. Professor Livingstone was introduced as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire after having been awarded the OBE in 2014 ‘for services to children and child internet safety’. The audience delighted in this description with energetic claps and cheers erupting around the room. In her talk, she asked the question, “What did I learn from spending over a year following around – at home and school, offline and online – a class of 13 year olds from an ordinary urban London school?” Sound interesting? Yes, it was. Professor Livingstone explained her ethnographic study in great detail, describing how this journey challenged popular inferences about teenagers’ use of the media, outlining the conception of the ‘digital native’. Further, she questioned the assumption of a teenager’s need to be constantly connected to the digital world, suggesting, instead, that a teenager’s need to be able to enter the digital world when they wish to grants them agency. As a parent to three teenagers, this explanation has made me start to rethink my worries about their mobile phones becoming an extension of their hands. I am taking on board their possible need to protect their digital life in doing so protecting their individuality.

The accompanying book ‘A Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age’ (Livingstone, & Sefton-Green, 2016) is top of my Christmas list, I will ask my children to gift it to me!

(Details of work by Professor Livingstone can be found on the LSE website.

http://www.lse.ac.uk/media%40lse/WhosWho/AcademicStaff/SoniaLivingstone.aspx

And so to the reason I was in the United States: the moment had arrived for this highly stressed but excited researcher to present this ‘well-travelled’ poster (approximately 5,318 miles from London to California). We were on stand number ten; number ten out of forty five! That’s a lot of poster presentations for fellow academics to get through. I nervously stood before our poster wondering if after sitting through ten hours of talks earlier in the day that this would just be too much to ask of my fellow attendees? Maybe this would be one poster session too many?

distorted-photo

(Please ignore the distortion of the picture. The poster board was bent!)

Nope! It seemed not. The room was teeming; to my relief, enthusiasm had not waned. Explaining the research and answering questions to many interested researchers made the session a great success. I had completed the mission, I felt extremely proud of our research, a feeling akin to attending the Christmas nativity play when your child has a ‘talking’ role.

And so here I am sitting at my desk still suffering with jet lag but still feeling like a kid at Christmas and planning to put myself through the conference experience again as soon as possible.

Hagen, J. W. (2000). Society for Research in Child Development. AE Kazdin, Encyclopedia of Psychology, 7.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3-34.

Livingstone, S., & Sefton-Green, J. (2016). The class: Living and learning in the digital age. NYUPress.

Radesky, J. S., Schumacher, J., & Zuckerman, B. (2015). Mobile and interactive media use by young children: the good, the bad, and the unknown. Pediatrics, 135(1), 1-3.

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Young children using technology

Has a toddler got your iPad?

Touchscreen technology has become ever-present in our daily lives. As adults, our smartphones and tablets are constant companions that we use for communicating with others, accessing information, organising our commitments and, of course, having fun and relaxing. The [digital] world is literally at our fingertips.

Touchscreens are also very appealing to young children. Toddlers and pre-schoolers can find traditional technologies frustrating and difficult to use. For example, using a mouse and keyboard requires an understanding of cause and effect; that an action initiated in one place (e.g., on keyboard) causes an effect to take place in another (on screen). This type of understanding, or mental representation, is lacking in children under the age of about 2 or 3 years old.

In comparison, touchscreen interaction does not require this same level of understanding; the effect of one’s action can be seen in the same location it takes place. There is an immediate action-feedback sequence – arguably the same type of feedback children get when playing with real objects.

So, if a toddler you know won’t give up your iPad it is likely because they are experiencing a sense of mastery within the digital world. After all, one of the primary ways in which infants learn about the world around them is through sensory exploration – in this case using touch to explore their surroundings.

But how does this affect development?

Of course just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Understanding why young children enjoy using touchscreen technology is interesting, but perhaps a more important question is what effect does ‘screentime’ have on longer term development?

An article published last month in the journal Pediatrics undertook a review of all published research which addressed this question. In particular, the authors examined the effects of using interactive media on young children’s educational, social and emotional development. Although the article resulted in some sensational reporting (see Telegraph and Guardian articles) the overwhelming conclusion was that there simply isn’t enough research to provide definitive answers. In fact the article only cited seven published studies in the area and urgently called for more research.

Current research at Christ Church

My own research here at Christ Church is addressing some of these very issues. I have been working in collaboration with CBeebies Interactive looking at how children under the age of 3 years use touchscreens and in particular what effect touchscreen play might have on focused attention. I measured children’s attention span before and after they played with a touchscreen tablet, and also before and after they played with toys and then compared this to a baseline measure of attention. Children were divided into two groups; one group played with the tablet first and the other played with toys first.

Across 18 children (aged 10 months to 3 years old) there was no immediate difference in the attention shown between the two groups (tablet versus toy play). In other words, playing with interactive media on iPads did not have a negative effect on immediate focused attention within this sample of children.

Alone we cannot draw too many conclusions from just a single study; larger scale research is needed. Also, this study looked at the immediate effect straight after playing with iPads or toys; future research is needed to look at the possible long-term effects. However, it is a first step in gathering evidence that can begin to address the question of the effects of interactive media on young children’s development.

Follow @CCCUPsych for further updates on this research.

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