The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

“If your mother says she loves you…”

"...Check it out!"

These were the words that a famous Chicago newspaper editor used to caution his reporters about trusting sources. And it's true about all research - especially when your loved ones might be involved!

David Kleeman, SVP of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist for PlayCollective, reports on why parents trying to make smart choices about 'screen time' need a similar cautious standard, and welcomes the arrival of the CMF's new Parent Portal information service...

“Research says…” is one of the most deceptive phrases in the English language.  After all, how many of us have increased or cut our consumption of coffee, red wine or chocolate because some new study proclaimed last week’s scourge to be this week’s cure-all? 

Hardly a day goes by that some newspaper or website doesn’t shout “TV (or tablets or smartphones or videogames or social media) causes obesity, ADHD, aggression, reading or language delays, or even cancer!”  One recent scare story went viral; 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 was shared almost 400,000 times on Facebook.
I call this kind of article “hackademic”, in which an author throws learned-sounding terms at anxious lay readers to obscure misrepresentations.
Ideally, journalists would see through the fuzzy logic. Unfortunately negative and definitive headlines sell far better than nuance. Just compare “TV Makes Your Kids Dumb!” with “A Limited Amount of Carefully Selected, Age-Appropriate Media Can Be Beneficial and Besides, We All Deserve Down Time”…
So, parents’ best defense is to become research-literate. And it’s surprisingly easy; there are just a few things to consider when you read newspaper reports about a new research study.
  1. First and foremost, “correlation” is not “causation.” Just because two events occur together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Ice cream sales and murders both tend to rise in hot weather, but ice cream doesn’t spark killings. This is the most frequent source of confusion about academic work, because “causes” or “leads to” makes a complex story sound simple. And given the complexity of kids’ lives and media use, it’s incredibly difficult to prove whether one things actually does instigate another.
  2. It’s never as simple as it seems. Complex phenomena usually have equally complex roots. Be wary when someone suggests that media are the only factor in some massive childhood concern. For example, childhood obesity is affected by social, economic, cultural, biological and other factors, not simply being a “couch potato.” In 2007, writing about the connection between media use and overweight children, an outstanding researcher, Amy Jordan, wrote, “ultimately, we must recognize that children's television viewing behaviors (including time spent with the medium and exposure to unhealthy food ads) are intimately tied to larger patterns of diet and activity within the home and  to messages about food and its role in our lives within the larger culture.”
  3. Even within the home, a simple connection may mask deeper issues. We know that many children have TV in their bedrooms and also that many children are sleep-deprived. It’s easy to think that kids are overtired from watching all night, but for many families a television where the child sleeps is due to overcrowding, or a general lack of parental oversight.
  4. If a statement seems designed to provoke fear more than insight, be skeptical. The author of the bombastic blog post cited above wrote that “Children are our future, but there is no future for children who overuse technology.” Clearly, this is hyperbole – overuse of anything is a bad idea and we should be concerned about any child whose life is dominated by one thing.
  5. Consider whether the researchers are asking the right questions. A very recent study from the University of Toronto found that 3 - 5 year old children might not understand what real animals can and cannot do, after reading children’s books featuring animals with human abilities. But, why is this important for such young children, and what would be lost if every book insisted on biological accuracy? Do we ban Winnie the Pooh and Paddington? There’s plenty of time to learn the science.

Today’s screens are the “Swiss Army Knife” of modern life: they connect and communicate, inform, engage and entertain. Families with children with special needs, especially, are finding extraordinary adaptive uses for phones and tablets in support of their children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

These are just a few tips toward research literacy...The CMF’s recently launched Parent Portal aims to aid parents in making critical decisions about the media their kids use. It works with academics and research professionals to produce an overview of current research in children’s media consumption, and it’s available to everyone.

Parents should read studies critically and skeptically (but not cynically), and keep in mind that research operates on a “population” level, whereas every family is unique, and does its best to make its life work. Explore, play, read, talk and cuddle – and there should still be room for a little “screen time.” Be thoughtful about the context (why, when, where and for what), the content, and the needs and interests of your child (or children).Living in balance is the best way to battle the “hackademic.”

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)