Can Media Help Create Family Conversation?

For very young children, talking is teaching. As we’ve written
the language-rich interaction between young children and 
their caregivers is most important for learning. Writing in the 
New York Times recently, Tina Rosenberg resurfaced some 
important research about the stark disparity that exists between
 the number of words lower income and higher income children 
hear at home, and the affect this has on IQ and school readiness. 
With less talk at home, low-income children are getting less teaching.
I’ve read the work by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 
years past; it’s often quoted in child development circles. But 
this time, with our media-saturated culture in mind, I couldn’t 
help but wonder how media use is affecting the quality of 
conversation that takes place in young children’s homes.
How does type and quality of media affect the words and 
conversations families are having with young children?
There is some research to suggest that adults talk with children 
less when the television is on.  And researchers have 
recommended taking the televisions out of children’s bedrooms, 
for example.  But are new interactive media, websites, mobile 
apps, and games different? Is playing a game alongside a parent 
or an older sibling, for example, more likely to encourage 
conversation, and then learning?
Heather Kirkorian, a researcher at the University of 
Wisconsin-Madison, is one of a few scholars who are just 
beginning to look at whether interactive media may be 
different than television in how it helps young children 
learn. She’s examining the potential increasingly interactive 
media tools like apps have for toddlers. Kirkorian suggests 
that “interactive media may have far greater potential than
traditional screen media to offer any benefit to children 
younger than three years of age.”
Rogers Center advisor Jane Werner told me recently that 
she’s very interested in the potential of technology to 
create conversation. Werner, the executive director of 
the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, says she’s witnessed 
some high-quality discussions recently that caregivers and 
children were having around technology in the museum, 
specifically around new programming software visitors to 
the museum were experimenting with.  
“Both [caregiver and child] are trying to figure out what’s 
going on, and they have this really great conversation 
back and forth,” she told me.
How can technology be used to promote more conversations 
like these with caregivers? And is there potential, 
particularly in early childhood and in low-income families, 
where kids need to be talked to more?
Most of what we know about how media usage differs among 
children from different backgrounds is based on TV viewing, 
and there has been pretty limited research done to date.
The Rogers Center’s Michael Robb says that there’s evidence 
that low-income parents are supportive of using technology 
for learning. In a 2012 Study, Robb and colleagues found that 
low-income families were more likely to espouse positive 
views of using baby media for spending time with children 
and for learning colors, shapes, and numbers and science 
than their higher income counterparts. Robb speculates 
that low-income parents feel that through technology use, 
they are providing otherwise missing educational 
opportunities to their kids.

“[T]here is a very big difference in the quality of online 

access between the haves and have-nots,” the study’s 
author, Vicky Rideout, told PBS Newshour recently. “And 
when it comes to children, which is what I study in 
particular and I'm most concerned with, lower-income 
kids are still at a very real disadvantage.”Different 
families use media in different ways, of course. Common
Sense Media’s 2011 study Zero to Eight identified an 
“app gap,” finding that affluent children are more likely 
to use mobile educational games while those in 
low-income families are the most likely to have 
televisions in their bedrooms.
Scholars like S. Craig Watkins who write about the digital 
divide say that though youth of color are early adopters 
of mobile technologies, they also tend to be using these 
technologies and tools in ways that may be less likely to 
encourage the development of sophisticated digital skill 
sets and literacies. These children may be less likely to 
be in homes or afterschool programs, for example, that 
offer adult engagement and scaffolding where they can 
realize the benefits technology has for learning. 
In their book Whither Opportunity? Greg Duncan and 
Dick Murnane analyze how social and economic 
conditions surrounding schools affect school performance 
and educational achievement. They find, among other 
things, that lower income families spend less on 
enriching activities like music lessons, children’s 
books, or tutoring. Researchers also found that 
by the time they enter high school, high-income 
or white children will have spent over 400 more 
hours in literacy activities than their low-income 
or African American peers.
But we know that the language gap is established 
young, by the time children enter school, which 
makes what happens in the early childhood 
years very important.
Michael Robb says researchers, app developers, 
and parents should be looking at the type of 
technology and how it’s being used in families 
early on. He says we should be asking, “Is it 
something that's likely to promote 
inter-generational use? Are children looking 
over their parents' shoulder when they're 
playing a game, or vice versa, and is that 
an opportunity to talk about a shared activity?”
Robb recommends new apps that explicitly aim to try 
to involve parents and children in joint activity like our
 Alien Assignment or the new PBS Parents app.
“It's not just quantity of talk, it's also quality of talk,
” Robb says. “Depending on age, quality conversations 
around media should go beyond just describing what's 
on screen, to talking about hypotheticals (what might 
happen if you do this?) or engaging in critical thinking 
(why do you think that character did xyz?)”
We still obviously have lots to learn. Time is definitely 
a factor in how families of all kinds use media. And, 
anecdotally at least, we know that “joint family 
media engagement” may be unrealistic and difficult 
for working parents, many of whom struggle to find 
any time at all during the hours they are at home to 
sit quietly and interact with their young children. 
Entering media into this equation is complex, and 
not always advantageous. The more time parents 
spend looking at their own mobile devices during 
dinner, for example, the more they signal to their 
children that what’s happening in the family is not 
as important as what’s on the screen.
We need to know more about how media usage is 
negotiated in family life and what we can do on 
screen and off to make sure all parents have the 
time and the support they need to talk to their children.


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