Think twice about the research sound bite and keep those perspectacles on, people!

Business Insider

There are a bunch of news stories flying around right now about how “digital technology and tv can inhibit children socially”, but if you actually read the study it’s not that clear, and NO ONE reports and important disclaimer by the authors themselves. As per usual, the news is more sensational than the research…
Here are links to recent news articles:
Methods
Basically the study looked at about 50 6th graders from a Southern California public school before and after an outdoor nature camp and compared their ability to read emotional facial cues to kids who stayed at home going to regular school.
Results
Kids who went to camp showed statistically significant improvement in the test of emotional facial cues.

Discussion
The key point for me, is that in the discussion, the researchers say, “We recognize that the design of this study makes it challenging to tease out the separate effects of the group experience, the nature experience, and the withdrawal of screen-time.” Seems to me that a week of being in nature, running around, doing forest ecology, animal survivor, day hikes, orienteering – might possibly have led to more face to face interaction than a traditional classroom, regardless of the presence of media?
I appreciate that they say, “But even without being able to delineate all the conditions under which social skill improvement would take place, this experiment does suggest that day-to-day, media-saturated environments interfere with a preteen’s understanding of face-to-face communications, while rich opportunities for in-person social interaction enhance under- standing of nonverbal emotion cues.”
Suggested next studies:

“A next step is to attempt to generalize our findings by testing the effects of eliminating screen time in the presence of a different set of activities, to determine whether withdrawing media exposure or adding daily face-to-face interactions underlies the improvement in recognizing nonverbal emotion cues.” AGREED! And perhaps school could look a little bit more like nature camp? Maybe do the test at a less traditional school?

I feel privileged to have the time and access to the research in order to wade through a news story like this. I can only think about how many times we get the sound bite then base decisions in reaction to a limited understanding. I do agree that we need to be intentional about how much screen time our kids experience in the same way that we need to be intentional about how much physical, creative, and unstructured play time they have during their day.

I agree that, on average, people today spend more time than is healthy starting at screens. But there is more nuance to my opinion:

  1. Kids spend the school day doing reading and quizzes on the ipads plus taking notes and writing papers in google docs, which are merely traditional forms of teaching, just transferred to devices (see the SAMR model), then they go home and do the interesting stuff like composing music in garageband, playing video games, making videos, etc. Where is the real learning happening? At home. Let’s rethink what we’re actually doing in school. (and no, Anne Murphy Paul, this does not mean getting rid of technology in school. Maybe you’d like to read the recent research by Linda Darling-Hammond about the importance of 1 to 1 laptop programs? “1:1 laptop implementation increased students’ likelihood to engage in the writing process, practice in-depth research skills, and develop multimedia skills through ‘interpretation and production of knowledge.”)
  2. Teens spend a lot of time on social networks because they crave peer interaction but have no public space to hang out (see danah boyd’s It’s Complicated) and adults are there because the demands of jobs and kid over scheduling means we spend hours as taxis instead of leisure (check out Jennifer Senior, All Joy No Fun). Maybe rather than having no loitering rules or prohibiting our kids from being in parks, we could have public spaces for them? Maybe rather than 2 hours of sports and 4 hours of homework, we could go home and spend time with family and friends and develop some of these social skills? I think if you asked teens, they would rather hang out face to face too, but they can’t. I know. I’m utopian.
  3. Could we please start directing some of this negativity towards the entertainment industry please? It is not a SCREEN problem. It’s what is ON the screen and how we are USING it. (And DO NOT assume that you know what someone is doing when they are using their device if you have not asked them.) Maybe if we engaged in using tech in innovative ways, like making, designing, and performing, we might find that digital literacy and meta-cognition about consumption and decisions improve? Rather than telling them to turn it off because it’s bad for them, which, like abstinence-only sex education, does not work, work to develop critical eyes?

We live in interesting, changing times, but keep your perspectacles on people. Think twice. Don’t just react.

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