Friday, January 20, 2017

Looking Beyond the Headlines: Video Games and Children's Behavior

There are so many things to worry about as a parent--is my child eating healthily, is he/she developing well, am I letting her watch too much TV, etc. The list could go on for miles.

In recent years, one topic that has dominated many media headlines is that of the impact of video games on children and teens' behavior. You hear stories of isolated teens who spend most of their time play games and have few friends. These images often portray gamers as socially inept, isolated and sometimes the victim of bullies.

Is there any truth to these images? Are they just stereotypes promoted by the media or are video games really detrimental to our children's well-being?

Video Games and Children's Behavior

As with any complex topic like this, there are never easy answers. In this case, however, we do have quite a bit of research from which to pull to help answer these questions.

Luckily, I did not have to dig up all this research myself.  Psychologist, Dr. Rachel Kowert, a specialist in video game research, has done the work for me in her new book, A Parent's Guide to Video Games.

I just finished reading the book and it was very helpful in understanding this topic. The book is definitely written with parents in mind. It offers a clear, concise review of the research but in a way that is quick to read and easy to understand the "take away" messages for parents.

The book covers all the main topics that we as parents have questions about regarding video games:

  • Can video games be addictive?
  • Is there a link between video game play and aggression?
  • What is the impact of video games on cognitive development?
  • What is the impact of video games on physical and mental health?
  • Is there a link between video game play and sexist attitudes?
  • What are the social outcomes for kids who play video games?
  • Are there any positive learning outcomes for kids who play video games?

As with all social science research, video game research is complex and there are often nuanced findings that can be hard to figure out. Additionally, research on this topic is relatively new, given the constantly changing technology and gaming industry. However, Dr. Kowert compiled all the latest research, even those studies that are compilations of others studes (i.e., meta-analyses).

I won't go into all the topics here, however, what parents should know is that the media portrays of isolated, aggressive teens who play video games and become social outcasts is largely a misrepresentation. The research outlined in the book offers little evidence of a relationship between video games and violent behavior, lack of social skills or declines in cognitive skill.

In fact, some video games have the potential to enhance skills like leadership ability (through online cooperation) and problem-solving. 

As with any technology, video games have their pros and cons. Some video games have been shown to promote sexist beliefs, at least in the short-term. However, long-term research does not seem to support any changes in attitude over time.

I encourage you to check out A Parent's Guide to Video Games if you want to delve deeper into the effects of video games on kids.

While this issue is important, for me it brings to mind the larger issues at hand. What does it mean for us to be parenting our children in an era so consumed by media and technology.

Dimitri Christakis, a leading researcher in the field, makes the distinction "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." Today's generation of children are considered digital natives because they were born after the influx of modern digital technology (e.g., email, internet, iPhones, etc.) so they have never known a world without these inventions. We (and older generations), on the other hand, are digital immigrants because we only came to experience the internet and related technology as adults. In a sense, it is our role as parents to guide our children through a media landscape that we ourselves did not experience as children. 

These "digital native" children are often more adept at the new technology than we are, but one thing we as adults are more skilled at (hopefully) is self-regulation. We know how to regulate our use of technology so that we turn it off if it is distracting us from our task at hand or causing other problems. Children, on the other hand, are not usually very skilled in self-regulation at an early age. 

Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with this type of multi-tasking, media immersion. Isn't this type of immersion going to prepare children for the work world they will face in the future? Multi-tasking is the name of the game in the business world, right? While I know that this type of technology multi-tasking is commonplace, I think something is lost in the blur of constant noise (not to mention that research shows multi-tasking to be ineffective).

Regardless of one's religious/spiritual beliefs, I think almost everyone recognizes the need for silence in their lives. Time for reflection, thinking about decisions, beliefs, etc. It is increasingly difficult to find this type of silence in our media-laden world. It has become very difficult to find time to disconnect from all our technological devices long enough to focus on our inner thoughts. 

To me, this is the real concern with technology--it acclimates kids at a fast-paced mindset that is just unnecessary at a young age. Soon enough they will be inundated with media images, video games, etc., why not let young kids enjoy the simple, slow pace of childhood.

