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Growing Up in the Digital Age

For this month’s #FreshFromTheLab we are going to be chatting about Professor Rachel Barr’s (Georgetown University) work on how young children learn from media, and what caregivers can do to promote learning.

Media is everywhere in a growing child’s life – child friendly tablet and smartphone games, child-directed TV programmes and even picture books are all considered as types of media. But how do young children learn from these resources, and how do they apply what they have learnt to the real world around them? Understanding this topic is important now more than ever given the ongoing COVID pandemic. A recent USA survey found over half of caregivers said that since the start of the pandemic their child’s screen time had increased by 50% - likely due to a combination of drastic changes to childcare arrangements and home-schooling all whilst parents try to juggle other commitments such as work and household management.

But should we be worried about this increase in screen time and its impact on the next generation’s learning? Short answer: no, providing they have an adult’s helping hand to guide them through the process.

Learning from media during early childhood is limited. Media often doesn’t provide all of the same information that the real world does. A TV programme would likely only provide 2D visual and auditory information. TV also lacks contingent social interaction - the person on the TV cannot respond to your child so, for example, learning how to respond correctly to social cues is limited.

Young children also have difficulties with their own memory flexibility. Young children find it difficult to transfer the knowledge learnt in one form to another – a topic we’ve already covered in ‘Movement: Practice Makes Perfect’ where kids learning to walk would make the same mistakes they had done when learning to crawl. The same goes for transferring knowledge from one media form (e.g. TV) to the real world – something that when not done well we call transfer deficit.

In an ingenious experiment, Professor Barr and her colleagues tested this transfer deficit with a group of 2-3-year-old participants. First, the toddlers were taught a simple puzzle where they had to rearrange shapes on either a magnetic board (real life) or on a tablet (media). In the next stage of the experiment, the young children had to re-create the puzzle that had previously been shown, either with the same or opposite device (magnet board or tablet). The children who learnt and did the puzzle using the same device did the best. Those children who had to do the puzzle with the opposite device had a much larger transfer deficit and performed relatively poorly on the puzzle task.

But fear not! Like I said earlier, all these little ones needed was a helping hand from their caregiver. When Professor Barr introduced parents to the learning stage of the puzzle task, there was a huge improvement in the ability to transfer what had been learnt from one device with their caregiver to the opposite device. Looking a little more closely at the interactions that were happening between caregiver and child during the learning stage of the task, Professor Barr and colleagues concluded that the caregiver’s joint media engagement was likely supporting the child’s learning process. As adults, we readily do this joint media engagement when showing a picture book to a child. We provide structure to the learning process by drawing attention to what is important in the book (e.g., pointing at objects or saying something along the lines of “Oh, look at the pretty flower”). We elaborate on the information that is there (e.g., “Look at the cat! He looks like our cat!”). We also provide reassurance (e.g., cuddling) and reward (e.g. “well done!”). All these things are essential for your little one when they are learning. But Professor Barr explains that caregivers often don’t participate in these forms of joint media engagement for media involving touchscreens as they feel all the information the child requires is already there. But as Professor Barr demonstrated it’s not, and children learn best with this media form when guided by a caregiver in a supportive manner. Check out this video for a summary of Professor Barr’s findings when the same age-tailored study is conducted with a 15-month old toddler – they also needed parent support in the learning process!

Professor Barr also pointed out that this joint media engagement doesn’t have to be 100% of the time! But every little bit helps. Why not check out Screen Sense – a FREE science-backed resource pack full of tips and tricks for helping you and your little ones make the most of screen-based media.

So, next time your little one is engrossed in their media of choice maybe try to get involved – point things out, ask questions, and elaborate on what information is provided there. If nothing else, it’s a great bonding exercise and a welcome excuse to disengage from reality for a short while!

Check out our app for other activities you and your little one can do together.


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