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Many parents find it daunting to navigate the exploding world of media for kids, with new apps, games, gadgets, and television programs coming out daily. Complicating matters are recent studies showing that screen time — whether on a television, computer or mobile device — affects learning and literacy, especially for the very young. But is all media equal? What about e-books, interactive games, educational television? We explore the latest on kids and technology.
Watch Kids Increasingly Staring at Glowing Screens, Study Finds on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There's an explosion of new games, apps and television programs aimed at young kids, which can be downright overwhelming for parents struggling to guide their children's choices and set limits on screen time not to mention the stress on those navigating holiday shopping. Of course, parents desperate to carve out half an hour to get dinner started may welcome the many educational TV programs and computer games out there. And just to complicate matters, new studies looking at young children and media offer some surprising and, in some cases, distressing news.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIKids from birth through age eight are spending more than two hours a day on average with some kind of screen media. And we all know about second-hand smoke, but did you know second-hand TV viewing can affect development of kids under the age of two? So, what's a parent to do? Well, one thing you can do is call on Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at New America Foundation, which is a nonpartisan think tank. She's the author most recently of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five." Lisa Guernsey, good to see you again.
MS. LISA GUERNSEYYeah, great to be here. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president of Children's Media and Marketing and Communications at PBS. Lesli Rotenberg, thank you for joining us.
MS. LESLI ROTENBERGThank you.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from San Francisco is Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which is an independent organization that reviews media aimed at children. Jim Steyer, thank you for joining us.
MR. JIM STEYERGreat to be here. Hi guys.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think we are overly concerned about kids and media? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. Jim, I'll start with you. Common Sense Media put out a report recently about media and young kids zero to eight children's media use in the U.S. Tell us about that.
STEYERWell, thanks. It's basically the follow-up on a long tradition of great research by the Keiser Family Foundation who studied media use over the past decade or so. And we sort of picked up at it and worked with the leading researchers from there and it actually affects our other guests' fields really a lot. I mean, what we're basically trying to -- is that kids zero to eight are incredibly involved with media today and technology. I mean, I think TV is still the elephant in the room, if you will.
STEYERForty-seven percent, nearly half of all kids five to eight have a TV in their own bedroom and it's the number one thing they do. So, it's still there. But there's an increasing movement in terms of children zero to eight to the digital media and even devices like iPhones and iPads. And the thing we see there is there's a gap. And what we call app gap, which we're saying that lower income families are not necessarily taking advantage of some of the more educational stuff there as, say for example, upper income families are.
STEYERSo that's another big finding, I think, from this research. And the bottom line is, this is a huge aspect of every parent, every listeners lives, in a sense, if you have a child between zero and eight. So responsible balance use of media, picking stuff like Lesli Rotenberg creates with her team at PBS Kids, that's going to be key, balance and moderation. It's big data. If you're a parent, this is a huge part of your life.
NNAMDIAnd, Jim, this is the first study of its kind since apps came along, correct?
STEYERRight, since 2006. So, essentially that's, you know, the Stone Age of technology if you realize 2006, very little presence for Facebook, cell phones weren't the same. There was no app, no iPhone, it wasn't invented at that point. So, that's the future that TV still -- well, the kids do them both.
NNAMDILisa, other studies reinforce what we know that kids are using more media and younger. What do you make of these numbers?
GUERNSEYFor parents, this actually isn't probably all that surprising honestly. But I think that there's little places in the numbers that should cause us all to just think more deeply about the kinds of media that are being put in front of the very young children or that the older side of the spectrum here. Between, you know, four and eight, children are starting to want and desire their own things and making a lot of choices themselves and what their looking at. For me, I think that we need to recognize that this is all taking place in the ecosystem of a family.
GUERNSEYAnd so, two hours or more with screen media may not actually tell us much until we start looking at where does that fit in the child's day. And is it something that they're doing completely solo? Was it totally divorced from other sorts of things that they're interacting with and the kind of learning that they're having? Or is it actually integrated in fun and joyful and engaging ways with what they're experiencing every day. And parents actually have a huge role to play there.
NNAMDIAnd the reason why it's not surprising to you is because you have two young kids yourself.
GUERNSEYI do, I do. And they're media consumers.
NNAMDILesli Rotenberg, you said you welcome reports like this, especially focused on younger children. Why?
ROTENBERGBecause there isn't enough research out there today about the use of technology with young children. And it's really important that we know what's going on. They are the guinea pigs in this great big lab and it's really important that we understand how it's impacting them. So, I think it's fantastic that Jim and his team at Common Sense took up this study and are sharing this information with the rest of us. It shows us about the app gap, which is alarming for us at PBS because we feel so strongly that this new media, the new technology has the potential to close the achievement gap, to help close the achievement gap.
