Category Archives: At home

Please look up? Is you’re tech behavior causing your child to misbehave?

A new study by researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University suggests that even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

About half of parents reported that technology interrupted time with their children three or more times on a typical day. Even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

Feeling bad yet? I have some good news: you can argue that this study is rather small – it is. And in court the evidence would be called rather circumstantial (and correlational). Still, the study seems to be a nice starting point for further research.

Still, read the press release:

Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts out.

Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviors could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets.

A small study from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University found that heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behavior issues. The findings were published in the May 2017 online issue of Child Development.

Researchers analyzed surveys completed separately by both mothers and fathers from 170 two-parent households. Mothers and fathers were asked about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology — and how the devices disrupted family time (a disturbance that lead author Brandon T. McDaniel coins ‘technoference.’) Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children.

Might a few stolen moments used to check a couple text messages have a deeper effect?

While more research is needed, the study suggests it might: Even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behavior problems, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining.

“This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t assume a direct connection between parents’ technology use and child behavior but these findings help us better understand the relationship,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at Mott. “It’s also possible that parents of children with behavioral difficulties are more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child.”

But she adds “We know that parents’ responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It’s really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time.”

McDaniel, who designed and carried out the study, says researchers hope to learn more about the impact of increasing digital technology use on families and children.

“Research on the potential impact of this exposure lags far behind,” says McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University.

“It’s too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children.”

Parents in the study were asked to rate how problematic their personal device use was based on how difficult it was for them to resist checking new messages, how frequently they worried about calls and texts and if they thought they used their phones too much.

Participants also were asked how often phones, tablets, computers and other devices diverted their attention when otherwise engaged with their children.

On average, mothers and fathers both perceived about two devices interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day. Mothers, however, seemed to perceive their phone use as more problematic than fathers did.

About half (48 percent) of parents reported technology interruptions three or more times on a typical day while 17 percent said it occurred once and 24 percent said it happened twice a day. Only 11 percent said no interruptions occurred.

Parents then rated child behavior issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

The researchers controlled for multiple factors, such as parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education as well as co-parenting quality (how supportive partners were of each other in parenting their child), which has been shown to predict child behavior.

The study joins other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.

Some professional societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Zero to Three, recommend “unplugged” family time. But they haven’t tested whether lessening or changing digital technology use during parent-child activities is associated with improved child behavior.

McDaniel and Radesky advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their kids.

Reserving certain times of the day or locations as being technology-free — such as mealtime or playtime right after work — may help ease family tensions caused by the modern blurring of outside worlds with home life, they say.

“Parents may find great benefits from being connected to the outside world through mobile technology, whether that’s work, social lives or keeping up with the news. It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home,” Radesky says. “But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their kids.”

Abstract of the study:

 Heavy parent digital technology use has been associated with suboptimal parent–child interactions, but no studies examine associations with child behavior. This study investigates whether parental problematic technology use is associated with technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions, termed “technoference,” and whether technoference is associated with child behavior problems. Parent reports from 170 U.S. families (child Mage = 3.04 years) and actor–partner interdependence modeling showed that maternal and paternal problematic digital technology use predicted greater technoference in mother–child and father–child interactions; then, maternal technoference predicted both mothers’ and fathers’ reports of child externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Results suggest that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors, but directionality and transactional processes should be examined in future longitudinal studies.

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How do kids and parents worry about privacy with internet-connected toys

Your daughters’ Barbie can be hacked to spy on your children. So, got you worried? Researchers have now conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

From the press release:

University of Washington researchers have conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

“These toys that can record and transmit are coming into a place that’s historically legally very well-protected ? the home,” said co-lead author Emily McReynolds, associate director of the UW’s Tech Policy Lab. “People have different perspectives about their own privacy, but it’s crystalized when you give a toy to a child.”

The researchers presented their paper May 10 at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Though internet-connected toys have taken off commercially, their growth in the market has not been without security breaches and public scrutiny. VTech, a company that produces tablets for children, was storing personal data of more than 200,000 children when its database was hacked in 2015. Earlier this year, Germany banned the Cayla toy over fears that personal data could be stolen.

It’s within this landscape that the UW team sought to understand the privacy concerns and expectations kids and parents have for these types of toys.

The researchers conducted interviews with nine parent-child pairs, asking each of them questions ? ranging from whether a child liked the toy and would tell it a secret to whether a parent would buy the toy or share what their child said to it on social media.

