Friday, May 29, 2009

It’s Not Just TV Anymore

Written by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:24

Today’s children are coming of age immersed in video gaming, Web browsing, and instant messaging. Many have cell phones, laptops, and hand-held video games. Others have created avatars of themselves, and some are raising robot pets in virtual worlds. What impact does this technology have on children?

A new journal issue co-edited by a human-computer interaction (HCI) professor from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a developmental psychology professor from the University of Washington explores the promises and perils ahead for children in technological environments.

The journal Children, Youth and Environments (CYE) this month published a special issue titled “Children in Technological Environments.” The issue examines the increasing prevalence of technology from various perspectives, including knowledge and education, social and moral development, culture and community, access and equity, relationship to nature, therapy and health, art and expression, and future scenarios. (Read it in its entirety at

“Today, technology is part of everyday life, and it can easily mediate or even replace other types of experiences,” said Nathan G. Freier, assistant professor of HCI in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, with a joint appointment in Information Technology, at Rensselaer. “Through past centuries, technologies have offered enormous benefits to children,” Freier said. “Written language, for example, can be incredibly beautiful, and compared to spoken language, the written word – from clay tablets, to pen and paper, to digital computers – has allowed for new depths and forms of communication and expression, an unfolding of human awareness.”

According to this research, today’s technology is more sophisticated and invasive. Children play multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which allows for large numbers of players to interact by controlling and developing their fictional characters in adventurous game settings. In 2006, MMORPG revenues exceeded $1 billion. Also, video games dominate children’s media entertainment. In more recent years, inexpensive robot pets and online virtual pets have become increasingly popular.

“Technology is good and it can help our lives, but let’s not be fooled into thinking we can live without nature,” said co-author, Peter H. Kahn Jr., associate professor in the Department of Psychology and adjunct professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. “We are losing direct experiences with nature. Instead, more and more we’re experiencing nature represented technologically through television and other media. Children grow up watching Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, playing with robotic pets, and taking virtual tours of the Grand Canyon on their computers. That’s probably better than nothing. But as a species we need interaction with actual nature for our physical and psychological well-being.”

Freier also noted that the interactions and amount of time that children are spending with technologies, particularly the Internet, communication technologies, and video games, are forcing educators to redefine what they mean by learning processes and outcomes.

The Future Impact of Yesterday’s Technology

The journal also highlights the fact that visions of the future as portrayed through media and literature (such as science fiction) are one of the powerful drivers of technological environments. In the mid-1960s, for example, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original Star Trek television series, saw the value of small, handheld mobile communication devices; thus the “flip” design of the crew’s Communicators seemingly influenced the design of the common cell phone we see in use today. Also, the android character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation shows us how fragile our own self-identity is when we look into the eyes of a man-machine and see our own reflection. And perhaps, the woman-machine in the classic Metropolis reflects our deep-seated nightmares of a future gone wrong.

Freier noted that we also see this tension play out in Asimov’s iRobot series of short stories in which robots are intentionally designed to benefit humanity, but all too often the robots (and humans, ironically) fall victim to their own immense complexity.

“It is obvious that today’s children are coming of age in yesterday’s science fiction future,” Freier said. “Children today know no other way of being, no other way of existing in the world. Our faith in the benefits of those who play a significant role in shaping our technological force is often balanced with the fears of the unknown and uncontrollable sinister force embedded within the technologies, often unbeknownst to the designers themselves.

“This process of balance – which leads to children’s intellectual, social, and moral development – will be, and already is, strongly shaped by the technological environments children inhabit,” he added. “Thus we need to design our technological environments wisely.”

According to the authors, the most important lesson to remember is that “we are not technological species, but one that came of age through deep and intimate daily contact with other humans and with an embodied, physical natural and often wild world – and we still need that world to flourish as a species.”

“In the years ahead, technological nature will get more sophisticated and compelling,” Kahn said. “But if it continues to replace our interaction with actual nature, it will come at a cost. To thrive as a species, we still need to interact with nature by encountering an animal in the wild, walking along the ocean’s edge or sleeping under the enormity of the night sky.”

To view the publication, visit

Friday, May 08, 2009

Exercise routine sparks brain development

Parents urged to limit time on computer games

Cindy Stephen, For Neighbours

Published: Thursday, August 14, 2008

Although a good night's sleep and a healthy breakfast can prepare your child for a day of learning, experts are finding other smart ways to beef up the brain.