ROTENBERGAnd the fact that it's not getting in the hands of the kids who need it most is really alarming. So, I think it's really a call to arms. I hope that people will pay attention and that the technology industry may step up and try to help us to find the solutions to get those opportunities into the hands of the kids who need them the most.
NNAMDILisa, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recently released a report warning about the effect of screen time under the age of two. Tell us about that.
GUERNSEYThe report was a reiteration in some ways of what the AAP put out in 1999 when it first tackled the subject for the very youngest children. And at that time it basically said let's not have any screen time at all for children under the age of two. We don't really know enough about what its effects are. What happened then was many people got quite scared that this meant, oh was TV toxic in some way and how in the world am I going to be able to abide by this no TV rule when, you know, our lives are hugely media oriented these days as adults and as parents.
GUERNSEYAnd so, there was a lot of consternation around, well, what do we really do in, you know, in kind of real world situations. So now they've come out with something that digs much deeper actually because there's a lot more research to draw on but still is relying on evidence around passive screen media use with very young children, with children under age two because that's really all we have right now and does not necessarily get us into the larger questions of what kinds of recommendation should be out there for babies around interactive media. That's a new horizon and one that we need a lot more research on.
NNAMDIJim, yet 72 percent of the hundred top selling education apps in the iTunes app store were aimed at preschool and elementary school kids, many of them claim to be educational. How does that square with the warnings about media use and kids under two years old?
STEYERGreat question. I mean, I think two things. First of all, for under two, I personally believe and I'd say I can say on behalf of Common Sense and the experts who we draw upon that under two, you just think they're not going to learn anything and that the downside of screen time outweigh the upside. That would sort of be the general. I think that's -- my interpretation of the Academy of Pediatrics' most recent statement.
STEYERThat said, I think if you're out there and you're a parent and you've got a eight-month-old and a 14-month-old and they occasionally watch TV with their older siblings or with you, it's not going to kill them at all. But I don't think they're going to learn anything. You know, at Common Sense we rate every movie, TV, video game, website, apps, et cetera and we do ratings. That's our big -- that's our consumer field that's very successful for tens of millions of parents.
STEYERWe're going to start rating stuff now for educational content. We're going to launch that next year in March, I believe. And so we're actually going to evaluate these interactive products that you're referring to for whether or not they're educational. Now that's a whole different form of rating. We have to get expertise in child development and education experts to help you build the system. But you're absolutely right that this is the future.
STEYERA, consumer companies are going to be marketing educational, quote/unquote, "products," particularly apps to parents more and more, particularly on the pad platform. I think the tablet platforms are going to increase being seen as an educational platform. And so, someone's going to tell us how parents understand what is or is not educational. The good thing is people like Lesli, they will probably create good stuff.
STEYERBut to me, that will be for four or five-year-olds and you still have screen time issues like Lisa brought up where you just don't want too much passive screen time. It's better, as every mom and dad out there know, to have the kids sit on your lap and read to them and cuddle with them than anything else.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're discussing kids and screen time. How much screen time do your kids get? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Lesli, a lot of studies we've seen used the age of two as a marker. What is significant about the age of two?
ROTENBERGIt's about the child's development at that age. And really before then, I'm just agreeing with your guests here, Lisa and Jim, that before then the down sides of media outweigh the up sides of media. Children can't attend and really understand a lot of the learning that we begin, for example, to a television show that's curriculum driven or an app that we're going to put in their hands through a tablet. And so we really focus on children over two.
ROTENBERGThat being said, children from two to eight have an enormous potential to learn from media. And we have all kinds of research done by third party researchers that demonstrate that having this technology and putting it in their hands and being able to customize it to their learning style, their speed of learning, so that when they acquire a skill, the app can actually get more challenging. That's a new potential that we see.
ROTENBERGAnd just as an example, we did a study with apps. We put them in the hands of kids who are disadvantaged and we gave them the opportunity to play as much as they want for a couple of weeks. And after two weeks, there was a 31 percent gain among children using this app in the vocabulary that they were tested on before and after the use of the app. So, we think it has extraordinary potential. It really depends on good content and the content being developmentally appropriate for that child.
NNAMDIHow does PBS approach the issue of very young kids when you're developing new programs and games?
ROTENBERGWell, define very young, because we don't approach the issue of children under two.
NNAMDINothing under two?