They also observed the children, all aged 6 to 10, playing with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino. These toys were chosen for the study because they are among the industry leaders for their stated privacy measures. Hello Barbie, for example, has an extensive permissions process for parents when setting up the toy, and it has been complimented for its strong encryption practices.

The resulting paper highlights a wide selection of comments from kids and parents, then makes recommendations for toy designers and policymakers.

Most of the children participating in the study did not know the toys were recording their conversations. Additionally, the toys’ lifelike exteriors probably fueled the perception that they are trustworthy, the researchers said, whereas kids might not have the tendency to share secrets and personal information when communicating with similar tools not intended as toys, such as Siri and Alexa.

“The toys are a social agent where you might feel compelled to disclose things that you wouldn’t otherwise to a computer or cell phone. A toy has that social exterior which might fool you into being less secure on what you tell it,” said co-lead author Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the Allen School. “We have this concern for adults, and with children, they’re even more vulnerable.”

Some kids were troubled by the idea of their conversations being recorded. When one parent explained how the child’s conversation with the doll could end up being shared widely on the computer, the child responded: “That’s pretty scary.”

At minimum, toy designers should create a way for the devices to notify children when they are recording, the researchers said. Designers could consider recording notifications that are more humanlike, such as having Hello Barbie say, “I’ll remember everything you say to me” instead of a red recording light that might not make sense to a child in that context.

The study found that most parents were concerned about their child’s privacy when playing with the toys. They universally wanted parental controls such as the ability to disconnect Barbie from the internet or control the types of questions to which the toys will respond. The researchers recommend toy designers delete recordings after a week’s time, or give parents the ability to delete conversations permanently.

A recent UW study demonstrated that video recordings that are filtered to preserve privacy can still allow a tele-operated robot to perform useful tasks, such as organize objects on a table. This study also revealed that people are much less concerned about privacy ? even for sensitive items that could reveal financial or medical information ? when such filters are in place. Speech recordings on connected toys could similarly be filtered to remove identity information and encode the content of speech in less human-interpretable formats to preserve privacy, while still allowing the toy to respond intelligibly.

The researchers hope this initial look into the privacy concerns of parents and kids will continue to inform both privacy laws and toy designers, given that such devices will only continue to fill the market and home.

“It’s inevitable that kids’ toys, as with everything else in society, will have computers in them, so it’s important to design them with security measures in mind,” said co-lead author Franziska Roesner, a UW assistant professor at the Allen School. “I hope the security research community continues to study these specific user groups, like children, that we don’t necessarily study in-depth.”

Abstract of the study:

Hello Barbie, CogniToys Dino, and Amazon Echo are part of a new wave of connected toys and gadgets for the home that listen. Unlike the smartphone, these devices are always on, blending into the background until needed. We conducted interviews with parent-child pairs in which they interacted with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino, shedding light on children’s expectations of the toys’ “intelligence” and parents’ privacy concerns and expectations for parental controls. We find that children were often unaware that others might be able to hear what was said to the toy, and that some parents draw connections between the toys and similar tools not intended as toys (e.g., Siri, Alexa) with which their children already interact. Our findings illuminate people’s mental models and experiences with these emerging technologies and will help inform the future designs of interactive, connected toys and gadgets. We conclude with recommendations for designers and policy makers.

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Educational apps for kids? Interactivity can either help or hinder learning.

It’s funny how I received a question today from someone in the audience and in the way back home I discover a new study on the same topic. This new study looks at the influence of touchscreens for learning, more specific for toddlers. And it’s a bit more complicated than iPads are good or bad. This study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that Educational apps for kids can be valuable learning tools, but there’s still a lot left to understand about how to best design them.

From the press release:

“Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” says Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study and who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that, even in lower-income households, 90% of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of 2. Eighty percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children–especially toddlers and preschoolers. But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question, how well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?

“Children interact with touch screens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” says Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices–on a more basic level–by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”

Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as 2 could use the app to learn new words such as the fictional names of a variety of newly-introduced toys (designed specifically for the study). Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age 4 to 5) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age 2 to 3) and they were also able to follow directions better–such as only tapping when instructed to do so.

The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. As in this study, self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them–after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.

To complement this first study (which included 77 children), Russo-Johnson and her colleagues designed a second app to see which interactions–tapping, dragging, or simply watching–were better for learning new words.

Somewhat surprisingly, across this next group of 170 2- to 4-year olds, no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best. But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, whereas dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.

These results complement the growing body of research on identifying effective interactive features, as well as providing insight into how apps might be tailored to fit the learning needs of different children.

