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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?

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?

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.

So we have a pretty good sense now of what good content looks like. What we don’t necessarily know is how young you can go. And this is where cognitive scientists and media researchers are focusing their attention now. And they’re looking at the age of about 24 months. Something’s going on around 24 months, 30 months of age in children’s brains and their growth and development.

I want to tell you about a study that was done at Georgetown University in their Children’s Digital Media Center there by a woman named Alexis Lauricella. She now is at Northwestern University. And she’s been trying to figure out how toddlers understand the screen.

So she set up a study with two-and-a-half-year-old children and some three-year-olds as well. And in it, she showed them a video, actually, that Nick Jr. had created that was of puppets hiding in a laundry room. And so as you see on the screen behind me, there’s a laundry room that’s been set up, and there’s these three little puppets in the bottom of the screen.

And this video was set up to have these puppets go hiding behind that laundry basket or hiding behind the jeans that were hanging there. The researchers created a complete replica of what was on that screen, and that’s what you’re seeing behind you is that replica. And then they brought children in, and they had three conditions.

In one condition, the two-and-a-half-year-old and the three-year-old watched the video play out of where these puppets were hiding. In another condition, the kids watched, but they actually interacted with what they were seeing. It was a computer game where they had to press a button to make something happen and to see where the puppets were hiding.

And in the third condition, they watched the live action, but they watched it through a window that was cut out to be the same shape as the TV screen. And then they unleashed the kids, after they’d seen this, into the real room, and they said, show me where the puppets are.

Guess what? Those two-and-a-half-year-olds who had just watched the video, they did not know where to go. They did not know what to look for. It was as if they hadn’t really seen what was happening, or somehow hadn’t processed fully what was happening on the video. The kids that had watched the live demonstration, they knew exactly, made a beeline. They knew exactly where to find those puppets.

How Children Learn And Develop

Here’s what’s interesting as well. Those ones who had that kind of computer game experience, those kids acted like the kids who had seen the live demonstration. They knew where to go to find the puppets. So that 24-month mark, 38, 30-month, pretty interesting time period in terms of what children might be learning from the screen and how they can apply it.

And that particular study I just told you about is one that app developers love, because there’s a lot of apps out there for preschoolers, and they’re thinking, ah, that’s it. We just need interactivity, and children will be able to learn.

Well, let me show you something else to give us a little bit of a pause here. So this is a video I found on YouTube of a little boy. He’s probably a year, year-and-a-half years old. And he is playing with Talking Tom, the app Talking Tom.

Now, tell me, raise your hand if you have heard of Talking Tom. Many of you have. This is an app that has been downloaded millions and millions of times. This is basically a cat on a screen who is repeating back everything that you said. Now, I watch this, and I’m like, oh, my gosh, if there’s any example of how much we as human beings from our earliest years want someone to, like, react to us, this is it, right?

But there’s also something a little troubling about this, because we know from the brain science, and there’s a lot more of it now in how children learn and develop, that children learn from a conversation, even at younger ages before they even can learn to talk. They learn by having a back-and-forth interaction with someone.

This, I hate to say it, but this was not a conversation. So this is the kind of thing that just makes you wonder, wait a second, you know, how much do we want to make sure that we have interactions with our children when they’re around the media? We have some studies from an older type of technology called the Children’s Picture Book.

And in these studies, we have learned that you need to help children not just hear the words that are written on the page, but to actually understand the story. You can interact with kids, talk to them about what they’re seeing on the page, ask them questions about it.

And it turns out, and this is where the good news is for those of us who are surrounded by screen media with our children, it turns out that there are some hints now that this same logic applies to using screen media with young children as well, thinking about that media the same way we think about using children’s books and picture books with young kids.


So to me, all of this kind of tells me, all right, there’s some things we can know, we know now. The three Cs, basically, are where we are. We need to focus on the content on the screen, the context, how we’re interacting with children around that media, and making sure that they have good interactions when they’re not with the media.

And then the child, our children, we understand our kids. We know what’s going to delight them. We know what kinds of questions they might ask around them. We need to just tune in to see what they understand from it.

But I’m also not so naive to think that we just need to give parents the three Cs, and all will be well, and we’ll avoid some sort of new vast wasteland out there. These days, I am at the New America Foundation, where I focus on how to scale up learning environments for young children, and make sure that they have what they need, especially kids who might be growing up in struggling families.

And, of course, we’re focusing on preschool access and better child care quality and affordable child care, better public schools. But what if we were to, in the middle of all that, add something else?

So here’s what I want to ask today. What if we were to commit to ensure that every family with young children had access to a media mentor? This could be someone like a children’s librarian, a child care professional, a preschool teacher, even parents themselves. We have the power to talk with our kids about what they’re seeing, to understand the media in new ways with them, to help them see how it might relate to their outside world, to help them look up from the media, and do some activities in the kitchen, and go out to the backyard, and look for a treasure hunt.

We can learn from the media and then apply that outside. My kids today, they’re 9 and 11 years old, and they have screens all around them. I think about the world that they’re growing up in. I think about this next generation that’s coming up behind them. I want our kids today to have people around them who are interacting with them while they’re interacting with the media, even at their youngest ages.

Thank you.

For Further Reading:

Improving Early Child Development With Words: Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald at TEDxAtlanta (Transcript)

How to Educate Your Children: Jeff Sandefer (Transcript)

The Childhood Lie That’s Ruining All Of Our Lives: Gabor Mate (Transcript)

The Science Behind How Parents Affect Child Development: Yuko Munakata (Transcript)


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