ROTENBERGNothing under two. So, and then from two to eight, which is really our sweet spot and that's where we think there's the most potential to teach and we reach the most children. Every single month, we reach about half of all kids in the U.S., two to eight. It's pretty astounding. And we really work very closely with child development experts and curriculum experts to make sure that the content we're creating is developmentally appropriate whether it's for preschool or school age kids so that they can really learn the most from the content that we're delivering.
NNAMDIMost studies say television can be harmful under the age of two. However, we know that parents of younger kids are clearly putting their kids in front of these programs. Lisa, another study we talked about -- another study that is talked about second-hand TV viewing. What is that and what are the issues involved?
GUERNSEYYeah, it's really interesting that now we're finally able to make some differentiation between foreground television and background television. And that's what the second-hand TV viewing is all about. It's the impact of having television on in the background or really any screen media that has whether it's visual imagery and/or noise associated with it, how that's affecting the way children play with their toys, the way they interact with their parents.
GUERNSEYAnd also, we have some research for the very youngest ages of children, and this is at seven and a half months, showing that background noise may be interfering with children's ability to capture and understand sounds as units, which is the building block of understanding that words are out there and those words are actually going to -- part of our language and that's going to help us build literacy going forward.
GUERNSEYAnd so there's now enough research out there to, kind of I think, alarm plenty of those who are in child development and allow us to think more about giving, especially, young children, babies and toddlers, some moments of quiet where they're not having to kind of compete with background TV and background noise.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue the conversation on Kids and Screen Time. Do you limit your kids television and computer use? Call us 800-433-8850, tell us your rational or go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on Kids and Screen Time. We're talking with Lesli Rotenberg, senior Vice President of children's media and marketing and communication at PBS. Lisa Guernsey is the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. She's author, most recently, of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five." And Jim Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. He joins us by telephone from San Francisco. Common Sense Media is an independent organization that reviews media aimed at children. Jim, before I go to the phones.
NNAMDIWe all know about the so called digital divide but Lesli just made reference to it and a lot of people don't have reliable access to high speed Internet, we know that. What Lesli just made reference to is that you found in your report a growing app gap.
NNAMDIAs well as a difference in the media different groups used. Tell us about what you found.
STEYERWell, I think that what we found is that there -- that usage of educational content like the kind that Lesli and her team are creating and there are some other great creators out there who really see how to use this new digital media and the platforms to improve education which is a great goal over all. But what we see is, right now, like many things in this country to be frank, the upper income folks are getting much more access to and usage out of this then people at the bottom of the economic spectrum.
STEYERAnd that's a big concern because ultimately if this relates to future educational platforms, let alone, ultimately, you know, how our position in the world and job opportunities, etcetera, it's critical that all kids have access to the best stuff. You don't want a gap. On the wiring front, you know, this is one of the things that Julius Genachowski, the FCC Chairman, actually has really focused on during his tenure, is the wiring of all homes in the cable industry is actually backing that in some ways.
STEYERThis is about the, if you will, the connectivity wiring piece of it. But on the content side which is what you're asking about, which our study looked at and what Lesli commented about, that means that we've got to make sure that if there's great interactive content, all kids have access to it. This is why, by the way, PBS Kids and other organizations to get some degree of public funding matters so much because educational stuff isn't always as profitable as, say, doing just simple entertainment stuff for kids. But this is the future and so that gap is critical for all of us whether we're in the upper income level or the bottom, we want every kid to have access to good stuff.
NNAMDILesli, an app gap in which a fluent children are more likely to use mobile educational games while those in low income household are the most likely to have television in their bedrooms, what did you find significant about these racial and socioeconomic differences?
ROTENBERGWell, I think it's important to note that the lower income -- children from low income communities and African-American children, I'm quoting from the study now, "Ages zero to eight spend about an hour and a half more with media each day then white children do. They watch about 30 more minutes of TV. Hispanic children spend over 30 more minutes with media each day then white children do." So they're consuming a lot of media. They're watching a lot of television. I think it's really critical that we take a look at what the content is.
ROTENBERGBecause, again, you can't blame the technology. You really have to focus on -- they're learning something from what they're watching. What is it that they're learning? And if we could really focus on making sure, if they're spending time with media, that they're at least getting media that's educational and that's really able to give them a leg up, that would be really important.
NNAMDILisa, are we in the early stages of understanding the effect of all this media on kids?
ROTENBERGYes, in very early stages, actually. And even though there's been a nice outpouring of research over the past, say, five to 10 years on the younger side, finally, in how media effects them, there's still a lot we don't know. I think that there's also a lot of room for more research on the context and that goes to this issue we were just talking about here in different demographics. And how different sub groups of children are using media and why they are. What is it that's going on in their family environments and their home environments that leading to that?