“I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” says Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits, and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”

This study is part of a broader Frontiers collection of articles on the influence of touch screen tablets on children’s lives.

Abstract of the report:

Touchscreen devices differ from passive screen media in promoting physical interaction with events on the screen. Two studies examined how young children’s screen-directed actions related to self-regulation (Study 1) and word learning (Study 2). In Study 1, 30 2-year-old children’s tapping behaviors during game play were related to their self-regulation, measured using Carlson’s snack task: girls and children with high self-regulation tapped significantly less during instruction portions of an app (including object labeling events) than did boys and children with low self-regulation. Older preschoolers (N = 47, aged 4–6 years) tapped significantly less during instruction than 2-year-olds did. Study 2 explored whether the particular way in which 170 children (2–4 years of age) interacted with a touchscreen app affected their learning of novel object labels. Conditions in which children tapped or dragged a named object to move it across the screen required different amounts of effort and focus, compared to a non-interactive (watching) condition. Age by sex interactions revealed a particular benefit of dragging (a motorically challenging behavior) for preschool girls’ learning compared to that of boys, especially for girls older than age 2. Boys benefited more from watching than dragging. Children from low socioeconomic status families learned more object names when dragging objects versus tapping them, possibly because tapping is a prepotent response that does not require thoughtful attention. Parents and industry experts should consider age, sex, self-regulation, and the physical requirements of children’s engagement with touchscreens when designing and using educational content.

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Interesting: how the 2 languages develop in the minds of young bilingual children

Bilingualism keeps me fascinated. This new study shows that the 2 languages of young bilingual children develop simultaneously but independently from each other. But there is more: the study also shows Spanish is vulnerable to being taken over by English, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish.

Btw, the study has also a video-abstract:

From the press release:

A new study of Spanish-English bilingual children by researchers at Florida Atlantic University published in the journal Developmental Science finds that when children learn two languages from birth each language proceeds on its own independent course, at a rate that reflects the quality of the children’s exposure to each language.

In addition, the study finds that Spanish skills become vulnerable as children’s English skills develop, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish. In their longitudinal data, the researchers found evidence that as the children developed stronger skills in English, their rates of Spanish growth declined. Spanish skills did not cause English growth to slow, so it’s not a matter of necessary trade-offs between two languages.

“One well established fact about monolingual development is that the size of children’s vocabularies and the grammatical complexity of their speech are strongly related. It turns out that this is true for each language in bilingual children,” said Erika Hoff, Ph.D., lead author of the study, a psychology professor in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and director of the Language Development Lab. “But vocabulary and grammar in one language are not related to vocabulary or grammar in the other language.”

For the study, Hoff and her collaborators David Giguere, a graduate research assistant at FAU and Jamie M. Quinn, a graduate research assistant at Florida State University, used longitudinal data on children who spoke English and Spanish as first languages and who were exposed to both languages from birth. They wanted to know if the relationship between grammar and vocabulary were specific to a language or more language general. They measured the vocabulary and level of grammatical development in these children in six-month intervals between the ages of 2 and a half to 4 years.

The researchers explored a number of possibilities during the study. They thought it might be something internal to the child that causes vocabulary and grammar to develop on the same timetable or that there might be dependencies in the process of language development itself. They also considered that children might need certain vocabulary to start learning grammar and that vocabulary provides the foundation for grammar or that grammar helps children learn vocabulary. One final possibility they explored is that it may be an external factor that drives both vocabulary development and grammatical development.

“If it’s something internal that paces language development then it shouldn’t matter if it’s English or Spanish, everything should be related to everything,” said Hoff. “On the other hand, if it’s dependencies within a language of vocabulary and grammar or vice versa then the relations should be language specific and one should predict the other. That is a child’s level of grammar should predict his or her future growth in vocabulary or vice versa.”

Turns out, the data were consistent only with the final possibility — that the rate of vocabulary and grammar development are a function of something external to the child and that exerts separate influences on growth in English and Spanish. Hoff and her collaborators suggest that the most cogent explanation would be in the properties of children’s input or their language exposure.

“Children may hear very rich language use in Spanish and less rich use in English, for example, if their parents are more proficient in Spanish than in English,” said Hoff. “If language growth were just a matter of some children being better at language learning than others, then growth in English and growth in Spanish would be more related than they are.”

Detailed results of the study are described in the article, “What Explains the Correlation between Growth in Vocabulary and Grammar? New Evidence from Latent Change Score Analyses of Simultaneous Bilingual Development.”