"Neuro-science is growing so much because of new technologies," says chartered psychologist Deb Skaret.

"We're finding that there are lots of things that parents can do to help facilitate the health and overall intellectual development and curiosity of their children."

Skaret, who holds a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Alberta, has long been a student of the brain and cites the latest research into how exercise benefits the muscle between your ears.

"We're learning how exercise is critical for brain development. It's like a spark," she says, adding that lack of physical activity can be connected to children with attention problems. She says American physician John J. Ratey tested junior high school students by running them on a treadmill before morning classes and found they were more alert in school.

Scientific research shows that exercise increases the fitness level and development of brain cells, and benefits the hippocampus (a seahorse-shaped brain structure) which is vital for memory and learning.

"I'm concerned about a child playing a lot of computer games and not having a balanced, recreational lifestyle. It's just a hypothesis, but I think we'll see greater challenges with kids holding down a conversation in the classroom. They're used to flashy stuff, and maybe it will be hard to sit down and enjoy a book," says Skaret, who jokes that the thumbs of future generations will be longer because of increased video games use.

Parents should encourage a balance of recreational activities and limit time on computer games, encouraging interaction and conversation with others.

Skaret also recommends parents monitor stressors in their children's lives.

"A little bit of stress is good. Hey, you got an assignment due, nothing like stress to help you get it done. But chronic stress, such as family fighting, and you get a child with constant anxiety," she says.

"Chronic stress creates cortisol which inhibits memory. If a child is sitting in school worrying, they can't concentrate or they learn something and it just falls through."

Cutting edge research still touts the benefits of sleep and adequate nutrition.

"Basically, when your brain doesn't have the nourishment it needs, you're foggy and fatigued. It's hard to stay focused," says nutrition specialist Theresa Riege of the Calgary Health Region.

Riege stresses the importance of a breakfast that is a combination of several food groups, particularly protein and whole grains, which will take longer to digest and help students keep their energy level up throughout the morning.

"Some children won't always be hungry upon first awakening," she says. If whole grain cereal or eggs don't appeal to them, Riege suggests thinking outside the traditional cereal box.

"Left-over pasta or even a ham sandwich is good. Whatever food goes into them should be as nourishing as possible," she says.

"Avoid that sweet sugar rush in the morning. It will get them going faster, but they'll lack energy by mid-morning and will inhibit their function from a thinking, and even play, perspective."

The Calgary Health Region, Nutrition and Active Living, has published a school nutrition guide book for schools, teachers and parents which is available on their website at nutrition.htm.

"It will give parents some food options and outlines some strategies for packing lunches and snacks," says Riege.

TV Viewing Before the Age of 2 Has No Cognitive Benefit, Study Finds

Environmental factors found to be more influential

March 2, 2009
Boston, Mass. -- A longitudinal study of infants from birth to age 3 showed TV viewing before the age of 2 does not improve a child's language and visual motor skills, according to research conducted at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. The findings, published in the March issue of Pediatrics, reaffirm current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that recommend no television under the age of 2, and suggest that maternal, child, and household characteristics are more influential in a child's cognitive development.

"Contrary to marketing claims and some parents' perception that television viewing is beneficial to children's brain development, no evidence of such benefit was found," says Marie Evans Schmidt, PhD, lead author of the study.

The study analyzed data of 872 children from Project Viva, a prospective cohort study of mothers and their children. In-person visits with both mothers and infants were performed immediately after birth, at 6 months, and 3 years of age while mothers completed mail-in questionnaires regarding their child's TV viewing habits when they were 1 and 2 years old. It was conducted by researchers in the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's, and the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

The study is the first to investigate the long term associations between infant TV viewing from birth to 2 years old and both language and visual-motor skill test scores at 3 years of age. These were calculated using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test III (PPVT III) and Wide-Range Assessment of Visual Motor Abilities (WRAVMA) test. The PPVT measures receptive vocabulary and is correlated with IQ, while WRAVMA tests for visual motor, visual spatial, and fine motor skills.

The researchers controlled for sociodemographic and environmental factors known to contribute to an infants' cognitive development, including mother's age, education, household income, marital status, parity, and postpartum depression, and the child's gender, race, birth weight, body mass index, and sleep habits. Using linear regression models, the researchers equalized the influences of each of these factors and calculated the independent effects of TV viewing on the cognitive development of infants. Once these influences were factored out, associations in the raw data between increased infant TV viewing and poorer cognitive outcomes disappeared.

