Archive for February, 2008

Interview with Lisa Guernsey, Author of Into the Minds of Babes

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that all screen-based viewing for children ages two or under should be avoided completely. At the same time dozens of “brain boosting” DVDs, videos, and interactive products hit the marketplace with claims of being beneficial to child’s cognitive development. Many parents are torn. What is the right thing to do for their child?

Lisa Guernsey's book Into the Minds of Babes - How Screen Time Affects ChildrenIn Lisa Guernsey‘s book, Into the Minds of Babes – How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five, she explores many of the media claims about screen time and young children. She digs deep into the world of child research and not only investigates which research is credible and which is not, but she also makes the material accessible for the everyday parent along the way.

After reading her book I’ve had the opportunity to see Lisa speak a couple of times at conferences that focus on children. At a recent conference I spoke with Lisa about her book.

Scott Traylor: Lisa, let me start by asking you a little bit about yourself – who you are and how you came to writing your book.

Lisa Guernsey: I’m an education technology reporter. I was writing for the New York Times Circuits section about online media and other technologies, then I had kids. The story I tell in the book is that I had a colicky baby and I couldn’t get her to stop crying or fussing. I was completely lost. My eyes were opened to the trying routine of having and caring for a baby. Friends suggested trying the Baby Mozart videos to calm her. They referred to these videos as baby crack. I wasn’t fully considering what I was doing; I was still a bit overwhelmed by being a new parent. I was trying to figure it all out. It wasn’t until later, when I had my second child who was not colicky, that I was able to start seeing how babies respond to different types of stimuli, screen-based or not. I started to ask myself: Which videos do my children understand and which ones do they not understand? Are they able to remember what they see? Do some parts make sense to them because it’s part of their world? I had so many questions about how they respond to media that it led me to search for related research on the subject.

It was in April of 2004 when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in its journal by Dimitri Christakis and other researchers that had linked attention deficit problems (not ADHD) to television viewing at early ages. I remember being struck by this article, asking myself, What do we know about the brain and how it’s wired? As a parent, I should really know this information.

A few months after the release of this report, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post which took a deeper look into this issue through the eyes of a parent. Screen media is all around us, and to be told your babys brain is going to be rewired as a result of watching something on-screen is a very scary thing to a lot of parents.

After my article was published I received a lot of response from parents who wanted to know more about the papers findings. I also heard from a publisher who was interested in having me write a longer treatment on the topic. I started contacting more researchers who have been part of studies about children and their ability to learn from watching videos. It was a real eye opener because theres so much information that parents arent being told about media and kids. What they hear tends to be two polar opposite messages: The first message says screen time is really bad for your child and parents should do everything they can to eliminate it. The second message says cognitive stimulation is good for your baby and that these baby videos can help in achieving that stimulation. Parents arent hearing any answers to basic questions like What is good for a 2 year old? Is it possible my child really did learn the word backpack at 16 months from watching Dora the Explorer? While what I saw as a parent led to me think that it is possible that learning can occur through watching screen media, some researchers were saying it’s just not possible to get anything from screen media.

ST: So after writing The Washington Post article, you found a publisher interested in having you write your book.

LG: Yes, a publisher contacted me. I went through the process of writing a proposal and doing all the research. But ultimately they decided not to run with my proposal. It was disappointing. Even though this publisher wasn’t interested in my idea, I was finding so much interesting information I thought someone would find it compelling. My husband encouraged me to continue shopping it around. Some time later I found an agent who was interested in taking on my project and my agent found the right publisher interested in the idea.

ST: How did you prepare for writing your book? Theres a lot of research out there, especially related to television viewing and children. I imagine it was hard to know just where to begin.

LG: I wanted to make sure that I hit all the big journals and looked at what was peer reviewed research. I wanted the information I was reading to be based in the scientific method. I didnt want to focus only on surveys of how children spend their time. The material I was looking for had to be peer-reviewed research on how children are learning and when theyre learning. I also wanted this research to include randomized controls when possible. First I looked at the medical establishment journals like Pediatrics and JAMA. The American Behavioral Scientist (ABS) journal led me to a lot of great information. Also, Dan Anderson of the University of Massachusetts had assembled a lot of interesting research from psychologists looking into how children learn and how they remember things at very young ages. The ABS released a special journal in January 2005 on the topic. I read through the journals looking for articles from the educational research community that dealt with developmental psychology. I also looked for related information in the neuropsychology field and ADHD research, but didnt find much. I went from footnote to footnote to footnote. Then I would call the researchers who wrote the papers.

