For the Touchscreen Generation, Content, Context Matter

Today’s 3-year-olds were born in 2010, the year the iPad was released. And like my own preschool-age daughter, these children expect every screen they see to respond to the touch of their finger. The world and everything in it is their oyster—whether it be analog, digital or human.touchscreen_generation_300-300x225

We were pleased to see the smart piece on the cover of this month’s Atlantic Magazine take a careful look at the members of this touchscreen generation. Hanna Rosin examines what we know from the research about how interactive technology affects our children and what kind of parenting decisions we’re making amidst these new digital tools.

Rosin talks with several authors who’ve already appeared on the Rogers Center blog, including Daniel Anderson, whose seminal research on children and television has had a profound effect on what questions a new generation of media scholars are choosing to ask today.

Rosin details the groundbreaking effects of shows like Blue’s Clues, produced by our senior fellow Alice Wilder—for example, by interjecting a pause in dialogue, Blue’s Clues made television more interactive, giving children a way to respond to the characters on TV, much like many of today’s best apps allow children to interact with characters on the screen.

Rosin visits the app conference Dust or Magic to talk to children’s app developers, visits research labs where scholars are trying to understand how young children are using interactive technology, and experiments with unfettered iPad access on her own young son. She seems to land with Sandra Calvert, the director of Georgetown University’s Children’s Media Center.

“People say we are experimenting with our children,” Calvert tells Rosin. “But from my perspective, it’s already happened, and there’s no way to turn it back. Children’s lives are filled with media at younger and younger ages, and we need to take advantage of what these technologies have to offer. I’m not a Pollyanna. I’m pretty much a realist. I look at what kids are doing and try to figure out how to make the best of it.”

We at the Rogers Center concur with this kind of balanced approach. Although we would have liked to see more time spent discussing what kinds of experiences children can have with technology, instead of so much focus on how much time they are spending using iPads and other tools.  As we’ve written before, it’s not necessarily the amount of time, but the content and the context that matters the most.

At the Rogers Center, we’re interested in finding more ways to integrate digital and nondigital play, as Rosin highlighted in her discussion of Toca Tea Party, an app we’ve followed with interest. (See Senior fellow David Kleeman’s post on well-designed tech toys that still leave room for the child’s active contribution.)

Rosin talks about Lisa Guersey’s book “Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child,” especially the important 3 Cs (content, context, child), which we relied on when writing our Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children last year. Guernsey says interactive media like iPads present exciting opportunities that go well beyond the “practice apps” that are so popular these days, and instead provide opportunities for young children to be creators and documenters of their own learning.

On the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, KJ Dell’Antonia talks with Guernsey about what she found on a recent visit to the International School in Zurich.

She described an app used in the first-grade classroom called Explain Everything, which allows a child to record his own voice describing materials found on a nature walk, or interviewing a classmate about “what makes it rain.”rdquo; “It’s inquiry-based,” she said, “and it’s a very different model from what parents in the U.S. are doing right now, where we’re looking for apps to promote literacy, or expose children to words, and expecting this moment of learning, instead of looking for apps that make the iPad a tool for allowing them to create.”

These are the kinds of enriching experiences that iPads and other interactive media can offer that we’d like to see more of, and that we think parents and educators need support and training to foster. As Michael Robb said recently on our blog, instead of focusing on whether children are learning ABCs, parents should be asking “whether the warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers that is so critical for developing the cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic skills children need for school and life success is happening when they use digital media.” And too often that answer might be no.

Rosin and others have argued that it’s unrealistic and unhelpful to expect all of our children’s interactions with digital tools to be educational and enriching, and that may be true. But our children of all ages are spending so much time with theses devices, digital tools are part of our family lives, and these are questions and conversations we need to be having.

Rosin doesn’t talk at all about the access divide, or about the different ways in which families from diverse cultural and class backgrounds in the United States use media.

A 2011 study from Common Sense Media found what they termed an “app gap”: more affluent children are more likely to use mobile educational games, whereas those in low-income families are the most likely to have televisions in their bedrooms.

And a 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spend 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic status families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes.

We’re focusing on providing all parents with useful resources and tools —so that they can make good decisions about media use for their toddlers, children, and families. Please check out our Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system for parents and early childhood educators. Like Rosin, we believe that digital technology is here to stay and that by grounding our behavior in what we know from the research about children and families, we’ll all be prepared to meet whatever new technologies the future holds.

Photo/ Jeffrey Cuvilier

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