“There is something about differences among the children and the quality of English they hear that make some children acquire vocabulary and grammar more rapidly in English and other children develop more slowly,” said Hoff. “I think the key takeaway from our study is that it’s not the quantity of what the children are hearing; it’s the quality of their language exposure that matters. They need to experience a rich environment.”

Abstract of the study:

A close relationship between children’s vocabulary size and the grammatical complexity of their speech is well attested but not well understood. The present study used latent change score modeling to examine the dynamic relationships between vocabulary and grammar growth within and across languages in longitudinal data from 90 simultaneous Spanish–English bilingual children who were assessed at 6-month intervals between 30 and 48 months. Slopes of vocabulary and grammar growth were strongly correlated within each language and showed moderate or nonsignificant relationships across languages. There was no evidence that vocabulary level predicted subsequent grammar growth or that the level of grammatical development predicted subsequent vocabulary growth. We propose that a common influence of properties of input on vocabulary and grammatical development is the source of their correlated but uncoupled growth. An unanticipated across-language finding was a negative relationship between level of English skill and subsequent Spanish growth. We propose that the cultural context of Spanish–English bilingualism in the US is the reason that strong English skills jeopardize Spanish language growth, while Spanish skills do not affect English growth.

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Best Evidence in Brief: What are the effects of a four-day school week?

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I already discussed several of the studies mentioned in this great news letter on this blog. But this study was new to me, and quite interesting:

A Brookings report by Paul T. Hill and Georgia Heyward examines the four-day school week in rural Idaho. According to the report, four-day weeks have been implemented in approximately 42 of Idaho’s 115 school districts, with a primary goal of cost savings (e.g., savings on transportation, heating, janitorial, and clerical costs). The revised schedule adds roughly 30 to 90 minutes to each day that students are in school, and then on the fifth day (usually Friday), the goal is to assign projects and encourage parent and community groups to organize study halls and enrichment activities.
The authors collected data by interviewing district and school leaders in Idaho communities that had moved to the four-day week. Key findings included:
  • Though cost cutting was the original motivation for the four-day week, savings have been elusive in most localities. This is because so many costs are fixed (e.g., teacher and administrator salaries).
  • Teachers reported difficulty restarting instruction and focusing children’s attention after a three-day weekend.
  • Teachers in many places now consider the fifth day an amenity, and some superintendents reported that the four-day week made the locality more attractive to teacher candidates.
  • Working parents found the longer hours in school more convenient as it meant that children’s days more nearly matched their own workdays. However, the fifth day presented new problems of child care and planning for positive uses of children’s time.
  • No district that had adopted the four-day week had rigorously assessed the effects on student achievement. Several district leaders said student and teacher attendance had improved in the first year of the four-day week, but they had not assessed whether these results persisted over time.
The authors discuss the limits of their evidence, and note that the long-term effects for rural students’ education are unknown.

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What triggers a high-school student to suddenly drop out?

Leaving school without a degree can for a happy few be a great thing (cfr the typical mentions of Gates, Jobs or Zuckerberg), but for the biggest part of the dropouts it still means bad luck. But what causes high-school students to suddenly drop out? A new UdeM study shows that this could be divorcing parents, a car accident, a job layoff or any other major stressful event can provoke adolescents to quit their studies.

From the press release:

What pushes a teenager to suddenly drop out of high school? The answer: any number of very stressful “trigger” events that occur in their final few months in class, researchers at Université de Montréal’s Public Health Research Institute have found.

In fact, adolescents exposed to severe stressors are more than twice as likely to drop out in the following few months compared to similar schoolmates who are not exposed, says the study led by UdeM pyschoeducation professor Véronique Dupéré.

The stressors are not always school-related. In fact, most occur away from school and can involve family members (divorcing parents, for example), conflicts with peers, work issues (being laid off), health issues (a car accident) and legal issues.

Previous studies of high-school dropouts have concentrated on individual triggers, such as teen pregnancy. The UdeM study, published in late March in Child Development, looked at a wide array of severe events across the spectrum of adolescent experience, in and away from school.

“That’s how we were able to show for the first time that the prevalence of these events is quite high in the months preceding a student dropping out of school,” Dupéré said. “It happens quite frequently, and it’s not just one type of event they’re exposed to; there are many.”

Dropping out is usually seen as the result of vulnerabilities a student has exhibited in school over a long period, including learning problems at an early age. What is less well-understood is why students with no history of difficulty in school quit suddenly, or why vulnerable students who quit do so at different times, some earlier than others.

