The benefits of educational apps for brain development in children are widely touted. At the same time, much is also being written about the perils of screen time for kids. These two arguments seem hard to reconcile. But as it turns out, there may be a surprisingly simple solution — one that has less to do with the kids and more to do with the adults in the room. The latest research is pointing to the pivotal role that parents play in helping children learn from screens.
Human Guides Trump “Ghosts”
“The Ghost in the Touchscreen: Social Scaffolds Promote Learning by Toddlers,” a December 2016 study published in the academic journal, Child Development, offers critical insights into how children learn. Researchers asked two different groups of 2- and 3-year-olds to assemble a three-piece puzzle on a touchscreen tablet. The first group received a “ghost demonstration,” meaning the pieces moved on their own (or were moved by inanimate objects). The second group received a demonstration of how to move the puzzle pieces from a person sitting next to them.
Following the demonstrations, both groups of toddlers were challenged to complete the puzzle on their own. While those who’d received the ghost demonstration struggled to replicate the task, those who’d had human guides performed well.
“Simply having someone show them how to put that puzzle together, rather than the app showing it to them, allowed them to put that puzzle together themselves,” said study author and Georgetown professor Rachel Barr, as reported by NPR. “But taking away that person — taking away that scaffold — made their performance just look like they had never even seen it before.”
Introducing “Social Scaffolding”
The concept of social scaffolding is nothing new in education. In fact, it dates back to the 1970s, when cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner theorized that active support in the initial stages of learning facilitated comprehension among students. The Child Development study results reinforce Bruner’s findings within the contemporary context of screen time.
And it was not the first research pointing in this direction, either. Barr also authored a 2016 paper in Frontiers of Psychology, which determined that the “interactional quality” of maternal behavior directly impacted infant learning. Specifically, infants whose mothers were more emotionally responsive were 19 times more likely to succeed in transferring learning between touchscreens and real objects.
As “The Ghost in the Touchscreen” lead author Laura Zimmerman told NPR, “Typically, having another person present during these interactions with touch screens or while viewing television is really beneficial. The parent or teacher can take into consideration what their child knows and build on that — something that’s too complex for an app to be able to do. So rather than children interacting with a touch screen on their own, parents can provide support, to then boost their learning or help them transfer what they learned to the real world. They could also connect that information to something else that they have in their home.”
Echoed Barr, “It’s just really helping [kids] make those connections that seem obvious to us, but really are more difficult for young children. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, but the trick is to think about apps and the television more like you think about picture books.”
Key Takeaways for Parents
Viewed through this lens, it makes perfect sense: After all, we don’t toss a book at an infant or toddler and expect them to be able to read it — let alone learn from it in a meaningful way. However, in reading the book with them, we not only help them understand and apply the book’s content, but also model healthy behaviors about reading. The research is now telling us that this also very much applies to screen time.
With so much evidence pointing toward the value of social scaffolding and, specifically, parental interactions when it comes to technology, the AAP’s recent repositioning on screen time highlights the role of the family — extending far beyond the infant, toddler, and preschool years. In fact, the AAP now recommends that all families with school-aged children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 18 prioritize ongoing, open lines of communication about screen time and purposeful media use through the development of their own Family Media Plans.
Given that technology is only deepening its grip on how we function as a society, the imperative of parental engagement is clear. The good news? With the right mechanisms in place, families can achieve true joint media environments. In doing so, they change the conversation from how to minimize the damage of excessive screen use to how to maximize its potential as a 21st century learning tool.