"In this study, TV viewing in itself did not have measurable effects on cognition," adds Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, senior author of the study and pediatrician at Children's. "TV viewing is perhaps best viewed as a marker for a host of other environmental and familial influences, which may themselves be detrimental to cognitive development."

While the study showed that increased infant TV exposure is of no benefit to cognitive development, it was also found to be of no detriment. The overall effects of increased TV viewing time were neutral. TV and video content was not measured, however, only the amount of time exposed. The researchers acknowledge follow-up studies need to be done, and they are quick to warn parents and pediatricians that the body of research evidence suggests TV viewing under the age of 2 does more harm than good.

"TV exposure in infants has been associated with increased risk of obesity, attention problems, and decreased sleep quality," adds Michael Rich, MD, MPH, the pediatrician who directs the Center on Media and Child Health and contributing author on this study and the current AAP Guidelines. "Parents need to understand that infants and toddlers do not learn or benefit in any way from viewing TV at an early age."

Jamie Newton

The Center on Media and Child Health, an affiliate of Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health conducts and translates research about the effects of media on child's health and development so that parents can make informed decisions about their children's media use. Parents can access this information about research as well as tips at

Children's Hospital Boston is home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 members of the Institute of Medicine and 12 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is a 397-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children's also is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more information about the hospital and its research

Children who view adult-targeted TV may become sexually active earlier in life

Longitudinal study tracked content viewed during childhood and adolescence

May 4, 2009
Boston, Mass. -- Early onset of sexual activity among teens may relate to the amount of adult content children were exposed to during their childhood, according to a new study released by Children's Hospital Boston. Based on a longitudinal study tracking children from age six to eighteen, researchers found that the younger children are exposed to content intended for adults in television and movies, the earlier they become sexually active during adolescence. The findings are being presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meetings on Monday, May 4 in Baltimore.

"Television and movies are among the leading sources of information about sex and relationships for adolescents," says Hernan Delgado, MD, fellow in the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital Boston and lead author of the study. "Our research shows that their sexual attitudes and expectations are influenced much earlier in life."

The study consisted of 754 participants, 365 males and 389 females, who were tracked during two stages in life: first during childhood, and again five years later when their ages ranged from 12 to 18-years-old. At each stage, the television programs and movies viewed, and the amount of time spent watching them over a sample weekday and weekend day were logged. The program titles were used to determine what content was intended for adults. The participants' onset of sexual activity was then tracked during the second stage.

According to the findings, when the youngest children in the sample--ages 6 to 8-years-old--were exposed to adult-targeted television and movies, they were more likely to have sex earlier when compared those who watched less adult-targeted content. The study found that for every hour the youngest group of children watched adult-targeted content over the two sample days, their chances of having sex during early adolescence increased by 33 percent. Meanwhile, the reverse was not found to be true-that is, becoming sexually active in adolescence did not subsequently increase youth's viewing of adult-targeted television and movies.

"Adult entertainment often deals with issues and challenges that adults face, including the complexities of sexual relationships. Children have neither the life experience nor the brain development to fully differentiate between a reality they are moving toward and a fiction meant solely to entertain," adds David Bickham, PhD, staff scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health and co-author of the study. "Children learn from media, and when they watch media with sexual references and innuendos, our research suggests they are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier in life."

The researchers encourage parents to follow current American Academy of Pediatrics viewing guidelines such as no television in the bedroom, no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time a day, and to co-view television programs and have an open dialogue about its content with your children. They also suggest that--while the results demonstrate a longitudinal relationship--more research needs be done to understand how media influences children's growing awareness of human relationships and sexual behavior.

"Adolescent sexual behaviors may be influenced at a younger age, but this is just one area we studied," adds Dr. Delgado. "We showed how adult media impacts children into adolescence, yet there are a number of other themes in adult television shows and movies, like violence and language, whose influence also needs to be tracked from childhood to adolescence."

The study was funded by support by grants from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau and the Center on Media and Child Health. To view the AAP Television Guidelines click here.

Jamie Newton

Children's Hospital Boston is home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 members of the Institute of Medicine and 12 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is a 397-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children's also is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more information about the hospital and its research