The UdeM study looked at 545 adolescents of about 16 years of age at 12 public high schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in and around Montreal between 2012 and 2015, where the average dropout rate was 36 per cent, more than twice the Quebec average. The students were interviewed at length about stressors in their life over the previous year. One third of the participants had just dropped out, another third were schoolmates with a similar academic profile and family background, and a final third were average, not-at-risk students.

The interviews focused on two types of stressors: “discrete” events (e.g., the relapse of a bipolar parent) and chronic difficulties lasting at least a month (e.g., incapacitation due to a concussion). Adolescents were asked about stressors in school, at work, in housing, with money, involving criminal or legal issues, accidents or health problems, personal relationships (with friends, family and romantic partners), and more. Specific questions then honed in on areas such as education: course failures, program or school changes, conflicts with teachers, suspensions and such.

The study found significant differences between dropouts and the two other groups in their exposure to severe stressors in the three months before the interview. In those three months, exposure to at least one severe stressor spiked among dropouts and reached nearly 40 per cent, more than twice as high as that of at-risk and average students (18% and 16.8 %, respectively). Moreover, the results showed that exposure to two or more severe events was 12 times higher among dropouts (6%) than among at-risk (0.5%) and average (0.6%) schoolmates.

About one-third of the severe difficulties that dropouts faced were school-related (23% involved protracted course failure, 6% involved chronic conflicts with school personnel), whereas one-quarter (25%) involved recurring family conflicts. Chronic health problems made up 18% of the overall total, distributed about evenly between the participants themselves and their significant others. Problems with peers and romantic relationships accounted for 16%, recurring criminal or legal problems were rare (2%), and the final 10% were miscellaneous problems.

Other studies have suggested that disruptive events like pregnancies, arrest, hospitalization or changing schools are associated with increased chances of dropping out. The UdeM study goes further, showing that about two out of every five dropouts are exposed to some kind of significant stressful event several months before quitting school. In other words, recent stressors are quite common among dropouts, more so than previously thought. The new study also clarifies when stressors matter for dropping out: in the few months following exposure.

“These findings show that the risk of high school dropout is not predetermined over the long run,” Dupéré said. “Rather, it fluctuates and becomes higher when adolescents have to deal with challenging situations in their lives. School personnel thus need to be aware of their students’ changing needs in and out of school to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time.”

Abstract of the study:

Adolescents who drop out of high school experience enduring negative consequences across many domains. Yet, the circumstances triggering their departure are poorly understood. This study examined the precipitating role of recent psychosocial stressors by comparing three groups of Canadian high school students (52% boys; Mage = 16.3 years; = 545): recent dropouts, matched at-risk students who remain in school, and average students. Results indicate that in comparison with the two other groups, dropouts were over three times more likely to have experienced recent acute stressors rated as severe by independent coders. These stressors occurred across a variety of domains. Considering the circumstances in which youth decide to drop out has implications for future research and for policy and practice.

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Something children are better at than adults (and no, it isn’t creativity)

Often adults can do thing better than children. I know some – Romantic – people think children are genius and education kills creativity, but that has been debunked already. Still, I know a lot of stuff that children can do, which are now almost impossible to me. And a new study adds something to this list: noticing stuff that adults didn’t see. And it’s because of one of the limitations of children: it’s harder for them to focus. (btw, this recent post by Dan Willingham is also about the benefits and downsides of focus)

From the press release:

In two studies, researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them – even when they were told to focus on one particular item. That helped children to notice things that adults didn’t catch because of the grownups’ selective attention.

“We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults. But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“That’s what we found in our study. Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they’re asked to focus. That can sometimes be helpful.”

The results have important implications for understanding how education environments affect children’s learning, he said.

Sloutsky conducted the study with Daniel Plebanek, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State. Their results were just published in the journal Psychological Science.

The first study involved 35 adults and 34 children who were 4 to 5 years old.

The participants were shown a computer screen with two shapes, with one shape overlaying the other. One of the shapes was red, the other green. The participants were told to pay attention to a shape of a particular color (say, the red shape).

The shapes then disappeared briefly, and another screen with shapes appeared. The participants had to report whether the shapes in the new screen were the same as in the previous screen.

In some cases, the shapes were exactly the same. In other cases, the target shape (the one participants were told to pay attention to) was different. But there were also instances where the non-target shape changed, even though it was not the one participants were told to notice.

Adults performed slightly better than children at noticing when the target shape changed, noticing it 94 percent of the time compared to 86 percent of the time for children.