ROTENBERGWe don’t necessarily know that that's a bad thing, honestly. So I think we need to kind of dig a little deeper and understand, are these some, in some cases, children who might not have access to new ideas about the world or news that's going on in any other way. It's not something that's dinner table conversation in their household. And this is how they're learning what's going on around them.
ROTENBERGIs it a case that in many of these subgroups, these are children who don't necessarily have access to other activities. They're not, you know, playing soccer twice a week. They're not having to go to piano lessons and therefore this is filling in something for them. So I think there's a lot more research to do about what's really under penning the context of this media use.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. We'll start with Claire in Laurel, Md. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREThank you, Kojo, enjoy your show. I think that we need, at least, we had to limit time on the computer because our kids are brilliant, loved it, had six sons and a daughter who used it. And I had to make emergency trips to the ophthalmologist because they would get on the computer and stay on it and they would be seeing double. If you can believe it?
CLAIREI also think that they need to have time at the dinner table without any electronic gadgets and need to have time outside. And that sometimes had to be pushed. It wasn't all just free. They didn't come easily. But, yeah, I mean it cost me money to get them away from the computer and then, you know, the ophthalmologist says, okay, can't stay on the computer. You have to break every 15 minutes. Who breaks every 15 minutes? But that's what the prescription was.
NNAMDIYou know, it's difficult sometimes for parents to translate all these numbers and reports into rules at home for kids. What are some tips you might want to offer Lesli to help parents decide what's the right amount of time and what kind of media their kids should be seeing...
NNAMDI...and I'll run that question by you, too, Jim, but first Lesli.
ROTENBERGYour caller was absolutely right on. Kids need to take breaks from media and I always tell a story about my two children just to show that it really is important to understand your child. Because there are some children who have, sort of, an addictive personality with media and technology and they won't stop unless you force them away from it. And I have one like that. And then there are other children who will naturally get up and take a break because they want to go run around outside.
ROTENBERGYour caller was absolutely right. The time outside playing, playing unguided with friends or you know even with parents is really critical to children's development. So there need to be limits on children's time with any screen but those limits are very individualist and you have to really monitor what kind of a child you have and what their needs are. There are some children who are better able to self discipline and know when they need a break. And for the others, parents really need to enforce those breaks, as your caller did.
STEYERWell, I think actually we're in violent agreement here. Lesli's right. You know, all kids are different so each child learns differently and reacts to media differently and you have to -- I have -- we have four kids. You got to monitor them all, but they're all different. But you got to know your stuff and do your homework. I mean, I think media, the caller's right, media timeout, media Sabbath, it's very important. I mean, just think of when you go away someplace where there's no media and there's no devices for a few days, there's just -- it's good for your brain, it's good for your soul.
STEYERI think, Lesli's also right about unstructured play. Even though she's in the media business, I mean, the best kind of parenting is still the common sense old fashioned being with your kid, playing with them, giving the opportunity for unstructured play. There's something unique about human bonding that a screen simply doesn't provide. I mean, a lot of this is going to be part of parenting 101, now and in the future but it does rely it a lot.
STEYERThe good news, I'd say if you're a parent out there, is much of this is still the same kind of good judgment common sense parenting you've always needed. You just have more factors and more stimuli and you have to be aware of them. But the same fundamental good stuff still apply and that's, I think, should be reassuring to most parents out there.
NNAMDIClaire, thank you for your call. But here is an on-the-other-hand, here is Ronda in Arlington, Va. Ronda, your turn.
RONDAMy question is about the Kindle. My son is constantly on the Kindle. And you'd think that's a good thing because he's reading a lot and he's reading very good books for his age group, he's 12. But in the meantime, I'm buying a lot of books for him. And I was wondering what you think the future of the electronic publishing is going to be? Are they going to come down in price or will it continue to go up?
NNAMDII thought you had another kind of question, that you thought that association with the Kindle was good for your son. But allow me to have somebody respond to that. Is the price of the Kindle going to come down? Yes, it probably is, Lisa, right?
GUERNSEYYes, I mean, these prices are coming down all the time. And I have a nine-year-old who wants a Kindle even though she already has a Kobo which she got from her grandfather last Christmas. And that too is something that she's got her head in all the time. And there's part of me that thinks it's wonderful and then there's other parts of me that say, hey, wait, you should actually go out and run around a little bit. So we -- even with books or even electronic books, you know, there's some moment where parents have to kind of say, wait, you know, you've been doing that for two and a half hours.
