by Susan Rvachew, Ph.D., S-LP(C), Associate Professor, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University
The Atlantic (Holly Korby, September 12, 2013) has a story about a horrified parent discovering that her toddler is being exposed daily to iPads at daycare. Incensed, the parent withdraws her son from what is described as a “pricey” preschool. Here at the Digital Media Project we have been keeping a database of articles in the popular media about digital media and young children and this one follows the usual script: first, the article attests to the ubiquity of these devices in children’s environments; second, the article amplifies parental anxiety about the potential harm that digital media may pose to their children’s brains. The notion that these technologies are harmful has been propagated effectively by the American Academy of Pediatrics, specifically through their policy statement that states clearly that “under twos” should not be exposed to any “screen time”. The empirical basis for this recommendation rests in part on three studies that are cited to support the statement “In the short-term, children younger than 2 years who watch more television or videos have expressive language delays. (p. 4)” It is quite a shock to examine those three papers (which have been repeatedly cited in subsequent papers to support similar statements without further examination).
Perhaps the most influential, given its high profile in the popular media due the controversy over the Baby Einstein videos, is the paper by Zimmerman, Christakis and Meltzoff (2007). In this study parents were interviewed by phone about their infants’ television and video viewing and responses to the short version of the Communication Development Inventory were obtained. Linear regression analyses involving a great many control variables led to a negative relationship between viewing of baby DVDs/videos and receptive language development for the youngest infants. No relationship between any kind of screen time and expressive language development was observed for the older infants and no effect of other kinds of television or video viewing was observed for any age group. But, more recently, Ferguson and Donellan (2013) obtained their raw data and have shown in a re-analysis that in fact there is no evidence in this study of a harmful effect of baby videos on language outcomes. They argue convincingly that the selection of control variables in the original paper was not theoretically motivated; in fact, the zero-order correlations (not included in the Journal of Pediatrics report) are not statistically significant. Ferguson and Donellan substituted raw scores (number of known words) for percentile scores as the outcome measure and included only those covariates that could be theoretically motivated and found that there were no conditions under which media exposure was negatively correlated with language development although there were some positive associations.
by Christina Tausch and Susan Rvachew
It is generally agreed that e-books are very engaging to children. We expect that when parents and children are sharing an ebook that this engagement will be indexed by the amount of time that the parent and child spend with the ebook in comparison to a standard book. It is not clear that longer shared reading time with ebooks will provide the child with greater opportunity for language and literacy learning however. Barnett and Crowe (2008) observed two and three year old students while they were reading storybooks with their preschool teachers. They reported an overall longer reading time and longer interactions when teachers used the “My First Story Reader” interactive story book product in comparison to traditional storybooks. This was mainly due to an increased number of requests for action, while there were no differences in the overall number of utterances. Similarly, Morris & Collins (2006) reported a difference in interaction patterns in that children were more engaged in book manipulations than story or content-related talk when reading e-books with their mothers. Authors hypothesized that reasons for these different behaviours could be unfamiliarity with e-books and thus more talk about technological features might have been elicited. In these studies, modern tablet based books were not used however and the “read to me” feature of the books was used, displacing the traditional role of the adult in the shared reading process.
Our current pilot project on digital media use with children specifically addresses the question whether or not mother-child interaction patterns differ or change when they read e-books compared to print books. We videotaped mother-child dyads with children between 3;6 and 5;6 years of age while they were reading a traditional storybook, a basic e-book story and an enhanced e-book. In this case the ebooks were implemented on iPads but the mothers read the story to their children. One of our preliminary findings was that the dyads spend almost twice as long reading the enhanced e-book in comparison to the traditional storybook, even though there was less text to read in comparison to the paper book. But what were the parent-child pairs doing with this time? One way that we looked at this question was to code each maternal behavior in terms of the environmental “trigger” for the mother’s vocal utterance or gesture. One possible category of “trigger” for maternal utterances was the child (for example the mother might ask the child a question, respond to her child’s question or act to manage the child’s behavior or direct the child’s attention). Other categories were elements of the paper or electronic books, specifically: illustration, animation, text (includes reading the text and talking about print and print concepts), narrative (story), technology, prompts provided to the mother by the ebook, or other stimuli. We are particularly interested in trade-offs between the “technology” and “narrative” categories. Talking about the story is presumably helpful to the child’s language development. If ebooks engender a lot of talk designed to help the child operate the technology, and this talk crowds out time for talking about the story, this may be unhelpful in terms of language acquisition.
This figure above shows what actually happened across our three books, a standard paper book, a commercial ebook and the prototype of an ebook that we are developing to prompt mothers to use dialogic reading strategies with their child. Time use while reading three books is shown. The SB book is the “The Big Bear Hug”, a traditional paper story book. The BEB book is a commercial electronic book, “The Frog Who Wanted to Be as Big as an Ox”. The iRW book was a prototype of a new product called iReadwith that prompts parents to use dialogic reading strategies. The figure shows that shared reading time per page was increased markedly while reading the iRW book. Maternal events that related to technology increased with both ebooks. Talking about the narrative decreased for the basic ebook (BEB condition) but not for the iRW book. This might be because the book about the Frog contained a rather complicated animation and the parent had to help the child activate this feature (see previous blog for description of animations). Furthermore the narrative involved some difficult abstract concepts that some parents opted to not explain. On the other hand, the prompts provided in the iRW book did stimulate a lot of discussion about aspects of the story including the characters, the settings and the plot. Once again, it is impossible to generalize about the impact of ebooks without considering the details. In the future we will be able to control for important variables more carefully by comparing the reading of the exact book/story in paper and electronic versions. For now, it is interesting to watch how parents and children use this new technology.