“But the children were much better than adults at noticing when the non-target shape changed,” Sloutsky said. Children noticed that change 77 percent of the time, compared to 63 percent of the time for adults.

“What we found is that children were paying attention to the shapes that they weren’t required to,” he said. “Adults, on the other hand, tended to focus only on what they were told was needed.”

A second experiment involved the same participants. In this case, participants were shown drawings of artificial creatures with several different features. They might have an “X” on their body, or an “O”; they might have a lightning bolt on the end of their tail or a fluffy ball.

Participants were asked to find one feature, such as the “X” on the body among the “Os.” They weren’t told anything about the other features. Thus, their attention was attracted to “X” and “O”, but not to the other features. Both children and adults found the “X” well, with adults being somewhat more accurate than children.

But when those features appeared on creatures in later screens, there was a big difference in what participants remembered. For features they were asked to attend to (i.e., “X” and “O”), adults and children were identical in remembering these features. But children were substantially more accurate than adults (72 percent versus 59 percent) at remembering features that they were not asked to attend to, such as the creatures’ tails.

“The point is that children don’t focus their attention as well as adults, even if you ask them to,” Sloutsky said. “They end up noticing and remembering more.”

Sloutsky said that adults would do well at noticing and remembering the ignored information in the studies, if they were told to pay attention to everything. But their ability to focus attention has a cost – they miss what they are not focused on.

The ability of adults to focus their attention – and children’s tendency to distribute their attention more widely – both have positives and negatives.

“The ability to focus attention is what allows adults to sit in two-hour meetings and maintain long conversations, while ignoring distractions,” Sloutsky said.

“But young children’s use of distributed attention allows them to learn more in new and unfamiliar settings by taking in a lot of information.”

The fact that children don’t always do as well at focusing attention also shows the importance of designing the right learning environment in classrooms, Sloutsky said.

“Children can’t handle a lot of distractions. They are always taking in information, even if it is not what you’re trying to teach them. We need to make sure that we are aware of that and design our classrooms, textbooks and educational materials to help students succeed.

“Perhaps a boring classroom or a simple black and white worksheet means less distraction and more successful learning,” Sloutsky added.

Abstract of the study:

One of the lawlike regularities of psychological science is that of developmental progression—an increase in sensorimotor, cognitive, and social functioning from childhood to adulthood. Here, we report a rare violation of this law, a developmental reversal in attention. In Experiment 1, 4- to 5-year-olds (n = 34) and adults (n = 35) performed a change-detection task that included externally cued and uncued shapes. Whereas the adults outperformed the children on the cued shapes, the children outperformed the adults on the uncued shapes. In Experiment 2, the same participants completed a visual search task, and their memory for search-relevant and search-irrelevant information was tested. The young children outperformed the adults with respect to search-irrelevant features. This demonstration of a paradoxical property of early attention deepens current understanding of the development of attention. It also has implications for understanding early learning and cognitive development more broadly.

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Delaying school start times won’t help sleep deprived teenagers, according to… mathematicians

It’s a recurring debate for the past few years: teenagers need enough sleep, so why don’t we start school later. Insufficient sleep during the week, and attempts to catch up at the weekend lead to ‘social jet lag’, but delaying school start times is unlikely to reduce sleep deprivation in teenagers, according to this new study by 2 mathematicians and don’t worry also sleep scientists were involved. And they also suggest a solution: turning down the lights in the evening would be much more effective at tackling sleep deprivation.

From the press release:

Teenagers like to sleep late and struggle to get up in time to go to school. The commonly accepted explanation for this is that adolescents’ biological brain clocks are delayed. It has been suggested that to remedy this, school start times should be delayed for older teenagers so that they are again in tune with their biological clock.

The study, which is published today in Scientific Reports, used a mathematical model that takes into account whether people are naturally more of a morning or evening person, the impact of natural and artificial light on the body clock and the typical time of an alarm clock, to predict the effects of delaying school start times.

The mathematical model showed that delaying school start times in the UK would not help reduce sleep deprivation. Just as when clocks go back in the autumn, most teenagers’ body clocks would drift even later in response to the later start time, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed. The results did, however, lend some support to delaying school start in the US, where many schools start as early as 7am.

The mathematical explanation has its roots in the work of the 17th century Dutch mathematician Huygens. He saw that clocks can synchronise, but it depends on both the clocks and how they influence each other. From research over the last few decades we know that body clocks typically run a little slow, so they need to be regularly ‘corrected’ if they are to remain in sync with the 24-hour day. Historically, this correcting signal came from our interaction with the environmental light/dark ‘clock’.

