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Kids & Tech: Q &A With Lisa Guernsey

Just in time for holiday gift-giving, New America Foundation's Lisa Guernsey offers some insights on what research tells us about how to approach screen time with children and some suggestions for ways to approach tech gifts for young ones. Guernsey is the author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age 5. (A revised edition will be published next year.)

Q. Conventional wisdom about kids and screen time boils down to something basic: the less, the better. But is that really true? What has your research found about kids and screens?

A. The research tells us otherwise. We can't just focus on quantity. Research tells us that parents and educators need to think about the three C's: the content, the context, and the individual child. The content—the information portrayed on screen—can make a significant difference in whether children learn from what they see, according to a growing pile of studies on toddlers, preschoolers and elementary school children. The context—what is happening around the viewing or play, as well as how the extent to which screen time dominates a child's daily routine—can make a difference too. And we can't forget that every child comes to media or technology with their own needs and interests that can be either fostered or squelched, depending on how media is used.

A 5-year-old watching 30 minutes of "Power Rangers," which is considered by most experts to be too aggressive for young children, may be worse off than a child watching "Between the Lions" for an hour. And a child with some delays in language or literacy skills may get even more out of the "Lions" show than another child. Add in parent interaction—the presence of someone asking him questions about what he saw on screen or sparking his interest in a particular concept or story—and that hour could be really well spent.

Q. You recently wrote a Huffington Post column about how we need to know more about how kids are accessing computers/television/cell phone applications before issuing blanket judgments about their effects. What are the key questions we should be asking, and who should be taking on the research?

A. What shows are they watching or games are they playing, and how, and why? What kind of cognitive and socially meaningful activities are involved? Do they talk about the shows or games afterward, and does anyone encourage those conversations, modeling how to ask questions or explain what they've learned? Who is with them? And what are the games or shows replacing for different groups of children? Are kids being deprived of moments of lively, unstructured play (which research shows that kids need too) or is screen time taking the edge off an incredibly stressful time of day when parents might otherwise be yelling and snapping at their children?

We should treat research on technology and screen media the way we treat research on nutrition—looking at subgroups of populations, particular types of content/food, and the interplay of family dynamics, among other things. The federal government should be helping to fund large longitudinal studies, and scientists independent of industry should build and expand interdisciplinary studies and experiments that examine short and long-term effects of myriad media under multiple conditions with different types of populations.

Q. You also mentioned some counterintuitive findings about how minority kids are accessing screens. What's happening and what more do we need to know?

A. African American children are spending more time reading (or being read to) than white children—even as they also spend 30 more minutes a day watching TV than white children, according to survey data released by Common Sense Media in October. Their total reading time is about 41 minutes a day, while white children are spending 29 minutes a day reading or being read to. That runs contrary to conventional wisdom that equates more TV time with less reading time, and it also begs the question of why African American fourth-graders, on average, do worse than white fourth-graders on national reading tests. We need to learn a lot more about the quality of both the screen time and the reading time that children experience. I also wonder—for children of all races and ethnicities—whether today's parents are able to make time to help their children with reading or to talk with them about the media they watch or play.

Q. What's the difference between parking a 4-year-old child in front of the television with his 6-year-old sister in charge while you go to work (a true story I heard from one of my high school students in 2006 about his own upbringing) and Mom sitting down with a 2-year-old on her lap to watch YouTube handheld camera videos of commuter rail trains (what happens in my house on the weekends!)?

A. A whole lot, as you might have figured. The research on adult-child interactions shows that children learn how to communicate and, in the long run, how to read, by engaging with "social partners"—people engage them in back and forth conversations. Moments of "joint attention" around a particular object help too. That's a lucky kid who gets the joy of watching trains at the click of a mouse with a mother who has the patience to watch one after another.

Q. If not all screens are so terrible, what are your recommendations for kid-friendly tech products as the holiday shopping season approaches? Or if you're not willing to name products (which I totally understand), can you suggest an approach to tech shopping for kids to help parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles make good decisions about holiday gifts?

A. The Three C's can be helpful here: Look for age-appropriate and high-quality content (I recommend a visit to the ParentsChoice.org website for great books, games, toys and music). Imagine the context in which it will be used and be prepared to set some rules or parameters on how much or when. And think about what the individual child is inspired by and might want to learn more about.

Don't be fooled into thinking that tech toys or online games will bring nothing but smiles and excitement. I've made the mistake of assuming a tech toy will deliver hours of endless fun, only to discover that my children get frustrated, need much more of my help than I expected, and resort to throwing the device or smashing the computer mouse against the kitchen desk over and over again.

One last idea is to give time with tech. If you're going to give a Wii or Kinect, make time for family game nights. If you're going to give software, apps or ebooks, carve out some time to enjoy the games or books together. In the end, it's the fun interactions you have with your kids that will matter long after the tech toys bite the dust.

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