Technology for Tots

August 20, 2012—For most people, the Nintendo Wii, Facebook, and Elmo are innocuous, if not curious, elements of modern life. Psychology Professor Sandra Calvert sees them as something more: gateways to understanding how children learn using technology.

A faculty member of the psychology department for over 20 years, Calvert co-founded the Children’s Digital Media Center in 2000 with Northwestern psychology professor Ellen Wartella. As director of the center, Calvert investigates how information technology—or technology that transmits content between people—affects children’s acquisition of knowledge and social skills.

“The Children’s Digital Media Center is designed to examine how emerging media are influencing children’s development. I try to stay a step ahead of things and look at trends, at this point tablets like the iPad, and how those things influence early learning,” Calvert said. “How is life simplified just by touching a screen? How do children learn to extract information based on [fictional] characters, with the characters then becoming like trusted friends? Those are some of the things that I’ve been doing recently.”

Under Calvert’s guidance, the center has conducted different kinds of experiments through the years, but each leads to the same conclusion: With modern technology, cooperation among peers is what can make learning fun and successful.

The popular Wii entertainment system was the focus of recent research. Using its video games, which digitally respond to physical movement, Calvert found that overweight and obese adolescents can lose weight by playing the games, especially if they play cooperatively with friends. In another study, Calvert realized that the primary innovation of Facebook is not that it connects people—something that email clients and chat rooms can do for strangers—but that it encourages personal and long-lasting interaction.

The center also discovered that cooperation through parasocial relationships, or one-way friendships founded on one person liking another who does not reciprocate, is common in children. Parasocial bonding had formerly been thought unique to adults, who often identify with newscasters or talk show hosts. Calvert, however, found that kids think of fictional characters, such as Dora the Explorer or Elmo, as personal friends, learning and socializing through them.

“There’s a variety of things [that I research] because I see media as being everywhere. It’s just part of youth culture now, and I’ve been studying it from the time it was just television until the time it turned into computers,” Calvert said. “It’s become increasingly mobile and accessible to younger and younger age groups.”

Calvert posits that the first information technology was the Gutenberg printing press, which made it quicker and easier to transmit data through reading and writing. But modern information technology is more visual than textual, which is part of the reason it has become so popular.

“I remember one time when I was young—it was during the Vietnam War—and they did this article in Life magazine called ‘One Week’s Toll.’ They showed pictures of all the young men who had been killed in action in one week, and it was so powerful,” Calvert said. “I think that this kind of access to pictures has always influenced people. It’s just that it is more prevalent now.”

Information technology that is based on pictures, Calvert said, more easily sates our need for narrative.

“We’re interested in story. Isn’t that the essence of what goes on in this world today?” she said. “We really want to know what somebody else’s story is. You can tell stories in different media or platforms, but the ones that have visuals often have this huge emotional impact. That’s not to say that reading a book doesn’t have huge emotional impact—but you have to get immersed first, and you can do that more quickly with a visual.”

As the Children’s Digital Media Center enters its second decade, Calvert has two goals for her continuing research.

“At a basic level, I am really interested in advancing our understanding of how media influence children’s development. At an applied level, I’m interested in improving the quality of children’s media,” she said. “I want to have delightful media that children can experience. I also want to create things that will better their lives.”

—Brittany Coombs