The mathematical model shows that the problem for adolescents is that their light consumption behaviour interferes with the natural interaction with the environmental clock — getting up late in the morning results in adolescents keeping the lights on until later at night. Having the lights on late delays the biological clock, making it even harder to get up in the morning. The mathematics also suggests that the biological clocks of adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption.

The model suggests that an alternative remedy to moving school start times in the UK is exposure to bright light during the day, turning the lights down in the evening and off at night. For very early start times, as in some US regions, any benefit gained from delaying school start times could be lost unless it is coupled with strict limits on the amount of evening artificial light consumption.

Lead author Dr Anne Skeldon said: “The power of the mathematics is that we are able to use existing knowledge about how light interacts with the biological clock to make predictions about different interventions to help reduce ‘social jetlag’.

“It highlights that adolescents are not ‘programmed’ to wake up late and that by increasing exposure to bright light during the day, turning lights down in the evening and off at night should enable most to get up in time for work or school without too much effort and without changing school timetables.”

Co-author Dr Andrew Phillips said: “The most interesting part of this analysis for me was the counter-intuitive finding that the most extreme evening types are predicted to derive the least benefit from a delay in school start times, because they tend to use evening artificial light for a longer interval of time.

“For evening types, it is critical to keep evening light levels low to derive any of the potential benefits of a delay in morning alarm times, otherwise their bed time is very prone to shifting later. Understanding these individual differences, and how they are influenced by light consumption, is necessary to maximize the effects of any policy change.”

Co-author Prof Derk-Jan Dijk said: “Just as mathematical models are used to predict climate change, they can now be used to predict how changing our light environment will influence our biological rhythms.

“It shows that modern lifestyles make it hard for body clocks to stay on 24 hours, which shifts our rhythm of sleepiness and alertness to later times — meaning we are sleepy until late in the morning and remain alert until later in the evening.

“As a result, during the working week our alarm clocks go off before the body clock naturally wakes us up. We then get insufficient sleep during the week and compensate for it during the weekend. Such patterns of insufficient and irregular sleep have been associated with various health problems and have been termed ‘social jet lag’.”

The mathematical understanding of biological clocks suggests that adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption. However, the model can be applied to other age-groups as well. It can be used to design new interventions not only for sleepy teenagers but also for adults who suffer from delayed sleep phase disorders or people who are not synchronised to the 24-hour day at all.

The research draws attention to light, light consumption and darkness as important environmental and behavioural factors influencing health. This has implications for how we design the light environment at work and at home in our modern light-polluted societies.

Abstract of the study (open access):

Why do we go to sleep late and struggle to wake up on time? Historically, light-dark cycles were dictated by the solar day, but now humans can extend light exposure by switching on artificial lights. We use a mathematical model incorporating effects of light, circadian rhythmicity and sleep homeostasis to provide a quantitative theoretical framework to understand effects of modern patterns of light consumption on the human circadian system. The model shows that without artificial light humans wakeup at dawn. Artificial light delays circadian rhythmicity and preferred sleep timing and compromises synchronisation to the solar day when wake-times are not enforced. When wake-times are enforced by social constraints, such as work or school, artificial light induces a mismatch between sleep timing and circadian rhythmicity (‘social jet-lag’). The model implies that developmental changes in sleep homeostasis and circadian amplitude make adolescents particularly sensitive to effects of light consumption. The model predicts that ameliorating social jet-lag is more effectively achieved by reducing evening light consumption than by delaying social constraints, particularly in individuals with slow circadian clocks or when imposed wake-times occur after sunrise. These theory-informed predictions may aid design of interventions to prevent and treat circadian rhythm-sleep disorders and social jet-lag.

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40-year study produces new findings: strong early education = better long-term relationships with parents

The results of early education is a bit complex. While based on the Heckman curve – and the underlying research – people will advocate for enough investment in early education, in some countries it’s no clearcut solution. That’s probably why this new published article talks about ‘strong early education’. It’s not early education as such that can make a difference, but good early education. And those differences might go further thank you think: this conference paper suggests that strong early education equals better long-term relationships with parents. It’s a conference paper, so sadly I haven’t been able to read it.

So I only have this press release and the poster with the research results:

Children who are given high-quality education at an early age – starting at six weeks old and continuing through their first five years of life – are more likely to be employed full-time and have better relationships with their parents as adults, according to new results from a longitudinal study now entering its fifth decade.

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists will present the research results at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development at noon Central Daylight time Friday, April 7, in Austin, Texas. More than 6,000 child development professionals and other researchers are expected to connect and exchange ideas at the conference.

