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Are Parents Online Too Much or Recharging Too Little?

Posted by Jen on June 23, 2010 at 8:03 AM in Media
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I'll admit, I am not that mother who skips around the house blissfully calling to her children to come do the next lovely family activity, carefully prepared and ready to go on the dining room table. I don't know if these mothers actually exist, but I know I'm not one of them.

No, in lieu of Maria from the Sound of Music, my kids got the workaholic mother who has to consciously close the computer and step away from the keyboard. I'm that mother with the kids who make big sweeping pointing motions to their open mouths while they silently scream in slow motion "Feeeeeed meeeee!" while I silently mouth back, "Hold on, I'm on a conference call!"

It's not that I love to work so much (I'm not sure that I do) as much as that there feels like there's so much work left to do. As a work-at-home mom, I can never quite get away from it. The next meeting, task or to-do item is only as faraway as that little tone on my iPhone. I don't feel great about this, but I'm also aware that if I went to work at an office every day my kids would see me about 50% less of the time. For all my phone calls and my appendage like attachment to the computer, at least it's me and not some babysitter mouthing back in silent slow motion, "Okay, okay!" as I make peanut butter and jelly for lunch or pour everyone a drink of their own.

Enter the New York Times which recently reported that researchers are concerned that parents are so plugged in that they're in danger of profoundly neglecting their children. I know I should have read it as a warning, but I mostly felt bad for the parents in the lead photo instead of the kids (one of which was surfing on an iPhone by the way). Most parents I know who can't let go of their iPhones during non-working times are plugged in because they desperately need some kind of escape to recharge and don't know how to take it. They, like me, salve their guilt, by telling themselves "at least I'm here" even when exhaustion, commitment and work-demands probably more accurately necessitate saying good-bye to the kids (and the iPhone) and taking a day or two to check into a hotel where no one--not the ringer or the five year old--can dare interrupt them.

While the researchers prepare the latest study to heap guilt on our heads, my guess is what parents really need is to read the research on the effects of parental burnout (not excessive use of technology) before they decide to do things differently. Every parent I know wants more time with their children; we just don't have the confidence or the willpower to carve out our own private recharge time when both the needs our kids and our work never really stop.

What do you think? What's the solution here? How do you monitor your own screen time when it comes to being with your kids, work and parenting?


Toddlers and Television: Making Sense of the Research

Posted by Patience on May 14, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Media
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tv lucy.jpg

Two new studies have come out in the last few weeks about the effects of television on young children and their later development. You can read about them here and here. I must admit these kind of studies make me dizzy trying to sort them all out, which was why I was so excited to interview David Kleeman, the President of the American Center for Children and Media. He's also an advisor for PBS KIDS.

This is the man who originally wanted to be a preschool teacher, then a children's program producer and somehow ended up at Harvard. David now leads ACCM in "leading the children's media industry in developing child-friendly, sustainable solutions to long-standing and emerging issues."

While talking with David, I enjoyed listening to his stories about his own two daughters who are now grown. I also asked him to help me make sense of toddlers, television and the long term relationship.

So David, it seems like at least once a year a new article rolls in about a new research study that reports a negative impact of TV viewing on very young children. As a parent of four children, two of whom are under the age of five, I must admit the guilt starts flowing every time I read one of these studies. I try to be careful about what my kids watch on TV and believe they are benefiting from watching quality programs. Am I wrong, what's the deal? Don't hold back David, I can take it.

Wow, I'm glad my kids are grown! With all the prescriptive parenting books and the steady flow of studies that say everything you've done is wrong, it's a wonder parents of babies and toddlers aren't paralyzed by fear of doing anything! A colleague and I have talked about writing a "reverse parenting" book -- start with fascinating adults and ask what in their childhood made them who they are today!

In my opinion, you're doing it exactly right. You are setting limits and choosing carefully, and it seems not using the TV as an extended babysitter or background noise. There is good research finding that moderate viewing of educational programming has mid-term and long-term educational benefits. The first studies that come to mind include a longitudinal study of "Sesame Street" and research on literacy gains from "Between the Lions."

I would love to convince all "sides" in this debate to stop making parents feel guilty. Marketers and parenting writers need to avoid suggesting that their way is the only path to brilliance, and researchers and activists need to stop suggesting that any child who passes through the warm glow of a screen is doomed to a seat in the back row, eating paste.

For example, this is the release from the University of Montreal. I'm actually shocked by the editorial tone of the release, which seems determined to reprimand parents -- "parents show poor factual knowledge and awareness of such existing guidelines" and "common sense would have it that TV exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks." I always find this last claim especially grating, as though children's lives are one-dimensional and every moment has to be programmed for learning; this plays straight into the hands of those who market "the answer" to making kids smart.

