Georgetown College psychology professor Rachel Barr is the co-editor of an innovative new book that explores the latest research in childhood media exposure through both academic writing and real-world commentary.
January 27, 2016 — Georgetown College psychology professor Rachel Barr has enjoyed a long and successful career in academia. She knows what a textbook looks like, and she knows the recently released Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood looks a lot like one. There’s just one problem.
“It’s not a textbook,” Barr said.
The new book — a 303-page tome on the impact of media on children’s development, edited by Barr and Purdue University’s Deborah Nichols Linebarger — is intentionally designed to appeal to people beyond university classroom walls.
“We got academics to write about their latest findings, but then paired them with someone from the field,” Barr said. “We wanted to show how people in the field would apply these findings to their work.”
So instead of stacking chapters of academic writing atop each other, Barr and Linebarger wove in commentaries from relevant practitioners: media industry researchers, childhood educators, staffers from PBS and Sesame Street. For example, Angela Santemero — the creator of the popular kids’ program Blue’s Clues — stops in to discuss how she and her co-creators designed a show that is both educational and entertaining for children. This was a challenge for the authors, but Barr believes it makes for a much better read.
“It’s quite complicated to bring together these different groups and have this ongoing dialogue within the book,” Barr said. “It’s interesting not just to academics, but to parents, educators, and pediatricians as well.”
The innovative structure of Media Exposure isn’t the only reason to pick it up, of course. The book includes fascinating new research on the ways young children — many of whom have never lived in a world without smartphones and tablets — interact with technology.
Some of the most interesting new content comes from the Hilltop itself: Georgetown’s own Sandra Calvert and Melissa Richards wrote a chapter on the relationships between children and fictional characters, including the early stages of artificial intelligence agents designed to interact with children. True to the book’s format, the chapter includes a contribution from a PBS writer about how the company creates children’s characters.
Another new frontier, explored by Barr and Elisabeth McClure, is the way young children interact with loved ones via video chatting services like Skype or FaceTime — an activity 85 percent of surveyed D.C.-area families report doing with their children.
“There’s quite amazing findings about how children are navigating this 2D-to-3D space,” Barr said. “Parents act as surrogates for grandparents, for example, by doing the hand signals for ‘This Little Piggy’ while grandparents sing the words [via video chat] and often display affection by blowing kisses across cyberspace.”
Of course, while television and touchscreen-based educational tools are useful, they aren't perfect yet. Barr collaborated with Laura Zimmermann and researchers from Binghamton University to examine ways to minimize the transfer deficit, which refers to the gap between what children are taught on screens and what they can repeat in the real world.
Given the importance of early childhood learning in long-term development, Barr hopes that the findings in her new book — and the accessible way they are presented — will allow parents and educators to utilize new technology more effectively.
“We tried to provide key information for early educators,” Barr said. “Many are given these new technologies, but without a lot of good information about how to integrate them into the classroom.”
Rachel Barr and Deborah Nichols Linebarger’s Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood: The Effects of Content and Context on Learning and Development is available now from Springer Publishing.
— Patrick Curran