NNAMDIBut then there's this. Studies and researchers have warned about the harmful effects of media on kids, well, ever since there's been media. In the 30s, it was the effect of movies on the kids...
NNAMDI...and then later it was television, radio and comic books. Could we be over reacting?
GUERNSEYAnd I actually think that -- one of the things that's so hard about these conversations is that we keep talking about media as if it's this monolithic easily defined thing. And it's not by any stretch of the imagination, right. There's so many different devices now. There's so many ways it's provided to children and that changes the context but then of course the content is entirely different. Not just in the number of shows out there and different kind of channels but also the educational software or even the little, you know, YouTube video clips.
GUERNSEYAll of it's completely different and children are reacting to it different ways. What I actually did in my book, was try to find a way to synthesize what the research has told us so far into some guidelines for parents. And what I found is that we need to be thinking about the three C's. The content, the context and the individual child. And if parents -- and there's certain questions you can ask around those three C's but once you've been able to ask those, you're already being much more thoughtful about the way you're going to use media with your kids and that will already change the dynamic for them.
NNAMDIThe book is called "Into The Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five." The author is Lisa Guernsey, she joins us in studio. She is director of the Early Education Initiative at New America Foundation. Lesli Rotenberg is the senior Vice President of children's media and marketing and communications at PBS. And Jim Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. We go back to the phone where Ateenish (sp?) has, I think, a more practical question. Ateenish, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ATEENISHYeah, thank you, Kojo, I love your show. My question is, I have almost five years son and he want the X-Box. So is it appropriate for him to get or what kind of game is appropriate for him? Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThis time I'll start with you, Jim Steyer.
STEYERSure. Well, first of all, I think it's -- how old did she say the child was?
STEYERYeah, I think an X-Box -- the biggest thing there is -- and this is going to actually touch back to the question that Lisa was just responding to as well. I mean five-year-old and an X-Box, I'd be very careful about that, ma'am. Because I think the X-Box is primarily a game machine. And one of the things, there are really good games and some of the content say that -- Lesli and her colleagues at PBS Kids are doing and a lot of other good producers are doing, is going to be game based stuff.
STEYERBut an X-Box also is the primary platform for the web content now and -- but certainly for video games. And I don't think you want your kid to get too involved in that too early. The real danger there is what I was going to say earlier, responding Lisa's point, is addiction is an issue. I don't think there's any question that there are different forms of media addiction today that take place -- and the video gamer may not think it's clear. And I think if you look at countries overseas, particularly in Asia, they now have camps for video game addiction.
STEYERI think, there's depression and other social emotional issues that are specifically related to the overuse of media. And that I think it effects cognitive development as well. So I think you, again, you really need to balance protective. Your caller asked if we were -- or you guys were over reacting and I would say, no. Because I think this is major epical change. I think if you talk to leading educators and child development experts in this country. They will say to you that overall, this new digital media era is huge change for children, some positive, some not so positive.
STEYERThe key is to get much more of the former and a lot less latter. But I don’t think we're over reacting to the important changes that are occurring in the ways that young people, in particular, but all human beings now interacting, communicate with each other, issues about addiction and ADHD which I do believe are creating by digital media platforms and the over use of them.
STEYERAnd also even issues now related to privacy and personal social emotion moments that this is a big stuff for everybody and that's why I don't think we're over reacting to this -- the studies and the future trends that it portends. That said, it's up to us to make it either good or not so good. And there's both of those issues involved including the addiction one.
GUERNSEYI actually just wanted to point out that actually the research is not all that clear on addiction or ADHD in its relationship to media so...
STEYERI -- you know, but I disagree with you on that.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, let's disagree but go ahead, Lisa.
GUERNSEYI think that what we certainly find in some places are associations and I also -- which are different then causal connections between one thing and another. So that -- many of the researchers I've interviewed say we still have a lot of work to tease that out especially when it comes to ADHD. But I also think that the addiction point though does raise just the question of our kind of compulsion to want to be around this media and I think it's something that it's not only hard for children to kind of pull away, it's very hard for adults, these days, to pull away.
GUERNSEYAnd so one of the broader questions that families really need to be asking themselves is, how are we managing our media use as a family and are we giving ourselves enough time to just talk and interact together in more, kind of, natural non-electronic ways? And that really requires some self-discipline. So it can feel like it's an addiction but I think that there are still some places in the research where it's not entirely clear what meets the actual, kind of, psychiatric definition.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call Ateenish. Lesli, we got a comment on our website. "Our children are media free. No TV, ages nine and six, no TV, no videos, no video games, Internet, et cetera. And it's not that they are too busy with lessons, et cetera. Each child has a half hour lesson a week, but I do let them play in the yard, relatively unsupervised."
