The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released their policy statement on media use for children under age two. The AAP discourages media use, but recognizes that if it is used, limits should be set.
From our perspective, there are limitations to many of the studies cited in the statement. Most notably, their focus is primarily on television and the amount of time spent watching television, instead of the types of content being watched (educational, for example) or the broad array of media platforms children are being introduced to today.
We do understand the AAP’s recommendation, given the relatively little research available about the positive effects of media on young children. But we also must recognize the increasingly digital world in which we all live.
Today, children are born into a media-saturated environment and it is unrealistic to think that most families will keep their kids from interacting with media. Because of this, it may be more helpful to educate parents about how to identify quality, age-appropriate media experiences and how these interactions can be used as a springboard to maximize learning opportunities.
The type of content and how that content is being used matter. Sesame Workshop is committed to providing age-appropriate child content and caregiver resources across a variety of platforms. Sesame Street’s curriculum, which is developed by educators and developmental psychologists in consultation with expert advisors each year, has always been crafted for children two to five (preschoolers.) Many studies of Sesame Street have demonstrated the positive learning effects for the preschoolers who watch the show. The content is designed and written to appeal to adults as well, so that they can engage in the experience with their children to maximize the educational effects.
This is so important because research shows that young children learn best by interacting with adults who engage in playful moments to create everyday learning opportunities. While parents are aware of their role as their children’s first teachers, they need guidance and resources for how to turn interactions with their children into meaningful learning experiences.
As an example, Sesame Workshop created Sesame Beginnings, which was specifically designed for parents and caregivers of young children under the age of two. The goal was to create a shared media experience – one that engages both the child and adult together, as a platform to model positive adult-child interactions in a non-threatening, engaging way.
For instance, when Elmo’s dad notices that Elmo likes music, he turns ordinary household objects like plastic tubs and wooden spoons into musical instruments. Together with his friends Cookie Monster, Prairie Dawn, Big Bird and their respective caregivers, they form a band.
A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts indicated that frequent viewers of the Sesame Beginnings videos were more likely to interact with their toddlers using tips and suggestions they learned in the videos, such as using rich, descriptive language when talking to their child or singing and making music together. This was true even when they weren’t watching the programming.
Research efforts now need to focus on the effects of content and context, with the goal of better understanding how media can positively influence child development. For example, a recent study at Georgetown University showed that American toddlers were better able to learn a task demonstrated by an Elmo puppet than by a DoDo puppet, a character popular with children in Taiwan. This suggests that kids’ relationships with trusted media characters actually do matter.
We are also working with researchers at several academic institutions to focus on ways to encourage parents and children to engage with media together, so that children can benefit cognitively - as well as socio-emotionally - from having a caring and supportive adult participate in the interactive media experience.
We agree that parents need to set limits and create balance for media use. But we clearly need more research to assess how educational media across a broader range of platforms influence young children’s development and the role that parents play as mediators of media experiences. Increasingly, children are using new interactive media devices such as tablets and smartphones, but the research on the effects of content on such devices is relatively scarce. We particularly need to understand the impacts of digital media and how to maximize its potential to educate children and the adults in their lives.
Rosemarie Truglio, PhD, is vice president of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop. Jennifer Kotler, PhD, is vice president of Domestic Research at Sesame Workshop.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.