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Home » TRANSCRIPT: How The iPad Affects Young Children, And What We Can Do About It – Lisa Guernsey

TRANSCRIPT: How The iPad Affects Young Children, And What We Can Do About It – Lisa Guernsey

Here is the full text and audio Lisa Guernsey’s talk titled ‘HOW THE IPAD AFFECTS YOUNG CHILDREN, AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT’ at TEDxMidAtlantic conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Lisa Guernsey – Author

A little over 10 years ago, I was a technology reporter at the New York Times, and I was supposed to be looking at how technology was affecting education and family life. So you might think, at least I thought, that that meant that I knew how technology would affect children — until I actually had children.

Here are my girls, my two daughters. This is Janelle and Jillian. And this is a picture that was taken several years ago, actually, when they were about two and four years old. And I took this picture when I was working on a book about how media affects children. And if it looks in this picture like they are concocting some sort of plan to keep me from writing my book, then you would be right.

But as I watched my kids using technology, I started to have so many questions. In fact, before they were even this young, when they were babies, I was starting to have some serious questions about what I thought at the time was a pretty simple technology: The TV screen.

When they were looking at the screen and they were just babies, did they understand what they were seeing on it? Those people that were showing up on the screen, did they get that these were like maybe people who represented what was happening in real life? The sounds that came out of the TV set, did they understand those sounds? Did they know that those were words the way they seemed to understand what was coming out of my mouth?

I mean, honestly, I just wanted to know, was it bad for them to be looking at the screen? Was it going to affect their attention span? Or were they actually trying to learn something from it?

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So I decided to find out. I immersed myself in child development research, met a lot of media researchers, interviewed cognitive scientists, met with families in their homes. I was really trying to understand the world through my children’s eyes, but I think I was also trying to get at how we as human beings have come to understand the world through the screen.

And I’m doing this because, let’s face it, this thing, the screen, it has some real power over us. It’s got a hold on us, not just because it’s a great disseminator of TED Talks, which that it is, but it’s really a storyteller, a reflection of reality, but also a spinner of fantasy. And it took us a while as a society to understand what the screen meant to us.

In fact, it took almost 20 years. If you look at this graph, which is growth in TV ownership from the very earliest days that TVs were commercially available, you see that it wasn’t until about 1961 when the FCC chairman at the time, Newton Minow, gave a speech about what he considered kind of pretty rotten content on TV. He called that speech, The Vast Wasteland.

And it wasn’t until after that that producers of programming started to look at how to actually create something for children. So it wasn’t until after that that we got Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, creating children’s content that actually was aimed to help them learn something, I should say.

Another Really Pivotal Moment?

So what’s interesting now is that we are at another really pivotal moment. We have in our hands, most of us these days, this thing called a smartphone. Our screen is now portable. We have it with us. And I’m wondering, are we going to have that kind of same delayed national conversation about what this screen means to the development of our children?

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And maybe I’m channeling anxious parents out there everywhere when I say, I really hope we can take a different path this time. Let’s not have such a long delayed national conversation. But to do that, we really first have to understand how children understand the screen. And this is where there’s a lot of assumptions that we make.

How Children Understand The Screen – The Popcorn Study

So we adults think kids are seeing what we’re seeing. But it turns out that they need to have first a real store of background knowledge. They have to have gone through life to understand things the way that we adults understand them, right?

Here’s a study that’ll give you a little bit of a sense of it. I like to call it The Popcorn Study. And it was done in the 1970s. Researchers brought a bunch of three-year-olds into a room, put them in front of a television set, and on the TV set there was a photograph of a bowl of popcorn.

The researchers asked the kids, if I were to pick up this television set and turn it over, would the popcorn fall out? Yes, the kids said. There were four-year-olds who were writing letters to Mr. Rogers, and they were asking, Mr. Rogers, how did you get into my TV set? There’s a young viewer of Sesame Street who once declared, I know that Big Bird is not real. It’s just a costume and there’s just a plain bird inside.

So we know that kids are seeing things a little differently than we might be seeing them. But does that mean they’re not learning anything from it? So it turns out that there’s some really good studies on preschool TV that are showing us that yes, actually, children can learn from television at pretty young ages.

But what we need to be looking at is the content on the screen. So we know from these studies that we really want to look for basically the same aspects we’d look for in a preschool teacher. We want to find someone on screen who’s warm and engaging, someone who might repeat something a couple of times, because if you have children, you know you’ve got to say things more than once. You certainly want to give a chance, a pause, a chance for children to react to what they’re seeing on the screen. You don’t want any violence or aggression, because children, especially at very young ages, are going to imitate whatever they see.

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