NNAMDI"I just haven't found anything that truly seems to be of -- to be value added in screen time for them. We're thinking age 10 might be about right for a first." Well, PBS creates media for children. It's got the number one program "Curious George" but kids want fun, parents want educational as in this obvious -- as in this emailer. How do you balance the spinach with the candy, so to speak?
ROTENBERGWell, we really think that it's a myth that you can't have entertaining media that's educational. And we've really built our reputation on the ability to deliver both in one package. And the fact that we have the number one preschool show in the country, I think, proves that, kids love it. It's not spinach but it's -- "Curious George" actually teaches preschoolers pre-engineering skills. So it's the kind of skills that you need to become interested in curious about science, about math, about technology. Really, really important.
ROTENBERGI think -- I really applaud the caller for going media free. I think that's wonderful. If the callers children are interested and if the caller wants to begin to explore some media that might be appropriate for kids at that age, we have some wonderful, free -- everything's free on our website. One thing that I would suggest, it's called the Cartoon Studio. You can go to Google and just type in PBS Cartoon Studio. It's brand new, kids make cartoons. They build their own characters.
ROTENBERGThey use some of the formats that we have from very popular programs like "Arthur" and "Word Girl" and "The Electric Company," and they make their own characters and they make their own cartoons. Last night I was watching cartoons that kids had submitted and they were wonderful. They had soundtracks, and they had written the dialogue, and so, you know, it's a really wonderful way for kids to express themselves creatively and the technology is just a catalyst.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you called stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call, but frankly, all the lines are filled. So if you'd like to join the conversation go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation on Kids and Screen Time there, or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur conversation is about kids and screen time, and we're talking with Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which reviews media aimed at children. Lesli Rotenberg is the senior vice president of children's media and marketing and communications at PBS, and Lisa Guernsey is the director of the Early Education Initiative at New America Foundation, and author most recently of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five." Directly to the phones and Dave in Germantown, Md. Dave, your turn.
DAVEThank you, Kojo. My question has to do with comments already made on the program. A few years ago a psychiatric nurse who is a friend of mine, long career in that field, told me about a phenomenon that happens in the brain when there's a rapid change in the visual field. The old reptile brain, I've forgotten what it's called, I think the medulla or something like that, at the base of the skull reacts to the rapid visual -- change in the visual field, sends out a huge surge of energy that energizes the entire cortex.
DAVEAnd she said so when you -- for instance, watching a fire, you can get mesmerized because of the flickering. She pointed out that rapid changes on television screens also can create the same effect. Every time the screen changes, the whole cortex gets energized. And so even as adults, I know I used to watch television, and after three hours get up and wonder what the heck it was that I watched that I couldn't stop. Well, her -- what she told me gave me insight.
DAVEMy main concern, and this was her concern because she worked with children, was that during -- between the period of -- and this is what I want your guest to address as content providers, between the age of three and eight, the brain is laying in neural networks and synapses and connections that will serve the person for the rest of their life, and traditionally we haven't, you know, our species has not been in the extraordinarily high level of stimulation that we get now with screen-based, you know, television as well as the programs that are on the computers.
DAVEAnd she was, you know, over her career she had seen a great increase in ADHD, and her own opinion was that...
DAVE...there was neurological issue. So anyway, I'd like to ask your guests to...
NNAMDIA neurological effect of visual stimulation, Lesli.
ROTENBERGWell, I was asked this question recently, and I'm not familiar with the study that proves this, but about fast cuts for kids. So I'm not really familiar with that research, and maybe one of your other guests are, but I can tell you this, that people often will say to us the PBS programs for the youngest children seem slow to me, and that is because they are developed specifically for kids to be, you know, at their developmental stage so that they can comprehend what is going on, and they can repeat it back to you. They can tell you the story that they just watched.
ROTENBERGAnd we've done numerous studies that show that we've moving at the right speed for kids that age. And so, you know, whether it's harmful to go faster, I don't know, but I do know that for kids to be able to really understand what it is that the -- the lessons that we're trying to impart, with this content, we need to move at a speed that they're able to comprehend.
NNAMDIKids and yours truly. I go to movies nowadays and I'm amazed by the visual images, and then I walk out and say, but what was the plot? I can't remember it having a plot. Lisa?
