Untangling New Technologies for Children

When you throw a rock into a pond, the ripples go outward in a circle. They expand at the same rate in all directions, until the wake hits something that alters the geometry.DOE-300x450

Now, imagine that a child turning on a screen-media device is that stone plopping into the water, and the effects or outcomes of that act are the emanating waves. Here, the pattern is crazily fractured—going out at different speeds, changing directions, overlapping itself, bouncing off some unseen force.

This was the image that formed in my mind during the New America Foundation’s research roundtable: “Digital Media and Early Learning: What We Know and What We Need to Learn,” on October 15th.

We have such a strong foundation of children’s television research that can be applied by producers designing new programming, by parents choosing what’s right for a particular child, and by educators teaching with and around media content. New and fast-changing digital devices alter everything we’ve learned, though, and demand that we construct new study models, and perhaps even a new vocabulary. Interactive capacities, networking capability, device mobility, game-based design, changing learning and teaching models, and much more are the “stones” that deflect and disrupt our ripple effect.

Here are just two examples that emerged from the presentations and conversations at the New America Foundation:

  • We have convincing evidence that background television is a distraction for both young people and caregivers. It disturbs children’s independent play, and lowers the quality of adults’ interaction and conversation with children. What is the digital media equivalent of background TV? Is it the distracted parent immersed in the smartphone? The mobility and easy accessibility of the tablet, making it so attractive to pick up for media “snacking”?
  • There’s also great research on the learning value when children develop “para-social” relationships with characters in video narratives. Studies at Georgetown University demonstrated that children learn better from a familiar and well-liked character than from one just introduced. They’ve also explored how to build an emotional connection, and shown that learning improves once that’s done.

Again, the studies were based on a television (or video) model; there is massive potential for research into models and best practices for developing characters that connect deeply with young people in the digital interactive space. Best of all, this is research that would naturally encourage collaboration between industry and academia.

hotandcold-kleeman006-400x300At a conference held in Amsterdam shortly after the New America Foundation gathering, Children’s Technology Review editor Warren Buckleitner put up a slide showing the mind-boggling rise of the tablet computer—just 4 years ago, the iPad was but the apple of Apple’s eye; now, new Common Sense Media research reveals that the tablet is the fastest growing device used by children. It’s not surprising that we have few answers as yet, and academic research in particular takes time.

Still, I emerged from the Digital Media and Early Learning roundtable very much of two minds. I was massively encouraged that the best research minds of the academy are shifting their attention to untangling the crazy wave patterns happening in children’s emerging media environment.

At the same time, I was struck that we need such a radical shift in everything from vocabulary to methods to the pace at which we conduct research. We need to keep up with a world where mere months can turn the marketplace—not to mention a family trip to the supermarket—upside down. The good news for researchers is that the children’s media industry needs to master this pace as well, and mobile creators are working with development tools and analytics that can support the coming together of deep research and real-world testing, paving the way for collaborations that will yield deeper insights into the ripples.

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