ST: To check out the researchers methodologies and conclusions?

LG: To get their story. There are so many great research experiments going on out there and so many smart people doing them. The researchers I spoke with have fascinating insights and I would ask them about their “aha” moment. They shared insights into what occurred early on in their experiments and discussed how experiments would change to explore new questions they encountered during their research. By hearing the stories of psychologists I was able to get a good handle on how to write the narrative of how these researchers began to understand these things.

ST: One of the things that really struck me about your book was the volume of interviews you conducted. It seemed with every page I turned there were an additional three or four new interviews. Then I thought each interview must have been a two-hour conversation, not including the prep time needed to read multiple studies before your call. You must have had hundreds, if not more, interviews.

LG: Well certainly hundreds. What made it possible was the openness of a lot of these researchers. They usually dont get calls from folks interested in their research. They were very happy to share what theyve found. Many researchers know one another within their community of developmental psychologists and educational researchers and communicate this research in short hand with one another. It’s not common to have someone call to ask for the laymans point of view of it all. Everyone I spoke with was just so responsive and incredibly helpful.

ST: While I read a lot of research, I’m not a researcher myself. I find it can be challenging sometimes to read some studies and fully understand the nuances.

LG: Me too. I still feel like I need to take a class in statistics. Theres so much more I could learn by reading these journal articles again. Speaking with the researchers over the phone was a great way to come to a deeper understanding of the research. Id say Im looking at this chart in your study, am I interpreting your findings correctly? Does this finding correlate to that finding? It was a great help.

ST: While you were writing your book, what surprised you the most?

LG: There were so many things. The biggest surprise for me was with the studies of background television noise and the fact that were not talking enough about foreground and background noise with television, with computers, with media devices. Were also not talking enough about screen content that is created specifically for children under the age of five, and yet media is all around them.

ST: You mean like with a television being left on all day in the home with the news playing?

LG: Exactly. Many homes have the news on straight through the morning hours. There are 53% of families out there with children under the age of six who report that they have the TV on almost half the time, most of the time, or all of the time. The majority of kids are growing up in houses where the television is on more than half the time. And yet, we keep hearing about studies that say TV is bad. I think it would be fascinating to look at the context of TV time.

So I started finding reports on background noise and children, particularly infants, and the impact background noise can have on learning language. I was blown away by the findings and thought, “How come were not hearing about this?” After reading this body of research, Im surprised that more attention isnt paid to it. I was interested in giving this topic a lot more attention in my book.

ST: Tell me about the three C’s you describe in your book.

LG: The concept of the three C’s didnt come to me right away. I was going through journal article after journal article looking for a way to give an umbrella name to all of this. At first I was looking at studies on time and screen use and thought, “Should I be telling parents that one hour of screen time a day is okay? Or an hour and a half? Or less than an hour for certain ages?” But all of the research wasn’t pointing me to length of time being the most important item. What studies were pointing me to was the content and the context of the media being viewed along with consideration of the uniqueness of the individual child.

I interviewed many families and each would describe how their child would respond to using media. I was hearing how different each child would respond. One child loves it and another child doesn’t. One is captivated by a program and another is not. One gets energized, and another is hyperactive watching TV, while another falls asleep after watching. So it was a happy day when I discovered it’s all about the three C’s Content, context, and the individual child. After I had this concept in my head I started seeing it everywhere. Every research report I came across would point to the three C’s in one way or another.

ST: So while the three C’s werent specifically called out in the research you were reading, it was a reoccurring theme in every report.

LG: Exactly.

ST: Did you come across any research that you wanted to include in your book but didnt?

