Can Media Help Create Family Conversation?

For very young children, talking is teaching. As we’ve written, the language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers is most important for learning. Writing in the New York Times recently, Tina Rosenberg resurfaced some important research about the stark disparity that exists between the number of words lower income and higher income children hear at home, and the affect this has on IQ and school readiness. With less talk at home, low-income children are getting less teaching.

I’ve read the work by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley in years past; it’s often quoted in child development circles. But this time, with our media-saturated culture in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder how media use is affecting the quality of conversation that takes place in young children’s homes.

How does type and quality of media affect the words and conversations families are having with young children?

There is some research to suggest that adults talk with children less when the television is on.  And researchers have recommended taking the televisions out of children’s bedrooms, for example.  But are new interactive media, websites, mobile apps, and games different? Is playing a game alongside a parent or an older sibling, for example, more likely to encourage conversation, and then learning?

Heather Kirkorian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of a few scholars who are just beginning to look at whether interactive media may be different than television in how it helps young children learn. She’s examining the potential increasingly interactive media tools like apps have for toddlers. Kirkorian suggests that “interactive media may have far greater potential than traditional screen media to offer any benefit to children younger than three years of age.”

Rogers Center advisor Jane Werner told me recently that she’s very interested in the potential of technology to create conversation. Werner, the executive director of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, says she’s witnessed some high-quality discussions recently that caregivers and children were having around technology in the museum, specifically around new programming software visitors to the museum were experimenting with.

“Both [caregiver and child] are trying to figure out what’s going on, and they have this really great conversation back and forth,” she told me.

How can technology be used to promote more conversations like these with caregivers? And is there potential, particularly in early childhood and in low-income families, where kids need to be talked to more?

Most of what we know about how media usage differs among children from different backgrounds is based on TV viewing, and there has been pretty limited research done to date.

The Rogers Center’s Michael Robb says that there’s evidence that low-income parents are supportive of using technology for learning. In a 2012 Study, Robb and colleagues found that low-income families were more likely to espouse positive views of using baby media for spending time with children and for learning colors, shapes, and numbers and science than their higher income counterparts. Robb speculates that low-income parents feel that through technology use, they are providing otherwise missing educational opportunities to their kids.

It’s not just quantity of talk, it’s also quality of talk. Depending on age, quality conversations around media should go beyond just describing what’s on screen, to talking about hypotheticals (what might happen if you do this?) or engaging in critical thinking. – Michael Robb

Different families use media in different ways, of course. Common Sense Media’s 2011 study Zero to Eight identified an “app gap,” finding that affluent children are more likely to use mobile educational games while those in low-income families are the most likely to have televisions in their bedrooms.

“[T]here is a very big difference in the quality of online access between the haves and have-nots,” the study’s author, Vicky Rideout, told PBS Newshour recently. “And when it comes to children, which is what I study in particular and I’m most concerned with, lower-income kids are still at a very real disadvantage.”

Scholars like S. Craig Watkins who write about the digital divide say that though youth of color are early adopters of mobile technologies, they also tend to be using these technologies and tools in ways that may be less likely to encourage the development of sophisticated digital skill sets and literacies. These children may be less likely to be in homes or afterschool programs, for example, that offer adult engagement and scaffolding where they can realize the benefits technology has for learning.

In their book Whither Opportunity? Greg Duncan and Dick Murnane analyze how social and economic conditions surrounding schools affect school performance and educational achievement. They find, among other things, that lower income families spend less on enriching activities like music lessons, children’s books, or tutoring. Researchers also found that by the time they enter high school, high-income or white children will have spent over 400 more hours in literacy activities than their low-income or African American peers.

But we know that the language gap is established young, by the time children enter school, which makes what happens in the early childhood years very important.

Michael Robb says researchers, app developers, and parents should be looking at the type of technology and how it’s being used in families early on. He says we should be asking, “Is it something that’s likely to promote inter-generational use? Are children looking over their parents’ shoulder when they’re playing a game, or vice versa, and is that an opportunity to talk about a shared activity?”

Robb recommends new apps that explicitly aim to try to involve parents and children in joint activity like our Alien Assignment or the new PBS Parents app.

“It’s not just quantity of talk, it’s also quality of talk,” Robb says. “Depending on age, quality conversations around media should go beyond just describing what’s on screen, to talking about hypotheticals (what might happen if you do this?) or engaging in critical thinking (why do you think that character did xyz?)”

We still obviously have lots to learn. Time is definitely a factor in how families of all kinds use media. And, anecdotally at least, we know that “joint family media engagement” may be unrealistic and difficult for working parents, many of whom struggle to find any time at all during the hours they are at home to sit quietly and interact with their young children. Entering media into this equation is complex, and not always advantageous. The more time parents spend looking at their own mobile devices during dinner, for example, the more they signal to their children that what’s happening in the family is not as important as what’s on the screen.

We need to know more about how media usage is negotiated in family life and what we can do on screen and off to make sure all parents have the time and the support they need to talk to their children.

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