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Children, TV, computers and more media: New research shows pluses, minuses


Benefits and problems are related to developmental stages, family context

A consortium of researchers has reported that very young children’s interactions with TV and computers are a mixed bag of opportunities and cautions, while teenagers’ Internet use has changed so much that the myths of several years ago need to be debunked. Said Amy Sussman, program manager for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the five-site Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC), "Reaping the benefits of various media while avoiding pitfalls is no easy task. Parents and policymakers need to inform their decisions about whether and how to guide their children’s media use through scientific knowledge. Different developmental stages call for different strategies. These and other research studies can help create needed guidance for children at all ages."

Scientists affiliated with five locations of the center reported the results of 14 research studies in special issues of The American Behavioral Scientist and the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Editors for the special issues included Sandra L. Calvert from Georgetown University, who heads up the CDMC; Patricia M. Greenfield, who leads the research at UCLA; Elizabeth A. Vandewater, who heads the research at the University of Texas-Austin, and Ellen Wartella, who leads the research at the University of California-Riverside. Barbara J. O’Keefe, who heads the research at Northwestern University, contributed to the research articles.

In the case of very young children – up to 6 years old – research fills an important gap in our knowledge of how TV and computer use affect these developing human beings. Several individual studies support the 1999 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents do not expose children to electronic screens until they are 2 years old.

One important distinction is between "background TV" and "foreground TV" – that is, TV programs that are playing when young children are around (for example, because the TV is always on in the house) or TV programs designed for young children (for example, Teletubbies). Over a third of the households with children from birth to 6 years old had the TV on most or all of the time, in a study reported by Vandewater and colleagues. Children in these "heavy-television households" watched TV more and read less than other children. In addition, research summarized by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek indicates very little evidence that children younger than 2 years old learn much from even so-called "educational" programs and videos, and, furthermore, that background TV may be associated with poorer cognitive outcomes.

In the study led by Vandewater and funded by NSF and the Kaiser Foundation, two-thirds of the parents limited the time their children from birth to 6 years old were allowed to watch TV, but more (88 percent) regulated what programs their children could watch. Children whose TV time was limited tended to watch less TV, as one might expect – but children who watch only certain programs tended to watch with their parents and to spend more time playing outdoors.

Contrary to most people’s expectations, family stress does not necessarily affect how well children learn from TV’s educational programs. Not enough money, family conflicts, and maternal depression all take their toll on the home’s learning environment. But only family conflict disrupts both parenting practices and educational television use. Said Vandewater, "These results suggest that families who are stressed may find that pointing children towards educational shows helps everybody cope while the child learns."

Children use computers at very young ages – 21 percent of children 2 years and younger, 58 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds, and 77 percent of 5- to 6-year-olds, in a study led by Calvert and funded by NSF and the Kaiser Foundation. According to their parents, children began to use computers on their parents’ laps at about 2-and-a-half years and independently at about 3-and-a-half years.

The socioeconomic and racial "digital divide" has persisted. Children in more affluent, better-educated families were more likely to have used a computer. Latino children were less likely than white children to have used a computer.

However, the researchers did not find a gender divide at these young ages. Boys and girls begin to use computers at about the same age.

Another study, also led by Calvert, undermined the common notion that children will learn more if they can control the situation in which educational content is presented. Although children’s attention dropped when adults controlled the situation, particularly on repeated material, overall attention levels were high (often more than 90 percent), and children remembered the same amount of content no matter who controlled the session.

What happens when children become teenagers?

Research findings reveal that teens’ Internet use focuses on identity, sexuality, social attitudes, and values – issues perennially associated with the teenage years. Online dangers include pervasive pornography and other sexually explicit material, disembodied strangers who may pursue others or express hate and racism, and rampant commercialism. However, teenagers also find information they may be hesitant to seek elsewhere, good communication channels with their friends, and advice and support.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, and Brendesha Tynes found that teens use Internet exchanges to "pair off" (exit from a chat room to engage in one-on-one instant messaging) by providing "a/s/l" (age, sex, and location) information. For example, one chat room participant’s message said, "if there r any m/13/Tx in here if so im me" (that is, any 13-year-old males from Texas send me an instant message). Pairing off in this way allows teens to socialize in a relatively anonymous and gender-equal medium.

Other CDMC studies of teenagers and the Internet cover sexual information and pornography, race as a topic of discussion, teenage activities online (instant messaging with friends tops the list) and advice for parents. The press release from UCLA (see link) provides more detail on these studies.

Movies influence teenagers as well. Calvert, Katherine J. Murray, and Emily E. Conger studied U.S. and Taiwanese teens’ reactions to the popular movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Teenagers from both cultures who understood the movie identified with characters who showed compassion and thought before using force. Those who did not understand the narrative tended to identify with the villain, Jade Fox – a finding that has important implications for age recommendations or standards.

O’Keefe and Zehnder’s study of video games emphasizes the ways in which game developers control the player’s point of view. A player seeks to master the game by overcoming resistance, so designers need to both challenge the player and provide accommodation through how much a player can see and know. Three-dimensional games, for example, are better adapted to humans than 2-dimensional games. Moreover, a game can provide one of several points of view, both limiting and enabling a player.

Taken together, the studies conducted by CDMC researchers advance the scientific knowledge of how children and teenagers use and are affected by various media – TV, computers, the Internet, movies, and video games.

Elizabeth Malone | EurekAlert!
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