LG: Theres some research out there about how media can have an impact on childrens sleep patterns. I didnt include much of that in my book. It’s worth looking at because there may be something connected to having a television in the bedroom or watching particular types of content before falling asleep that may make it hard to fall asleep. It’s an area that we should be looking at more.

Theres also a lot more to write about when it comes to the topic of a “social partner.” There are some great questions to address — like how important is it in screen media that toddlers at 24 months have a social partner to introduce them to language? How important is that social partner on screen helping a toddler understand language? Theres a lot of fascinating research on social partners that doesnt have anything to do with media that could be really helpful to parents.

ST: At the time when Mr. Roger’s passed away, I remember there being a lot of conversation about the possible benefits of having a social partner on TV that was a person as opposed to a cartoon character. Since hearing those discussions, I’ve been very aware of number of shows available to children that do not have a person speaking to the child, but see many more animated characters as social partners. When it comes to young children and social partners, what research are you coming across? Can you expand a little more on social partners in childrens media?

LG: I think it’s a great area for more research. Theres a lot of research that came out of Vanderbilt University related to the topic. In those studies, there was always a human being on screen communicating with children as if they were standing next to them, and the children who talked back to those on-screen faces were the same ones who demonstrated that they learned something from what they saw. Along the same vein, I think characters like Dora the Explorer and Elmo are completely captivating to young children in a way thats very surprising. Children display an affinity for those characters and sometimes see them as their peers. So these characters are not real people, but they are friends in a kind of imaginary, fantasy world. Sandra Calvert at Georgetown University is researching how important these relationships can be to kids. I dont think we should discount non-human characters if children really relate to these characters. If characters help with modeling, help solve a problem, assist in good eating choices, whatever the topic, there can be an incredibly powerful connection for the child.

ST: What research are you watching that wasn’t published at the time you were writing your book?

LG: The University of Massachusetts is on top of some wonderful stuff in many ways. Theyre currently underway with eye tracking studies with babies. This research should be really interesting in terms of the great baby video debate. At the University of Washington where Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman are working, theyre still doing a lot of correlation work to slice data from pre-existing studies in more fine-grained ways. For example, in a recent issue of Pediatrics, they came out with a report that looks at certain kinds of television content as either educational, noneducational, or violent. Once they sliced media up in this way, they discovered that attention deficit problems actually dropped out of the picture with children who were watching educational TV. But, they did find a continued association between attention deficit problems and violent content. In a related study, they also discovered anti-social behavior exhibited with younger children after viewing violent content. I think it’s very promising that researchers are starting to look at content in this way. I think looking at content brings up much harder questions, as do issues of context, like how television is being used in the home, how is a computer being used, who is there with the child, what are those people saying, how is time valued, are kids modeling how parents use media. These questions are all missing from research.

ST: Your book provides a great overview of some important studies parents should be aware of. Were you finding any holes in the research world which need to be filled?

LG: There are holes, particularly with scary media. I have a chapter titled “Whats too scary for my child?” and that was a much harder chapter to write. It was hard to find any solid answers in this area. Parents would ask me really detailed questions related to nightmares their children would have. They would want to know, was it something they watched on TV yesterday? Was it a movie we watched? What is the research saying? What upsets young children and are there any long-term effects from these upsetting experiences?

ST: What did you discover in terms of research related to interactive technologies?

LG: There’s a huge difference between interactive technologies for babies versus that for preschoolers. Only recently have we started to see interactive screen-based technologies that are targeting babies. Theres very little research using the scientific method that looks at the messages babies are receiving from interactive media. It’s also unclear just how many families are using interactive products with babies or with toddlers. In many cases, there are too many hurdles to get over with just setting up the interactive media products themselves. Do parents have the time to deal with this?

Then theres a huge question of fine motor control and the ability to manipulate things happening on the screen with a remote control or a joystick or a mouse. There is research out that has led me to believe that joysticks are incredibly difficult for children under the age of six. Theres also the question of when children are even ready to start using a mouse. How can digital information be presented to young children on-screen who are non-readers in a way that would allow them to feel that they are in control? I think it’s important if children are going to use interactive technologies that its done in an empowering way for them. I’ve seen a range of different experiences with my own children and those of the families I’ve interviewed, but again, all of this is based on observations and very little of it is based on scientific research.