Just as important, we want our children to find and pursue their interests and passions in life--to find something that they really love to do. I feel it's hard to get in touch with this if you are always connected to some type of media or device and do not allow time for silence.

I can already tell that raising "digital natives" will have its challenges. Finding the balance between using technology for productivity, education, and entertainment without having it consume my children's lives will be difficult at times. Personally, my goal is to help my sons learn to use technology effectively at each age, but also learn how to turn it off and enjoy the silence.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Infant Babbling...It's Not Just Baby Talk

Is trying to understand your infant’s babbling an effort in futility? Turns out, the answer might be, “no.” A new study published in the journal Infancy puts into question the notion that children’s language development is innate and we cannot do much to alter its path. 

The researchers closely observed interactions between mothers and their 8-month old infants over the course of six months. What they found was that among children whose mothers responded to them by trying to understand what they were saying, they developed more advanced language sounds sooner. Children whose mothers responding by directing the child’s attention to something else, developed language sounds more slowly.

Infant Babbling...It's Not Just Baby Talk

It’s important to note in this study that all the mothers responded to their infants’ babbling, but it’s a difference in how they responded that seems to make the difference. The mothers who actively engaged with their child’s babbling and responded to what they thought they were saying seem to promote the child’s learning to communicate. 

So put aside you self-consciousness and just chat with your baby like you really know what they're saying...even if you don't (and you probably don't). You can chat with him/her pretty much like anyone else. They will feel like they are really communicating.
For these children, by 15 months of age, they had more words and gestures compared to the other babies.

What the researchers believe is happening is that, by responding to the infant’s communication, the mothers are reinforcing within the child that he or she can communicate. Over time, they learn more and more how to refine that communication with constant-vowel sounds which are the beginnings of word formation.

Once again this reiterates the importance of parent-child interactions at the most in-depth level. All that babbling your infant does really is the beginning stages of learning to speak. By responding to your child as if you know what they are saying is just one step along path of them learning language.   

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are Our Boys Failing or Are We Failing Our Boys? Research Behind the "Boy Achievement Crisis"

As a boy mom myself, I always bristle a little when I hear media reports of a "boy achievement crisis." Every few months it seems we hear some high-profile news articles that discuss the state of boys’ educational achievement. Some authors point out that boys have fallen behind girls in many measures of academic achievement such as grades, Advanced Placement exam completion, and college graduation rates. 

Many attribute these statistics to a couple of primary factors: (1) differences in boys “noncognitive” skills such as attentiveness, persistence, and self-control; and (2) the types of messages boys receive about their academic capabilities. Let’s briefly consider each of these factors and see if we can understand what might be going on with boys’ achievement patterns.

boy achievement crisis

“Noncognitive Skills”

First off, it is well-documented that certain “noncognitive skills” are very important to any child’s long-term success. Most recently well-known authors Ellen Galinsky and Paul Tough have make compelling cases in their books about the importance of these skills. These skills include things like attentiveness, persistence, self-control, and curiosity. Generally speaking, it is true that young boys often take longer to develop these skills compared to young girls. However, this is not to say that boys cannot or do not develop these skills as they mature. Research is showing us now that how parents' react to boys' strong emotions and how they develop language can both relate to their development of self-regulation.

The development of these skills is important not only for their direct usefulness in the classroom (and life), but also because of their role in adults’ perception of children, especially boys. Some studies have shown that teachers rate boys as less proficient when they lack these “noncognitive” skills, even when their actual test scores are similar to girls.

Stereotypes for Boys

This concern with perception is important for understanding the second factor that seems to be at play in the underachievement of boys. At least one study has found that boys as young as 7 years old associate poor school performance or behavior with boys, rather than girls. Similarly, girls as young as 4 years old also make this association. In other words, at a young age both boys and girls hold a stereotype that boys do less well in school.

Interestingly, in a related line of research, scholars have shown that this underachievement stereotype for boys is particularly prevalent and damaging to boys from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Among these boys, they are often ridiculed if they achieve in academic pursuits. Instead, skills such as being tough or athletic are often more highly valued socially. By comparison, boys from middle- or upper-income backgrounds tend to more often value educational achievement. Studies like this suggest that the so-called “gender gap” in educational achievement is really more of a “class gap.”   

