What Does the Research Say About Tech and Kids’ Learning? Part 2 of 2

In January 2018, Michael Levine participated in a panel conversation on young children’s media use hosted by Common Sense Media and the Brooklyn Public Library. Here, in the second of a two-part series, are some of his comments regarding the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Zero to Eight report. (See the first part here.)


The data from the Zero to Eight report showed that lower-income kids are spending much more time on devices than higher-income kids. If you just take that at face value, that could be cause for alarm. Yet how do we take into account different cultural norms and realities? What are your perspectives?

The higher media consumption patterns among lower-income families is cause for concern—the “always on” media does have developmental and educational equity consequences. An extra 90 minutes a day spent on media—especially if it is not advancing important skill sets—is probably not a great thing.

That said, we must avoid falling into a deficit approach in supporting low-income parents—who are often stressed by life circumstances and focused on staying employed, getting decent child care, and keeping their kids safe and sound. Media and technology are inexpensive and ubiquitous. And they can strengthen family ties and cultural capital. Our research, for example, documents many of the ways in which lower-income Hispanic and Latino families are integrating new forms of media sharing into their household routines and value-sets. Lower-income children do not have access to as many devices, but they are likely to share experiences and learn together—whether it is working on homework, playing games, or watching videos.

So my perspective is that we lecture and shame parents at our peril. Nothing good comes from that sort of expert advice—we have seen, for example, how ineffective the guidance of the AAP on screen time has been largely ignored in the past. Their more recent policies on screen time are certainly more balanced and likely to be heeded. Instead, we should focus on listening to and giving low-income families more guidance and tools to help them support children’s natural passions and interests. We need to view media and tech as neither the holy grail or the devil incarnate—they are only as effective as the human beings who deploy them.

While this report doesn’t talk about parents use of media, we know from other research at Common Sense that they spend just as much time with media and tech as tweens and teens do, and much more than our young kids. How does what we’re doing as adults, as parents, play into this conversation?

Of course, how a parent models behavior is very significant in shaping how a child will respond. Recently a master early childhood educator I know, Yvonne Smith, described the scene in her wonderful, very well-integrated preschool class in Manhattan. During pretend time she had a circle of her 4 and 5-year-olds pretending to be moms and dads. They had babies on their laps and were encouraged to sing, play, and talk to their young charges. Yvonne had recently introduced cell phones to the play area and she recounted the following scene—within three minutes, every one of the six preschoolers had reached for a phone and began texting their imaginary friends, while neglecting to interact with their babies.

This poignant reminder of just how closely children are watching us prompts me to want to spend a whole lot more time—as Ellen Galinsky might put it—listening to the children themselves. We need to stop wringing our hands about the always-on phenomenon and take a good look in the mirror.

Community organizations—from early learning centers to libraries to pediatricians—can play an important role in educating parents about how they can best support their kids with media and tech. But given the many different mandates and priorities they already have, how and where should discussions about this fit in? And just as importantly, how can we help ensure that the discussions are happening in a culturally sensitive way and where we’re not making parents feel like they’re doing something wrong?

Community organizations are already stepping up to the plate. I think that pediatricians and librarians especially have tremendous credibility to serve as media mentors—this is a relatively new role that is entering our lexicon so let me share how it is being defined. It is appropriate that we are sitting in one of the world’s great libraries having this conversation. According to the American Library Association, media mentors “support children and their families in their decisions and practice around media use. This role encompasses a variety of strategies for support, with each child or family requiring individual mentoring to ensure that support is respectful, culturally appropriate, and relevant. There are two recent books on the topic, Becoming a Media Mentor, by librarians Cen Campbell and Claudia Haines, and Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors, a series of perspectives from educators, parents and community-based organizations collected by Chip Donahue of the Erikson Institute.

These books delve deeply into how community professionals can assess family strengths and assets and recruit diverse community leaders to serve as mentors and guides. They also include ways to activate culturally diverse communities to take on leadership roles in making media and tech more responsive and relevant.

Media production companies such as Sesame Workshop also have great responsibilities in this respect. This year’s theme for Sesame Street happens to be focused on cultivating cultural competencies.

Learn more about Sesame Street’s Season 48 curriculum on mutual respect and understanding.

What additional research do we need? What do you expect to find four years from now?

Ten years ago when we started the Cooney Center, I noted that our kids were entering the digital age of the Jetsons, while our research efforts were trapped in the age of the Flintstones. That was a bit dramatic, but the point was that we had a ton of research to do in order to catch up to the new dawn of technology. Today I would say that we know so much more about the ways in which good interactive media experiences can promote learning, but we still know woefully little about what works best for whom across different types of media and technology platforms. We also are not prioritizing the needs of low-income families and children in a way that will help prevent new divides from occurring. And 10 years after the introduction of the iPhone, we are still having difficulty keeping up with the pace of new technologies. I’ll mention three areas for more research:

  • A Deeper Mobile Learning and Personalization Approach
    The exact definition of personalized learning is a work in progress: it is a buzz word that is being distorted by folks who have radically different visions of learning and teaching. But it is a visible response to our intuition that the old model of learning no longer holds. The more that an individual is not confined to books in her home or school library and has 24/7 access to a broader field of knowledge, the more that learning becomes personal as well as collectivized. Many choices equal many paths equal multiple ways to become educated. This is a huge challenge. Developers have not made as much progress as I would like to see in taking the unique affordances available to extend learning across settings and outside the screen. We don’t yet have a robust set of mobile learning theories to inform personalization. Still far too often we see educational apps, especially in the early literacy and math domains, tied to older versions of pedagogy—where discrete skill sets and rote knowledge are reskinned. There is an enormous call for using the new platforms and tech for personalized learning. I think we will see big R&D investments from tech pioneers such as Gates and Zuckerberg in the coming years to better define what exactly personalization—based on a new mix of a human-centered coach or mentor paired with new forms of machine learning for younger and younger kids. We will need to design and study what the anytime, anywhere learning classroom of the future looks like for young children in the next five years. It may not be our current version of preschool and the primary grades.
  • Attention to Media Literacy
    In an era where “fake news,” “echo chamber inducing individualized search results,” and alternative facts are constantly ruminating, it is going to become more and more important to help educators, parents, and young children themselves assemble the habits of mind to critically assess, vet, and shape the information that is pouring into their skulls. We need a research to practice discipline to define a modern form of literacy—and pioneers like Common Sense Media and the Center for Media Literacy have started us in the right direction.
  • Next Generation Technologies
    As the report finds, the adoption of new technologies like virtual and augmented reality and voice-activated assistants are just making their ways into homes. But there are enormous investments being made in these tech tools, and we expect they will influence younger and younger kids. It will be interesting to examine how these forms will influence social interaction and joint media engagement, physical health, and creative skills tied to story-telling and play-based learning. Can the promise of VR and AR, especially to build empathy and next generation learning capabilities, be fulfilled?


Learn more about the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight 2017.

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