We Need More Research, But Let’s Focus On Strengths

Given the differences I discovered between the ways in which words are used in the body of research, practice, and press around children, screens, and media (Paciga & Donohue, 2017), I was thrilled to see an email in my box from Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development indicating that they are actively advocating for an additional area of research focus to be added to the six areas presented in the proposed National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) strategic plan for 2020-2024, which is open for public comment here. Children and Screens feels strongly that an additional theme, that of media and technology effects on child health and development, deserves inclusion. 

I wholeheartedly agree that we need additional research in this area, and I’ve signed on to their statement, but for reasons that definitely are not 100% aligned with the ones presented by the Children and Screens group in their letter to the NICHD response repository. While I do accept that there is a preponderance of research highlighting the negative impact of screens, and I agree with their statement, “Many parents are all too aware of the negative effects media habits are having on the lives of their children, but feel powerless to reverse them” I feel that part of the ways we empower caregivers is by teaching them about the positive, supportive ways we might leverage screens and media for good. Let’s advocate for strengths-based intervention, ethical design of high quality media, and positive social interactions around screens and the media with which children and caregivers interact.

Fred Rogers focused his life’s work on strengths-based approaches to intervention and the impact of his work was and is accepted as positive, despite the fact that children largely received his intervention as mediated by screens. Because of the quality of Fred’s ethical design, and the depth of knowledge he had about human interactions he was able to create and provide screen-mediated mentors (i.e., Mister Rogers, his guests, and the characters in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe”) who demonstrated and helped children learn social and emotional skills. Caregivers saw the good in Fred’s media and they, too, learned. 

There are many examples of screen-mediated constrained skills instruction in early literacy (e.g., alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, print awareness, phonics, word recognition, specific word/vocabulary learning) that have demonstrated positive effects of such experiences on children’s literacy learning. This is particularly true when the media is well designed. Part of the push back that the Children and Screens group has is that such personalized curriculum often puts children at a computer or tablet with headphones on, and children work by themselves. I get this. I feel the same. 

I don’t like when I walk into classrooms or homes and see children isolated “doing their lessons,” and my children don’t enjoy when they have to “do their lessons” on the computer. They do like to research and explore things that interest them (we have a bunch of open-ended exploration apps and research databases through our libraries, and we scaffold Google searches). The children I observe do like to interact with friends (and would do so with strangers, yes, if we hadn’t taught them differently) in game play. They do like to create (stop motion and text messages are favorites). These things require active social mediation, and some notion of “turn it off” and get moving or into nature, so that children know that they needn’t be connected to a screen all of the time. 

The key here is to understand the range of interactions around screens, and what affordances and drawbacks are associated with each. Screens and their media play into children’s interests very well and hold a lot of cultural weight. Humanity relies on screens for so much, now, so it is understandable that children seek them out in their lives. As a field we are now recognizing excellent media and we are deepening the knowledge base around children, screens, and media. The media the Association for Library Services to Young Children sought for the inaugural award for Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media were those that afford more caregiver-child interaction. These media function more as digital playgrounds than as digital curriculum. My hope is that through additional opportunities for research funding from this NICHD initiative we can craft beautifully designed studies that demonstrate beyond question that there are as many strengths in the screen and media ecosystem as there are hazards. Fred Rogers found the strengths. We can too.

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About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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