Defining Quality in Young Children's Media Use for Educators, Parents and Media Creators

Filed in: Family, Media Literacy

Filed by Sarah Jackson


10.31.11 | The Fred Rogers Center has been part of several recent efforts to develop digital media guidelines for young children and to help define what we mean by “quality” for those children who are old enough to engage with new media tools.

In this podcast at the Early Ed Watch blog, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at New America Foundation, talks with Rita Catalano, executive director at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, about two specific efforts underway to develop guidelines for educators and families.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in partnership with the Fred Rogers Center, is working to create a position statement on the best practices for technology, media and early childhood.

The statement, which is currently in draft form, updates a similar statement from 1996. The new version takes into account the broad range of media now available for this age group (beyond just television). After gathering feedback on their most recent draft in May, the groups hope to release the final statement in early 2012.

“Any decision about the use of technology and media really have to take into account each child’s developmental stage and interest and that active engagement really is key over passive use of media, regardless of what it is,” Catalano said.

The Fred Rogers Center is also leading an initiative to create a “Framework for Quality” on how to identify quality media tools across a range of platforms. Catalano said that in addition to working with educators, parents and researchers, they are also making an effort to work with media creators “to keep quality in mind when they are developing their work.”

I spoke with both Catalano and Guernsey for a Spotlight story earlier this year. I also talked with early childhood educators to get a sense of what developmentally appropriate use of technology looks like for this age group. You can read that story here.

Plus: Sponge Bob Vs. Cauliou: The study in Pediatrics comparing the experiences of 4-year-old children watching Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob” and PBS Kids’ “Caillou” has already gotten a lot of media attention. In case you missed it, researchers at the University of Virginia found that SpongeBob has a negative impact on young children’s short-term thinking skills, despite the fact that it’s heavily marketed to this age group.

Writing at Zocalo Public Square, Lisa Guernsey uses the study to bring the discussion back to where it should be focused: the need for quality pre-kindergarten programs for all children.

Ever since I started digging into the science of early learning and technology, SpongeBob has represented a strange paradox in our society: American adults seem to be ignorant of what young children may be able to handle in real life at age four. Despite the push for public investments in pre-kindergarten programs, good preschools are still not the norm for most children; education policies continue to treat four-year-olds as if they aren’t ready to be challenged. And yet we park those same children in front of cartoons designed for kids more than twice their age and assume they have the cognitive wherewithal to manage the flood of information streaming their way. Actually, we never think of it that way – we tend instead to feel guilty for parking our kids in front of mindless TV that we don’t believe will engage their brains, when in fact this zany TV may overwhelm them.

What we know from the research about how children learn to read, writes Guernsey, is that kids need adults to talk with about their experiences and to be in classrooms that are designed “to harness children’s curiosity about nature, books, music or videos.” Yet most kids don’t get to have these experiences.

Although about three-quarters of three- and four-year-olds are cared for outside the home each day, good pre-kindergarten programs are either too expensive for many working families or non-existent. What do those families turn to instead? Too often they resort to mediocre childcare where adults aren’t trained in how to challenge children socially and cognitively – and where TV shows like SpongeBob are broadcast throughout the afternoon, quite possibly taking a toll on their children’s executive functioning at just the age they need to develop those skills for school.

Let’s hope that with more thoughtful discussion like Guernsey’s, which put children’s developmental needs at the center of discussions about the role of media in their lives, this will begin to change.


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