The research I’ve found is pretty sparse. Most of what I’ve found is looking at the question of control over their experience and how frustrated theyre being directed by a family member watching over their shoulder and how frustrated they can get when they have to wait for something onscreen. Warren Buckleitner has done some research in this area.

Theres also the question of story — the difference between stories that are played in a linear format on video as opposed to those that can be manipulated in an interactive format. Theres a study out of Georgetown that looks at different types of Dora the Explorer content, comparing both linear and interactive media, and found that the interactive experience can lead children to recall just as much as, but no more than, the linear experience.

These are all important issues for designers of interactive media to keep in mind and understand as they create new content for young children. All of that said, theres still a lot of opportunity with interactive content for preschoolers, with the right features in place to give them an experience where they are in control and can create something unique that they can share with others. Something like Scratch or Kerpoof. Creating a feeling of mastery for the child, that they can see their own progress. To achieve this it’s all about interface.

ST: Whats your next project?

LG: Theres a couple of avenues I’d like to take. Im interested in a similar approach to reviewing research and talking to researchers while also watching families to see how it relates to children at home. I’m interested in exploring how children learn to read and the science of reading. Partly because I’m following my own kids but also because I’m really interested in the learning that takes place. My oldest child is learning to read and it’s fascinating to see when it clicks for her and when it doesn’t, when it’s easy and when it’s frustrating. I’m interested in seeing how the science of reading is being applied to real world household settings.

ST: As it relates to media?

LG: As it relates to media. How can media be harnessed to help children who are learning how to read.

Im also interested in the creativity question How can we help children be more open in their thinking and not feel boxed in. These are two areas that I’m going to focus on in the next year and see if anything comes out of them.

ST: I’m excited to hear that. Your book is a great road map to important issues with screened media for parents and caregivers. Youve made the content really accessible to them without having to be a clinical psychologist.

LG: I certainly was aware the whole time while writing this book that I don’t have a masters or doctorate in child developmental but theres nothing out there for parents. I really resisted ending each chapter with a “to do” list or a bullet point list of items that were important to remember. I thought that if I could just tell these stories parents could figure it out based on their own experiences with their kids at home. Let’s hope that the narrative comes out.

ST: It does indeed. Lisa, thank you for writing this great book. It’s an important piece of work on many different levels. I wish you continued success with all your future projects.

Video links:
To see video of Lisa Guernsey presenting at a special event sponsored by the American Center for Children and Media click below for video segment 1 of 2:

Click here for video 2 of 2.

Giant Leap Forward with Kids’ Virtual Worlds

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Irwin Toy creates the ME2, a handheld product that collects “motion points” in the real world and converts those points into online currency.

This ME2 handheld device by Irwin Toy is a gaming unit, a pedometer, and a currency collector to be used in an online worldEvery year when I attend the New York Toy Fair I may see a few thousand toys in the course of four days. I was recently speaking with another toy reviewer who said, “Did you ever notice that even though you see thousands of new toys, you will only remember maybe five of the best products?” This observation has served me well. What stands out in a Toy Fair attendee’s memory after seeing so many products will usually go on to be the breakthrough later in the year. I believe the ME2 by Irwin Toy will be one of those breakthrough products, not just in the toy space, but also in the virtual worlds and social networking space as well.

Let me start with some background information. The ME2 is a handheld device that has a small 8-bit color screen that measures about 2 by 1.5 inches. Each ME2 comes with one onboard game. The ME2 can also be docked to your computer via a USB port. When the ME2 is connected to your computer, access to an online 3D virtual world is granted. The website which is being developed will be www.me2universe.com, but currently this part of the product offering is not available to the public. (More information about the ME2 will become available at this link within the next few weeks.) Additional games can be loaded onto the ME2 after connecting to and exploring the online ME2 world.

Once you create and customize your own avatar, you can begin to explore this fully immersive 3D world. Within this world there are many different “islands” to explore, but you can’t visit another island until you successfully complete challenges that are on each island. To complete a challenge, you may need to purchase “in world” items to help solve puzzles. And here’s the amazing part of this entire product offering; To purchase items in this virtual word, you don’t use a credit card or real dollars. Your own activity level in the physical world earns points and therefore purchasing power online.

Screen capture from one of the many virtual worlds within www.me2universe.com

While the ME2 is a handheld gaming device, it also acts as a pedometer, a tool used to measure the distance or energy people exerted when they go for a walk or a jog. When the ME2 is attached to a child’s belt or is in his pocket, the device collects “action points”. When the ME2 is later connected to a computer, these points are then uploaded to an online account, and then become the currency used to purchase items in the online world. Do you need to buy a boat to cross a virtual river in the online world to solve a challenge but don’t have enough points to buy it? Well, go outside and walk around the block to gain more points. Do you need to purchase a virtual flashlight to see inside a cave but don’t have the currency? Take a ride on your bike across town in the real world, collect points on your ME2, and you’ll have enough credits online to purchase that item! The ME2 is a brilliant solution for online engagement as well as promoting physical activity in the offline world.

In addition to the release of the product, there will be a social networking component. Members will be able to communicate with other avatars in an open chat manner. Communication will be filtered as well as monitored in real time by people looking to ensure that text exchanges between members are appropriate and safe.

The target audience of this product is primarily 8 – 12 year olds, but looks like it could extend nicely out to 6 – 14. The ME2 should be available for purchase in August 2008 and is anticipated to cost between $34.99 and $39.99. This is a one-time purchase and there is no monthly subscription fee to gain access to the online world. This online access model makes it easy to give the ME2 as a gift when compared to sites that require a monthly subscription fee. I also noticed that this product may have a very strong boy appeal, which is something not commonly found in online destinations for children in the 8 – 12 age range.

The ME2 stands above the many other virtual world and social networking “me too” offerings available to kids. Irwin Toy has carefully picked the right combination of online and offline components to make this the innovative product to watch in the months ahead. What a great job for all involved at Irwin Toy. Thank you for sharing your announcement with me!

To see a videotaped demo of ME2 from Toy Fair, click the window below.

Tech Toy Themes Found at New York Toy Fair

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I’ve just made it back from the 2008 New York Toy Fair. In the last five years I’ve been attending the show, this was definitely one of the best. One of the big reasons I attend is to see how technology is being applied to toys, both for fun and for learning. Year after year the Youth Electronics supercategory, a description within the toy industry to measure tech toy sales, grows by leaps and bounds. This year’s use of technology in toys was, for the most part, outstanding. Every year a number of themes present themselves at the show. Here’s are the themes I’ve seen at this years event:

  • Social Networking, Virtual Worlds, and Web Connected Devices – I counted at least twelve new or relaunched social networking / virtual world destinations for children. Some had an offline product like a stuffed toy complete with a code to unlock an online destination. Others had a device that would connect to your computer via the USB port.

  • Robots and Animatronic Devices – Many more robots this year. Mattel/Fisher-Price and Hasbro had some of the biggest announcements with robotic life-like dolls and animals. Also many more robot making kits were on display.

  • Motion-based Products – The Nintendo Wii has definitely had its influence on the toy industry. New motion-based devices for children were on display. However, a number of these tech toy products can only detect motion on an XY plane.

  • Green Products – A surprising number of companies were eager to tell you just how environmentally friendly their products were. From the materials used in their toys to the clever solutions discovered to power toys without batteries to the biodegradable packaging the product ships in. I was overwhelmed by the number of companies that were trying to do the right thing for the environment.

  • High School Musical – The licensing groups at Disney must be working overtime. Many booths had products using the High School Musical brand to promote their new crop of toys.

  • Dinosaurs – Last year I blogged that it would be the year of the guitar. This year it was noted that many dinosaur products will be coming out later this year. Some simply model kits, some stuffed toys, many robotic.

In the coming days I’ll be posting more information on a few of the products I think will become tech toy sensations later this year. Stay tuned!

