One of my favorite TV shows is “How It’s Made.” The show gives an insider’s look at how some everyday products are made—mattresses, air conditioners, and the like. There’s even an episode about how composting toilets are made. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that! In the spirit of How It’s Made, today I’d like to offer an insider’s look at how media effects research involving children is made.
The picture above shows many of the supplies for a research study we started just this week. You see a tablet, some dolls, building blocks, and a bunch of pictures. The study will involve 120 children at three different U.S. universities. Researchers will meet with each child for about an hour on 3 separate occasions. At each meeting, researchers will play games with the child in order to test certain important developmental skills, such as executive function, theory of mind, ability to recognize emotions, self-esteem, social self-confidence, empathy, and more. After the first visit we send each preschooler and their parent home with an educational DVD and a tablet on which is loaded an educational app. Each family will spend two weeks with this content, and will come back in for a second visit to test each of the skills again. Then, about a month later, we’ll meet with the families again to see if any of the developmental skills “stuck” over the long-term.
Let’s take executive function. Executive function can be described as one’s ability to regulate their behavior. See the building blocks in the picture? Kids love to build towers. So, we tell the child that we’re going to build a tower, but that we’re going to take turns placing blocks onto the tower. Some children get so excited that they forget the taking-turns rule. These kids, in other words, let their excitement for the task override the instructions, indicating a deficit in executive function. Theory of mind is similar—it involves our ability to recognize that others have a viewpoint different than our own. See the Cheerios bag in the photo? We tell kids that one of the doll figures’ favorite snacks is Cheerios. We then show the inside of the Cheerios bag to the children, where they discover rocks instead of Cheerios. We then ask the child how the doll, who has never seen inside the bag, will feel when they see the bag. A child with more developed theory of mind will say happy, while a child with less-developed theory of mind will say sad, since they already know what’s in the bag, while the doll figure doesn’t.
I admit that sometimes when parents ask me a question about certain media effects on children I have to tell them that I don’t know, or that more research needs to be done. Here’s why. Let’s do a little bit of math related to the study I’m describing. We’ll visit with 120 families for one hour each, three times. Yes, that’s 360 hours, or the equivalent of nine 40-hour work weeks. 120 tablets at $100 each—well, you can do the math there. In other words, media effects research involving children can be quite time-consuming and expensive. There are so many questions related to media’s effect on children, and the technology is constantly evolving, that we who do this for a living can’t seem to keep up. Then, add on the 2-year (or so) cycle from study conception to actual publication in an academic journal, and you can see that we’re always playing catch up.
Every now and then I wish I were a professional athlete, that I could go to work and have thousands of people cheering me on. Sometimes I wish I were a famous musician who could charge hundreds of dollars for admission to my show. But when I really think about it, the only reward I really need is to know that something I’m doing has the chance to make a difference. If my research, while slow and tiring, can make a difference for one family, then I don’t need thousands of adoring fans. The hope that something I do can help one child, one parent somewhere, somehow, to make a media-related choice that will bring happiness instead of grief is what keeps me going.
Most of us—regardless of our occupation—will never become president of the United States (I could say something here about our current presidential candidates, but I’ll exercise some “executive function!”). Most of us will never be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Most of us will live paycheck to paycheck for much of our lives. But, our lives will not have been in vain if we can make a difference for a child. Even one child. Even our own child. I try to do this for my day job with children and media research, and it’s my hope that you can find something I’ve shared on this blog that will help you do the same for the special children in your life.
Like research, parenting is hard. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating and expensive.
But it’s worth it.