Thoughts on a Conversation with Dimitri Christakis, by Claudia Haines
Over the past year I have been researching the use of digital media with kids, and in particular interactive media. I wanted to know more about integrating interactive or new media into library programs with kids, particularly those under the age 8. As my research intensified over the last couple of months and I began to experiment with apps and other digital media in storytime and other programs, one name appeared over and over again; that of Dimitri Christakis, self-labeled “pediatrician, researcher, and parent,”* director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a professor at the University of Washington, School of Medicine.
Dimitri’s research and comments popped up in a variety of articles, books, and websites about early childhood development, kids, and digital media. I don’t often contact researchers I discover in my research, so what made me contact him? Some of his quotes were used to suggest that the interactive media found in many apps can provide quality experiences for young kids and that content, and not just quantity of time using digital devices, is an important factor. Dimitri’s quotes were also found in popular articles with conflicting claims that digital media is bad for kids. Period.
As a prominent researcher in the field of early childhood development and someone who has spent a lot of time looking at the environmental factors that affect development, Dimitri seemed like the person who could help me better understand the research, however little there is, and hopefully guide my work with new media in storytime at my library.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to speak with Dimitri. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
Research on Interactive Media
Dimitri confirmed what I had found in my search. There are no big studies that have specifically looked into interactive media at this point. Research can’t keep up with the technological developments that have come about in the past couple of years. He did suggest that there is some past research we can use to thoughtfully predict the impact of interactive media. Research using computer models (games and activities) with kids can apply to the apps and digital media on the market today. (Dimitri referenced research by Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center, which can be found in the journal article “Contingent computer interactions for young children’s object retrieval success.”) Unfortunately, this research is not often cited in the arguments against use of apps and other digital media. The research investigating only the effects of television is.
Librarians, educators, and caregivers will be happy to hear that Dimitri and other researchers are, however, undertaking studies involving interactive media (like apps) with babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids.
Interactive vs. Passive Media
Dimitri and I both agreed that apps, and interactive media, are different than some television and other passive media, the focus of much of the research related to young kids and media. Based on previous research and what is known about early childhood development, Dimitri felt that interactive media most likely does not have the negative effects associated with most passive media.
Apps With Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
From what is known specifically about brain development and generally about early childhood development in babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids, Dimitri felt strongly about not using passive media with infants. His own research, “The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn?” has supported this. Interactive media, again, is different and will have different effects on children at different stages of development. It may be harmless for babies–the subject of his current research–but Dimitri couldn’t say it was beneficial.
For older children, the story is different. Apps and interactive media can be positive, especially when content is strongly considered along with the quantity of time a child spends with digital media. Quality content and the age appropriate amount of time using a device equals a healthy media diet. As Dimitri said, “Carrots are good for you, but too many can be bad for you.”
Librarians and New Media:
Dimitri and I then talked about one of my biggest questions: With more than a million apps on the market (900,000 in the Apple Store), many of which are targeted as educational apps for kids, how does a parent, educator, or librarian know what app is developmentally appropriate and what has good content?
After our discussion about research, Dimitri and I talked about the reality of helping families navigate the world of interactive media, the role of librarians, and the work being done at littleelit.com. While I don’t think Dimitri has much considered the role of librarians in the new media conversation, he is a library fan. We both agreed that librarians have credibility with families and caregivers in the world of information. Using their professional experience, librarians already sift through media selecting the high quality books, audiobooks, movies, and more that are appropriate for their library’s community. When it comes to apps and other digital content, librarians can again have a role. Librarians can offer help with digital literacy; not just helping families learn how to use the Internet or a device, but also helping kids and caregivers select high quality content and how to do that on their own. Modeling how to use media, regardless of whether it is paper or digital, and “appvisory” are important in helping families with digital literacy in the changing information landscape.
In grad school I played a small part in a multi-year, early literacy research project which involved children’s librarians from a collection of public libraries. It made me think more about the reciprocal relationship that is possible between public libraries and researchers. Research is relevant to the day-to-day work in public libraries as children’s librarians put into action the findings about child development, early literacy, and literacy of all kinds. What may not be as obvious is the opportunity public libraries (and children’s librarians) offer for researchers to see how something like interactive media works with families in action, in real life, in storytime. Talking with Dimitri about interactive media and the newly evolving research brought me back to the idea of using libraries for research labs and I hope researchers consider not just schools, but also public libraries for more of their future endeavors.
For now, I look forward to navigating the world of interactive media with kids of all ages and their families; critically searching for quality content, confidently encouraging joint media engagement and a healthy media diet, and enthusiastically teaching families how to choose the media that is right for them.
* “TEDxRainier – Dimitri Christakis – Media and Children,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo.