Most of what we read about kids and screen time revolves around whether or not it's good for them. But one aspect of media use with kids that's worth examining closer is how co-viewing affects their experience. Whether kids are watching TV, creating digital media, reading, searching, or playing video games with parents, siblings or friends, consuming media becomes a different kind of experience than when it's done alone.
Though TV is still the dominant media in most homes, other forms are quickly permeating daily life: video games, apps, and exploring the Internet are woven into most families' activities. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center calls it joint media engagement (JME), and they've just released one of their comprehensive reports, The New CoViewing: Designing for Learning Through Joint Media Engagement, about the phenomenon and its effects. The theory goes that the better we understand how kids use media together, the better designed the media can be, to take the most advantage of how kids work, learn, think, and make things together.
HOW PARENTS RELATE
Perhaps the activity that parents love most to do with their kids -- reading -- has been vastly transformed by digital media. E-books can be read on Web sites, computer software, products like LeapFrog, and of course tablets and e-readers. And depending on whom you ask, e-books (or print books) are the medium of choice for reading together. The typically tech-cautious New York Times decided that "for their children, many e-book fans insist on paper."
But the Cooney Center's own "quick study," which followed 24 families with kids three- to six-years old reading both print and e-books, showed that most kids preferred reading an e-book to a print book, according to Digital Book World. And maybe just as importantly, "comprehension between the two formats were the same," though the enhanced e-readers with all the bells and whistles were distracting to young readers.
Still, “If we can encourage kids to engage in books through an iPad, that’s a win already,” said the Cooney Center's Carly Shuler.
Plenty of studies have shown that kids learn more when they're consuming media alongside their parents -- parents typically chime in and explain what's going on or answer questions or share their opinions about what they're seeing, hearing, and doing. In turn, parents can have a better understanding of what their kids are doing and learning and what they're involved with during their kids' media use.
And for a lot of parents, this kind of interaction is important. A recent national survey showed that two-thirds of nearly 1,000 parents of 12- to 17-year-olds said they talked regularly with their kids about their Internet use, and almost half of them participated in their kids' use of computers. And those who did, actively set both social rules -- what's appropriate and what's not -- and filtering software that block sites.
Lori Takeuchi, who wrote this report for the Cooney Center along with Reed Stevens, said what parents decide to do with their kids is largely based on their own childhood experiences. Those who grew up on the Internet or were young enough when they started using it in their daily lives have less fear about dangers.
"They're comfortable with fewer rules," Takeuchi said about the families she studied for the Families Matter Report she wrote earlier this year. Older parents, on the other hand, tend to use parental controls more. "Younger parents are willing to confront media and the unknown with their kids, whereas older parents aren’t."
The rule of thumb also applies to video games. Parents who grew up playing games themselves tended to play more with their kids than restrict it, according to a 2007 study. And conversely, those who had negative opinions about gaming tended to restrict time spent playing with video games.
KIDS USING MEDIA TOGETHER
Parents aren't the only big influences in a kid's life when it comes to media. Children watching and playing together also affects the experience. For those families who can afford it, an iPod Touch is now as common place a toy as Monopoly used to be for the previous generation. Though some worry, and rightly so, about kids withdrawing from the social lives around them as they launch birds or slash fruit on their iPod Touches, observing two kids with their own device in the same room reveals something different -- at least in my experience. Kids talk each other through their challenges, helping each other master levels, offering tips, cheering each other on. It's a form of parallel play, in a way.
The same goes for video games. A report about parents' interest in video games shows that kids end up learning a lot from each other and become empowered through sharing. “Collaborative interactions around video game play are good learning environments [in] that ‘in-room’ interaction provides opportunities for sociality, joint projects, and empowerment through sharing one’s knowledge and seeing it used for concrete success by others,” write the authors of the study.
And when it comes to TV, kids who watch together respond to prompts (from Elmo or Dora the Explorer, for example), than those watching alone. Kids also imitate each others' responses and coordinate their actions to respond at the same time. They elaborate on each others' responses and talk to each other about what's going on.
Another great example of this was found with research from the Digital Youth Project, where authors of the Macarthur Foundation study found that kids hanging out with each other, watching movies or TV, playing videos together or listening to music, were more actively participating in what they were doing. They talked about what they were watching or playing, they worked together on modifying video games, and creating digital media.
CHALLENGES AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
Ideally, of course, parents could participate in all their kids' media use. But let's face it, even if they had the time, for the most part, parents and kids don't necessarily enjoy the same media. (Raise your hand if you've discreetly texted your friends or shopped on your mobile phone undercover while watching "Cars 2" with your kids.)
Other challenges: Parents don't always know what kids need to learn and how to help them find it. And if the TV or computer isn't in a common room, parents don't know what kids are up to.
The Cooney Center has an idea to solve this -- at least in the home: Design a product that allows parents to monitor and participate what kids are doing from a remote location so they can still be part of the media experience.
"Wouldn’t it be great if there was a device that recorded what kids are watching on TV?" Takeuchi said. "There should be tools that help parents better know, so they can have conversations about what their kids have been up to."
Parents can also use Web control tools not just to block what they think might be dangerous Web sites, but also to learn what their kids are doing online. "In a lot of cases, parents don't know what their kids are doing, for better or for worse. These are kids who are doing things behind closed doors that are great," Takeuchi said. "They're learning how to program or build Web sites, and if parents have the control setting, they can find out what their kids are interested in, and can even help them."
Parents can also acquiesce to letting their kids guide them through the activity they're interested in. The learning relationship between parent and child that goes in both directions can be powerful for both.
There are lots of other great recommendations in "The New Co-Viewing Report": Build tools and experiences that revolve around a child’s existing interests, not just prescribed topics; keep everyone engaged by offering content that suitably entertains and sufficiently challenges; provide guidance for the more capable partner in ways that don’t require a lot of prior prep or extra time, actions that can help ensure that the intended benefits of the resource are realized.