By the way, I am fine with any family that decides no screen time is the best choice for them; my problem is with people and organizations who advocate that it's the right choice for everyone.

In just the last couple of weeks two new studies have been released, both conducted by researchers in Canada. One says there is a link between time spent watching TV when kids are under five and poor school performance when the kids reach fourth grade. The other says that there is no evidence that one actually causes the other. With such conflicting results, what should we as parents believe?

Parents should remember that, for the most part, research is a process and not a destination. No single study is definitive (red wine is wine is wine is good...) and, because of the complexity of people's lives, it's almost impossible to determine causal relationships in areas like media use and development.

I would say that instead of reading transient research coverage, parents' time would be far better spent reading other parents' reviews of media content -- TV shows, websites, mobile apps, games -- to seek out and preview what might be right for their children's age, developmental stage, needs, interests and abilities.

Did either of the studies consider the quality of the TV programs the kids were watching or whether parents were interacting with the kids during the program? Or were they based solely on time spent watching?

The Montreal/Michigan study did not take content into account at all. The Oklahoma State study (I think this got mistakenly portrayed as Canadian because most of the coverage of it was in Vancouver and Edmonton newspapers!) gave attention to content, discussing the proliferation of platform and programming options for kids and how this changes research assumptions and underpinnings. In the end, however, it looked primarily at time spent with television.

Beyond the obvious reasons why content matters (see my comment below about carrots vs. cupcakes), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a strong correlation between screen time given to educational programming and parental involvement in children's media habits.

Did the researchers consider the possible impact of such factors as home life or family situation?

Both studies considered an array of societal and family factors. Teasing out these factors was at the core of the Oklahoma State study, which looked specifically for family, parental and child factors that may confound effects attributed to TV.

The Michigan/Montreal study did, as most studies do, try to weed out other economic, social and other factors; however, here's a key sentence from that study: "Preexisting maternal or familial factors predicted television exposure and were consistently related to most of the dependent variables,making them, in addition to sex, essential as controls." To me, this says that the amount of screen time allowed a child doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is related to family needs (if you live in an unsafe neighborhood, TV may be the safest option; if a family is dysfunctional, the child may end up spending more time alone with the screen; if parents are working two jobs trying to make ends meet, they may not be able to afford quality child care). It's easy to see how, in all these cases, the time spend with media is a symptom as is later struggle, instead of the cause.

How would you think the media has done at reporting the results of these studies? Are there a few tips you can share that would help parents read media reports more critically?

Unfortunately, planes that land safely aren't news. "TV makes your kids dumb" is a much more compelling headline than "A limited amount of carefully-chosen programming can contribute to early learning, especially with parental co-viewing." Note that the "TV is harmful" article got far more press play than the "it's not TV; it's parental engagement" story.

I have been distressed that media often print the press release, and don't delve into weaknesses of the study. Some things for parents to watch for in interpreting research.

-Was the sample size large or small -- research on a limited group may suggest direction for further study, but is hard to generalize to the population.
Was the study based on an observable behavior or on parental recollections or estimates.

-Did the study find "correlation" or "causation" -- almost 100% of serial killers drank milk as children (correlation); however, milk drinking does not lead to murder (causation).

-Did the study take content into account -- carrots and cupcakes both count as food intake, but wouldn't have the same result as a dietary staple.

-Did the research factor in environmental elements like socio-economic status, parental education, parental co-viewing and overall involvement with the child, and so on -- what the child brings to the television is at least equal to what the child takes away. One area where this is particularly salient is studies linking screen time and later ADHD -- perhaps parents of toddlers who show patterns suggesting ADHD allow more TV because it calms or focuses the child?

Every child's life is unique. This is what makes it virtually impossible to tease apart the factors in success or struggle later in life, and what guides my pragmatic belief that parents -- with best intentions -- develop practices that work for their lives.

The Oklahoma State study that found turning off the TV didn't affect learning unless parents also got involved in their kids' lives, is for the most part quite readable and a good discussion of strengths and weaknesses of previous studies. I also highly recommend Lisa Guernsey's book, "Into the Minds of Babes" as a guilt-free, informative parenting and media overview.

One last thought on journalistic coverage, and public reading, of research: it's not just media-related studies. I think we all need to become more research-literate, to be able to read critically through coverage of opinion polling and scientific studies.

The reality is that most preschoolers I know are going to watch TV, particularly when they have older brothers and sisters as is the case in my house. What advice can you give parents like me to insure that their kids' TV viewing experience is good and positive for everyone?