GUERNSEYThe study that you might be thinking about, Lesli, is probably the one that came out about "Spongebob" and this was about a month or two ago, and it was a study done by a woman named Angela Willard (sp?) at the University of Virginia, and she looked at how children react immediately after watching two different kinds of shows. She compared "Caillou," which is a show that's on some PBS Sprouts programs and others that's about a little boy who's four and it is kind of moving at a slower pace.
GUERNSEYShe compared to "Spongebob," which is not designed for preschoolers, but is often watched by some preschoolers. I can attest from interviewing parents about it. And then she also looked at children who didn't have that screen media experience at all and who were told to color with crayons or markers for a little while. And then she tested them on their cognitive abilities afterwards, and she was mostly looking at whether they had some what's called executive function, skills that allow you to focus on a task and really kind of zoom in on what you're supposed to be doing at that moment. So kind of Simon Says like games where you have really have to listen to what someone's saying.
GUERNSEYAnd she found that the children that had watched "Spongebob," which is at a faster pace, did not do as well on those cognitive tests. The children who watched the "Caillou" show, as well as those who did the drawing and coloring by themselves, did better. And so that is definitely now, you know, one of the new studies to kind of put in the pile of research to consult when we're thinking about these things. I would add, though, that's there's just still a lot of work to do to get at what kind of quote "rewiring" or whatever it is that's happening in our brains is going on.
GUERNSEYThere's still a lot that we need to learn about children's language development in these early years, and how their interactions with their parents and with their teachers is affecting that, and that may or may not be affected by media, and that's what we need to figure out.
NNAMDIDave, thank you very much for your call. Jim, a lot of parents ease their guilt if you will by telling themselves that what their kids are doing is educational. How do you actually determine what is educational?
STEYERWell, that's, I mean, why we're creating this educational writing system, and I myself am not doing that. But I think what you do is you get the best experts in the field from both an educational and child development standpoint, and look at how kids learn, and by the way, kids do learn differently. We work most closely with Howard Gardner at Harvard who's a great writer and thinker and educator at the graduate school up there, and some of his colleagues and folks out here at Stanford, you look at how we measure different forms of educational development and child development. You can do that.
STEYERWe have a lot of research. I mean, Lisa is a really great expert in this area, so she knows a lot of those folks as well as does Lesli, and you then try to give advice, recognizing as Lisa said though that all kids all different, individual children are different, and so -- and what we're gonna do with this educational rating system that's gonna focus exclusively on interactive content, is gonna give you a guidance about what is educational and also maybe call out a few really great products that are truly educational and sort of break through and helped with 21st century learning skills, et cetera.
STEYERThe one thing I would add to what we're saying is, and Lisa's book is terrific and she -- her analysis of the research pretty much squares with what I agree, which is we need a lot more, and one of the tragedies is, is that the federal government has basically stopped funding in this area which is nuts, because it has such a huge impact on education, and child development all of our lives. So we need a lot more research. Lisa is right.
STEYERBut for me, and I say this as a parent, and just sort of as a common sense perspective, I don't know all the exact things that are happening in the brain for right now, or even on the addiction front. There -- these are -- causality Lisa mentioned earlier is an issue to be approved. But here's the things that you need to know as a busy parent with a lot of stuff going on in your life. This is having a big impact on your kid's brain, no question. How exactly the rewiring is occurring, and what the long-term implications are we don't know fully yet, but it's happening, so you need to be really vigilant about it, and it's why the -- I do think it's why the docs come in with the no screen time under age of two stuff.
STEYERAnd while the studies may not be exact yet, there's clearly a -- this is a transformational kind of technology in terms of child development and learning and human relationships. So we still need to find more -- do research, but for me as a common sense perspective on this, not purely scientific, hey, you need to be aware of this as a parent, and you need to be setting clear limits and trying to find the best stuff and the best context in which to expose your kids to it.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Debra who says, "You made a comment that people have been saying that media will harm our children since the 1930s, and you seem to assume that there have been no harmful affects seen yet, so maybe we're making too big a deal out of this issue. What makes you think those warnings have not come to fruition? Our schools are struggling and are certainly not tops compared to other countries, families are disintegrating around us, and our economy is in the toilet. Do you really think the time kids have spent on media for the past several decades have nothing to do with these issues?" Enough said. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Val in Charlottesville. "A question for Lesli who I was fortunate enough to work for at Discovery many years ago. I have a seven-year-old who is barely on reading level. We work with her a lot, have a tutor, she receives enrichment at school, she loves the iPad, but PBS characters no longer appeal. I'm looking for a reading app that will be engaging for her." Any recommendations?