The study follows 96 children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early education program for at-risk infants and children that started in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971. The National Institutes of Health funded the original study.

“The most recent findings from the Abecedarian Project are about the quality of life, tied to what the children experienced in the first five years of life,” said Craig Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar of human development at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Ramey spearheaded the Abecedarian Project over the past 45 years and led the team that produced the new follow-up report.

“We have demonstrated that when we provide vulnerable children and families with really high quality services – educationally, medically, socially – we have impacts of a large and practical magnitude all the way up to middle age,” said Ramey, who also serves as a chief science officer of Roanoke, Virginia.

Both the control group and treatment group received health care, nutrition, and family support through social services; however, the treatment group also received five years of early care and education.

According to Ramey, high-quality education all day for five days a week, and for 50 weeks a year, beginning at six weeks of age and continuing until the child starts kindergarten, makes a lifetime of difference.

“And in our early education program, the most important thing is the quality of interaction between the teachers and the children,” Ramey said, pointing to the teachers’ abilities to tailor educational activities to a child’s specific needs, in a fun and natural way, as a critical element of the study’s results. “It’s pretty clear that’s what the magic ingredient is.”

The quality of natural teaching – via social interaction between the teacher and child – is highly important, especially in infancy, according to Ramey. This includes such things as the conversational aspect of language and the focus on interactive reading as enjoyable, rather than a chore.

“The data show that children who received the educational treatment are successful socially, especially in a familial setting, as indicated by their close relationships with their mothers and fathers in middle age,” said Libbie Sonnier-Netto, a doctoral student in human development at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who conducted the follow-up interviews for this study.

Sonnier-Netto also noted that individuals in the educational group are more likely to be employed full-time, with more assets, such as owning a car, a home, and having a savings account. According to Ramey, the connection between the results is obvious.

Ramey and his team have followed-up with 78 of the 96 participants so far, with more interviews and physical check-ups planned for most of the remaining participants. Of the 96 participants, only one has declined to participate. It’s an unusually high retention rate for a study spanning so many decades.

“What we’ve discovered is that if you treat people well, they thrive and they, in turn, give back,” Ramey said. “Part of our task is to make what we now know to be so important – high-quality, early childhood education and care – widely available to all who need it in this country.”

Sharon Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, has contributed to the Abecedarian research and analysis since 1987. She co-wrote the book on the Abecedarian approach with Ramey and Joseph Sparling, who helped plan the original early childhood curriculum.

Beyond the familial bond and employment status, Sharon Ramey says the researchers are seeing another trend among the treatment group participants.

“We also discovered that individuals who received early high-quality care and education also have a keen sense of social equality – and make decisions that balance the equation between those who ‘have’ and those who ‘have much less,'” said Sharon Ramey, who is also a chief science officer of Roanoke, Virginia.

The researchers expect to continue analyzing the dataset about the effects of early care and education on the children as they progress through middle age.

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Best Evidence in Brief: What is the research on screen time for children?

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and… well read this:

There continues to be conflicting views about the recommendations to give to children on screen time (the use of “screen” media including television, smart phones, and computer games). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended two hours or less screen time per day for most children. Two recently published studies investigate this recommendation and whether the amount of screen time has any impact on children’s behavior and school readiness.

The first study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, examines whether screen time that exceeds the AAP recommendations affects children’s school readiness, and specifically whether this varies according to family income. Andrew Ribner and colleagues looked at data from 807 kindergarten children of diverse backgrounds. Their parents reported family income, as well as the number of hours of television their children watch on a daily basis. Video game, tablet, and smartphone use were not included. The children were assessed using measures of math, knowledge of letters and words, and executive function. Results showed that watching more television than recommended by the AAP is negatively associated with math and executive function, but not with letter and word knowledge. This association was found to increase as family income decreased.

But for older children, screen time appears not to be associated with any behavior problems. Research published in in Psychiatric Quarterly investigated the links between the amount of screen time and risky behavioral outcomes for 6,089 young people aged 12-18 from Florida.

The sample was divided into four groups: abstainers (those who reported spending no time watching television or using other media); low users (no more than two hours of screen time per day, in line with AAP guidance); moderate users (three to six hours per day); and excessive users (six or more hours per day). Christopher J. Fergusson, who conducted the study, found that moderate screen use was not associated with any risky behavior. Even excessive screen use was only weakly associated with negative outcomes related to delinquency, reduced grades, and depression only, and at levels unlikely to be significant. 

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