When it comes to food, I'm a fan of Michael Pollan's mantra, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." I'll shamelessly steal it for children and media use: "Allow media. Not too much. Mostly educational." Don't use screen time as the default activity, but pick programs (and games or websites or mobile apps) and set guidelines on when and how much.

Just as I (probably you, too) sometimes want to watch a thoughtful documentary and sometimes want to watch "Glee," kids want and deserve fun time. If they have a favorite TV show or game that is not explicitly designed for learning (everything is educational - the question is what it's teaching), that's just fine!

I'm also a strong believer that you don't have to like everything your children watch, but you should respect it. If your child finds a program or game that is in conflict with your family's values, then sit down and explain why you choose not to allow it.

Mediating between younger and older siblings is difficult. The older ones may be ready for stories or content that are beyond the youngest. That's when a VCR or DVR (Tivo) comes in very handy -- help your older kids feel special by making viewing time just for them when the younger ones are napping or playing elsewhere.

When David isn't leading a roundtable discussion on what proposals, policies or practices concerning children's media might emerge during the Obama Administration, chances are you will find him running somewhere, anywhere. He's probably getting ready for his 15th marathon.

Be sure to check out our own guide and information here on to help you become informed about the impact of television on the young children in your house.

What do think about young children and television? What rules, guidelines or practices do you follow at your house?


Too Much Screen Time? Or Just More of the Right Kind?

Posted by Jen on February 17, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Media
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carter on DS final.jpg

Over the last 72 hours, Madeleine, age 11, has won first prize in a high end fashion show, successfully completed knee surgery, finished the rehab project on her new room, provided edgy commentary about issues surrounding Miley Cyrus's fame and celebrity and decided turnip farming really isn't her thing anymore.

Carter, age 8, has become a dodge ball champion and is now navigating a career change that could grant him the number one tether ball player in the known world. He's also navigated disagreements with three bosses, painstakingly followed the directions to making four new origami creatures, studied climate change and decided that he really doesn't want to go anywhere in a car anymore. Not because he's prone to extreme carsickness--don't get me wrong, Mom. I am sick of THAT--but because he just can't in good conscience get in cars the way the emissions are contributing to global warming.

None of these accomplishments happened in the real world, of course. No, they came while one or both children were sitting behind a computer screen, like thirty year old cubicle slaves, slogging through hours of gaming, learning and websites, on the quest to be the smartest most sophisticated children on earth. Or the biggest losers. You decide.

I know this is considered the pinnacle of bad parenting, that as a "good parent" I'm supposed to limit their screen time, monitor their online use--blah, blah, blah. And trust me, I follow advice from the best of them. (Just come over and bear witness to the 35 paper airplanes Carter engineered this weekend or watch them sled down Meryl's hill or listen to the song Madeleine wrote on the piano that sounds impressively like Sigur Ros.)

I'm just wondering if too much screen time is as worrisome a thing as the wrong kind.

Right now, I'll admit it. I really don't want them to get off "that thing" as I like to call it when they're doing hip replacements or studying Gray's anatomy. I honestly think they can have another thirty minutes when Carter is on Brain Pop reading explanation after explanation about global warming. Now granted, it's not always like this and God knows they are also taking in plenty of drivel. But there's something about the hard-charging, multi-tasking, decide-now-or-die, teach-me-now quality to the online/gaming world that I can't help but think will help them in the long run.

It's a secret opinion I've kept to myself for fear of being stoned by the other parents (think twice before casting the first stone), but then I saw this recent CNN video about gamer Jane McGonigal who's changing the world one game at a time. Those are grown-up boys and girls playing her games, but my guess is the only thing that's different between them and Madeleine and Carter is that there's no mother around to tell them to go outside and turn that thing off.

I'll still be saying that to my kids for the next eight years or so, but I hope that when I'm not around anymore they do something remarkable with their online savvy. I hope they win contests in the real world; I hope they beat some bosses. I hope they talk circles around my doctors when I need knee surgery. And I really hope they solve problems for worthy causes all their own.