The good news is that it does seem possible to counteract these underachievement stereotypes. In a follow-up study, researchers found that when kids were told boys and girls could do equally well in school, boys achievement went up, while girls’ performance was not affected.

As you can tell from all this research, the issue of boys’ underachievement is a complex one. There may be some differences in young children’s noncognitive skills, yet these seem to be exacerbated by long-standing stereotypes of boys’ underachievement. It seems schools and parents need to work together to help overcome this issue and help all boys achieve to their highest potential.

School settings can help foster the development of these noncognitive skills as well as make classrooms more conducive to boys (especially young boys) need for movement and physical exertion. Practices such as eliminating recess or encouraging long periods of desk time do not typically fit well with young boys’ boundless energy.

Additionally parents and teachers should be aware of these stereotypes and try to combat them whenever possible. All students should be expected and encouraged to do their best academically with an understanding that the knowledge and skills they learn will help them throughout their lives. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Want Your Kids to Learn Problem-Solving? Let Them Play! {Plus a Ninja Book Review}

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you have probably picked up on the idea that learning through play is really at the heart of early education. Research is continuing to show how toddler, preschoolers (and even early elementary kids) learn best through play, not rigorous academics.

problem-solving kids play

How this really works in our kids' daily lives, however, is often hard to see. As parents, we see our kids playing, but we may not pick up on the learning that's really going on. That's why I think many adults do not value the playful learning approach and why we have seen such a proliferation of "academic" preschools.

Ironically, the connection between play, problem-solving, and learning was really clarified for me after reading an odd combination of articles--piece about early childhood education, a research piece on problem solving, a children's book about a ninja named Nina. How do these all relate?

Play in Early Education: The Intersection of Knowledge and Sociability

Even young kids have gained knowledge about the world around them (e.g., trucks are vehicles with wheels) and they use that knowledge in play with other kids to test ideas and learn new ideas. For example: Tina and Elliot are playing with vehicles on a ramp. Tina's car is small, Elliot's truck is larger. While rolling the vehicles on the ramp, Tina notices that her car rolls faster and a longer distance than Elliot's large truck. She asks why and they begin talking about reasons why the car would go faster than the truck. With the guidance of a skilled teacher, they learn that the car goes faster because it is smaller and shorter. By interacting with each other, and through the guidance of an adult, the kids learned some new ideas through playing with vehicles.

Problem-Solving: The Engine for Learning

In the example above, how did the learning actually happen? If you look closely you will see that problem-solving is really the key component. The kids had a problem they did not know how to solve--why is one vehicle going faster than another? Research is showing that problem-solving is really the engine for learning in children. Another key point is that problem-solving seems to have less to with raw intelligence, but with the child's ability to interact with others (the social aspect) to use and interpret the knowledge they have towards the completion of a goal.

Nina the Ninja: Learning through Problem-Solving 

How does all this relate to a children's book about Nina the Neighborhood Ninja? I was sent this book to review and at first I thought it was just a cute book about "girl-power." While it is that, it also offers some great examples of how kids use play to solve problems.

Nina is just going about her day playing, when she encounters several problems that she want to help with but has to figure out how to do it. For instance, she's running to get home before an oncoming storm hits when she sees a cat who needs shelter from the storm. She's not sure how to make a shelter, but she uses whatever materials are lying around and her problem-solving skills to figure it out. She has soon built a little house for the cat to stay in out of the rain.

The story also shows how Nina works with her friends (in this case a sidekick firefly) to help solve problems. Her friend helps her problem-solve and use items like her cape to aid the animals that need help. Although Nina is a ninja, she doesn't hold any special super powers--her main super power is problem-solving. How great is that!

In sum, research is showing us that young children learn best through play and problem-solving. This combination means that kids are self-motivated to learn because they are solving a problem that is meaningful to them. All of us, kids included, learn best when when the topic really is meaningful and interesting to us. Nina the Neighborhood Ninja illustrates this in lovely way. Through play and problem-solving, Nina not only learns some new ideas but helps her friends in the process--that's a combination we hope all our kids can do.

**this post contains affiliate links
**I was provided with the book to review free of charge in exchange for my honest opinion