ROTENBERGSeven, okay. One of the things I would -- properties that I would recommend is "The Electric Company." It's a brand new "Electric Company." It's not the one we grew up with, and it is for children who are school age, so basically kindergarten to third grade and very, very hip music. Jimmy Fallon, you know, all kinds of like very fun segments on it. We also have a number of games connected with that. One of them that is testing really well is "Prankster Planet." You can go online and find that, and it teaches literacy skills.
ROTENBERGSo it's, you know, for kids who are struggling with reading, and so many children are to your earlier caller or writer's points about how kids are really struggling in school and we do have a big problem in this country, and it starts with literacy. And so "The Electric Company" and "Prankster Planet" are really good resources. There's also something online and it's called "The Great Word Quest" on PBS. Again, it's for school-aged kids and it was funded in part by the Department of Education. It combines all of the properties that we have that help kids develop literacy skills, and it's really fun because it's engaging, it's interactive, kids can gain skills, demonstrate that they're using those skills and then advance to a higher level.
GUERNSEYI was just gonna offer another suggestion too. I personally think so much of the PBS content is fantastic, and my kids are not seven and nine, and they are very engaged with a lot of it. But I have a seven year old, and I kind of get what you're saying in terms of motivation to read, and one of the things that I found to be highly motivating is for her to receive an email from a grandparent or someone that she cares about, and have it written at a level that she might be able to read or at least start to want to read.
GUERNSEYAnd so when it's something very customized for the child, they're just, you know, they want to get to the end of the sentence. They want to read it. And so, I just wonder if there may be more and more opportunities using the communications technology we have to engage children in a really kind of interpersonal way, you know, one on one. Go ahead, you know, have someone send them a note and then see if that can help them want to read every evening or every night what they've been sent.
NNAMDIHere is Ava in Takoma Park, Md. Ava, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AVAHi. Yes. So a couple things, like we -- I have a two and half year old and a five year old, both of who I home school, and we do use both apps and TV, but one of the things that we do, one, the children are only allowed to watch, like what we call like free TV which is things that they are more interested that's maybe not so educational on the weekends, and then during the week, TV is only allowed if its relevant to whatever their specific learning objectives are for the week. So, I mean, for me, I think it works, especially the apps that we -- I mean, we spent a lot of money on apps, so I think the apps that we do use, and we do use PBS, and we do use Leap Frog a lot, and I think those really -- I really have seen the usefulness in them according to, you know, whatever your educational study is.
AVASo for the person who wrote in about their seven year old, I think that Leap Frog really does have good reading materials, especially like the little pen that you can use to read along with the books. That really does increase literacy and understanding of phonics. So that was my comment.
NNAMDIAva, thank you for your call. It brings me back to the point that you, Jim Steyer, and Lesli Rotenberg made earlier about app gaps, because it would appear that when we are talking apps we are not necessarily looking into the future, we're talking about the present.
STEYERRight. I think that's a great point. I'm sorry, Lesli can go on too. I just think it's such an important issue because if this is going to be the way that kids learn and communicate going forward, and I believe it is, then everyone should have an equal opportunity to get the very best from that. And we as a society, this is the first research that points that out. We as a society and as educators and as parents and leaders there in Washington need to focus on that right now, ensure that that gap does not persist and indeed that we use this to reform the oftentimes broken aspects of our public education system that should not exist.
ROTENBERGYeah. I want to just build on that and go back to that email that you read which was so interesting because the person was basically saying, you know, media could be to blame for a lot of the educational problems that we're having in this country, and I want to just turn that on its head and say, actually, so much -- there's so much potential in media and technology to teach children, and to engage those children who are likely to drop out of school, but instead, to get them engaged and interested and curious about learning, and maybe the way that school is traditionally taught is just boring to them.
ROTENBERGI actually think media in the classroom would help a lot with the educational problems we're having in this country, but of course it has to be the right media, and we have to get it into the hands of the kids who need it most. And I just want to reference a study that was done, again, with funding from the Department of Education, it's through a program called Ready to Learn, and we took content, both television and online games, into 80 preschool classrooms in low-income areas, and the results were staggering.
ROTENBERGThe children from these homes were demonstrating significant improvements in literacy skill development, and they actually outscored their peers on every measure of literacy tested, and so we were actually able to help close that achievement gap.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Lesli Rotenberg is the senior vice president of children's media and marketing and communications at PBS. Leslie, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDILisa Guernsey is the director of the Early Education Initiative at New America Foundation, and the author most recently of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five." Lisa, always a pleasure.
GUERNSEYYeah. Thanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Jim Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which an independent organization that reviews media aimed at children. Jim Steyer, thank you for joining us.
STEYERThank you for having me. Great show.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. Let's do this again. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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