The Real Reason Social Media Matters for Our Kids & the Future

Posted by Jen on November 4, 2009 at 12:27 PM in Kids Around the WorldMedia
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carter and twitterkids (1 of 1)

Last week I watched as the good people from Epic Change installed a tech lab in an elementary school in Arusha, Tanzania. My kids, Madeleine (11) and Carter (8) got a first hand look at how social media can be more than a distraction for your homework or a way to kill time with your friends. These children discovered the pure power of the web: the ability to connect human beings all over the globe for the purpose of conversation, collaboration and yes, friendship--for the very first time. The simplicity of Twitter--something both my digital media savvy kids understand without explanation--was the tool of choice and within days kids who previously had no concept of the internet or email were tweeting with social entrepreneurs, moms, teachers and good-hearted souls from all over the world.

twitterkids 2 (1 of 1)

While it's not the easiest thing in the world to set up a tech lab halfway around the world (or take your kids to Africa, for that matter), I'm incredibly thankful for my children to get a new take on the web and social media. For all the worrying we do about our kids wasting away online, now I can offer them this constructive alternative--building old fashioned pen pal type relationships with their peers in the global south. And this is just the beginning. What happens when we decide as a global community that access and connectivity is a right and privilege worthy of all the children of the world?

twitterkids 4 (1 of 1)

Having this pipeline open changes things not just for kids but for the teachers and educators who guide them. "How can we get them interested in reading?" Mama Lucy, the founder of Shepherds Junior asked. There are a hundred answers, of course, but now she has one of the most powerful solutions at her fingertips. Light them on fire with the fluency that comes with chat. Show them how to explore the myriad of child-appropriate sites dedicated to learning how to build proficiency in language and literacy in a way that wasn't available to them before. Let them navigate a brand new world built on the craving for connection and power of the word.

twitterkids 3 (1 of 1)
Mama Lucy with good friend and founder of Epic Change, Stacey Monk

You (and your kids) can tweet with the children of Shepherd's Junior School by following along on Twitter. They're waiting for you.


The family that plays together, stays together

Posted by Kristen on November 24, 2008 at 6:42 AM in KristenMedia
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The woman walked by with her two-year-old in a stroller. People stared in disbelief as the little girl scrolled her way through her mother's playlist on her I-Pod, looking for her favorite songs.

"I know, I know," she said, mistaking the look on my face. "I am indulging her but she's tired of being at this craft show. If I wanted to make my way through the whole thing, I had to buy her time by letting her use it."

I clarified that that look on my face was one of empathy (I have one of those kids) and the overwhelming sense that if these kids are making their way through our technology at two, what's going to happen when they are 12?

Derek showed Ethan how to access a game on his phone. He really couldn't explain the game to him because the game was complicated (and he probably couldn't figure it out himself). Now we find Ethan hiding in hallways, playing the game over and over, reaching new levels every day. Today my phone was missing. This photo shows you where my phone was hiding. I just didn't expect them to both be playing the game. These kids (and technology) are going to be the death of me.


How Much TV Is Too Much TV?

Posted by Jen on November 19, 2008 at 7:00 AM in JenMedia
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too much tv

After years and years of not having a working television in the house, we have finally surrendered to the three major networks plus public television, courtesy of the handy-dandy rabbit ears over the very outdated set we inherited from the neighbors. It might as well be 1984 around here.

Before you gasp in admiration (or simple shock) let me assure you our kids have missed not one beat of popular culture over the course of their collective childhoods. Every show they could ever pine for is available in one form or another online (see veg out session above), and they have spent hours catching up on every episode on whatever is the latest and greatest according to the playground digerati.

Now that we have real TV, however, I'm feeling more of a need to control or limit their access. Online if they want to watch hours and hours of WordGirl, I'm delighted since I figure they're learning something. But an hour's worth of commercials in between Saturday morning cartoons? Not so much.

What are your strategies for limiting screen time at your house? Do you make a differentiation between TV and computer time? How do you handle advertising and how much exposure your kids have to media messages?

For those of you justifying your TV habits by plopping the kids in front of PBS, check out this article from Children Now about what constitutes quality children's programming and who fits the bill.


PBS Kids Speakout

Posted by Kristen on November 13, 2008 at 7:10 AM in KristenMedia
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Have you seen this? The target audience is above the crowd at my house but what a great way to encourage your kids to be involved in the democratic process! From the PBS Kids Speakout website:

SPEAK OUT is a youth collaborative project to create a digital open letter to our presidential administration.

SPEAK OUT encourages civic engagement among 6 to 12 year olds by prompting them to submit ideas to address prominent citizens' issues as they most relate to kids' lives. Community discussion and the democratic process are modeled by allowing kids to choose which ideas they like best. The ideas with the most votes are featured on in the form of a message to our President. This active, digital message will reflect the youth's changing concerns and proposed solutions over time.

The project originally launched in tandem with the 2008 United States Presidential election.
How votes are counted.

Kid submitted "top ideas" are calculated by dividing the number of times the idea was voted for by the number of times it was part of a pair to vote on. Each voting pair is randomly created, supplying a higher percentage of unique situations to vote on and more chances for each submission to be seen.

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