A New Twist to Social Networking – Pixie Hallow by Disney and Clickables by Techno Source

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Based on the buzz and advertising build up before this year’s NY Toy Fair, I’ve been predicting that the digital toy company Techno Source had a unique technology announcement to make. Just a few days before the show started, signs were pointing to a collaboration between Techno Source and Disney. Both were planning to deliver a big announcement on February 18 at Toy Fair. I made it to the press event and the news definitely raises the bar for the future of successful social networking sites and virtual worlds.

As the news outlets have been reporting since Disney’s acquisition of Club Penguin, Disney is very interested in growing its online virtual world properties. in the last seven months we’ve seen a number of virtual world announcements from Disney. Disney and Techno Source jointly announced their work together to create the latest in virtual world experiences called Pixie Hallow and a physical extension to that world called Clickables. While you can create your own custom fairies today, the Pixie Hallow site will launch later this year.

Pixie Hallow is a virtual world where girls ages 8 – 12 can create their own fairy avatar and explore, better yet “fly”, through the magical fairy world. The world will also include many games and communication tools to interact with other fairies through a number of safe filtered, monitored and canned communication methods. As you can imagine, PixieHallow is beautiful, lush, and visually captivating world. However, the biggest surprise in this world is how Disney developed the art in this world. In true Disney fashion, this virtual world was developed using a multiplane camera technique often used in Disney animated features. This visual technique is also sometimes referred to as a parallax process which is often used to animate and bring alive background art. What’s so unique about this? It’s a striking visual technique that gives the illusion of depth in the virtual word that I have yet to see anywhere else online. It’s a 2D enhancement that ads a level of realism to the product. Each plane of the background moves at its own unique speed. Items in the foreground more at a faster speed than items in the background. If you’ve ever worked in Flash you know that Flash tends to choke on large moving animations. Flash generally doesn’t play nice when it comes to pushing multiple layers of full screen motion either, let alone a single layer of full screen art. Whatever Disney discovered to pull off the effect, I applaud their engineering and animation teams for their success. Job well done!

So Pixie Hallow is the Disney side of this announcement. Techno Source brings a complimentary and compelling experience to the party in the form of a technology called Clickables. Clickables in its simplest form, are like tiny little digital buttons that can be attached to any item; jewelry, notebooks, clothing, whatever. Each button contains a tiny piece of data inside. An initial use for these buttons is to create charms for bracelets. A bracelet can have many different dangling charms but also has a main touch pad location on the bracelet where charm information from a friend can be transferred and captured. Once the tiny bits of information are captured, the bracelet can be “docked” and that information will be uploaded to your virtual fairly account. When this is done, information about your friend is added to your account. The uploaded information also unlocks different online trinkets and game experiences as well.

The beauty of Clickables is that this social experience is not purely a virtual one. Clickables technology, combined with the Pixie Hallow virtual world, encourages real world interaction and real world engagement. Once you’ve physically met someone, clicked bracelets upload that shared, real world event to your Pixie Hallow account. No longer do you have to worry about connecting with people online that you’ve never met.

I’m seeing many unique possibilities for Clickables beyond the Pixie Hallow experience. Similar uses of the technologies could make attending real world exciting long after the event is over. Be prepared to see more announcements related to this new way of connecting with people in the physical world and then sharing more meaningful relationships online.


Pixie Hallow by Disney and Clickables technology by Techno Source

IT’S ALIVE! Elmo Live, Amazing Robotic Toy Debuts at the NY Toy Fair

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

This year at the 2008 NY Toy Fair the buzz is strong with all things digital. Toys that connect to the web, toys that have a virtual worlds component, and robotic toys in many flavors. But none sum up the overall digital spirit of this year’s Toy Fair better than the latest Elmo doll announcement called Elmo Live. You have to see this product to believe it. Now I know what you’re thinking… “Tickle me Elmo was neat at first, and yes, the Elmo TMX (Tickle Me Extreme) doll released last year was also surprising, but I’m hard pressed to think how Fisher-Price could wow me with any future Elmo robotic doll.” Believe it or not, this new Elmo doll is pushing robotics in a way that will amaze you still!

Elmo can stand, wave its arms, move it’s mouth while talking, tell jokes and stories, and I imagine by the time the product ships on October 14th, will include a few additional surprises. To see video of the Elmo Live animatronic product, click below.