Growing up, Tufts sophomore Gabriela Perez remembers watching television at home. The shows and movies she watched influenced her perception of different people across the globe as well as a variety of societal concepts.
“TV was, at first, exposure to different cultures. With different Disney movies, for example, my only exposure to Asian characters that I can remember is [from] movies like ‘Mulan’ (1998),” Perez said. “All that then kind of stays with you especially if that’s what you’re seeing when you’re growing up.”
Mass media’s ability to influence children’s perceptions of other cultures and the world around them is just one of the many ways that exposure to technology can affect the developing minds of children. Experts are not new to sounding the alarm on the dangers of technology with research from the National Institutes of Health correlating excessive screen time to thinning of children’s cerebral cortex. Yet there is little consensus on what exactly the best way for children to interact with technology is — or if they should at all.
Introducing technology to children early on in their lives can help them get a jumpstart on understanding digitalization as our world becomes increasingly dependent on it. The key is to make technology an active learning tool rather than static screens used to occupy children that can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. At the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, educators and researchers are working to expose children to technology in a way that is hands-on and engaging.
Julie Dobrow is a senior lecturer in the child studies department and a Tisch College Senior Fellow for Media and Civic Engagement. Her current research focuses on children’s animated television through the Tufts Children’s Television Project, which analyzes characteristics and linguistic features of characters in children’s television with a focus on accents and terminology across race, gender, age and ability.
Dobrow outlined how children’s programming in particular is critical for their social and emotional development.
“While it is always changing, … there are certain things about your identity that form early in life when you start realizing that not everybody looks alike [and] not everybody comes from the same sort of background,” Dobrow said. “Very young children even start making comparisons between ‘self’ and ‘other.’”
Perez works as a research coordinator for the CTV Project. She further spoke about the strong effects media consumption can have on younger kids.
“Children are so malleable,” Perez said. “They’re just taking in … all the information that they see. So it’s really important to make sure that [TV] is accurate to what the cultures are in making sure that there’s a variety of characters.”
The power of technology to influence how children perceive the world around them can have significant negative effects. According to Dobrow, when the CTV Project started in 1996, the research indicated that male characters outnumbered female characters by a ratio of 6-to-1 in action and adventure shows. Dobrow further discussed the finding that villainous characters were depicted as foreign characters three times more often than American characters.
“One of the things that I’ve heard from students in my classes for many years now is if they didn’t see themselves represented, it was hurtful, it was painful, and it had consequences,” Dobrow said.
The CTV Project’s results show the harm exposure to television can cause young children, but Dobrow said she is hopeful that the industry is changing.
“There is a lot more diversity than there ever was [previously] in children’s media both because of the number of platforms that are available for kids and also because I think there truly is a recognition out there among many content creators that they need to do different things and do them better,” Dobrow said.
Television is far from the only way children are exposed to technology. At the Tufts Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, assistant teacher Abby Lee sees her classroom as a rare opportunity for kids to get a break from technology. She works in the Rainbow Room, serving students between the ages of 2–3. Lee spoke about why the school avoids using technology in the classroom so kids can focus on building connections interpersonally and with nature.
“[The children] mention [how they would] watch videos on [their] mom’s iPad or … see [programs] on TV and whatnot. But we try with the younger kids to have them more connected to the natural world, so we have a lot more time outside,” Lee said. “There [are] no screens just so they don’t become vacant stares.”
Olivia Hobert, an enrichment teacher at Eliot-Pearson, spoke to similar experiences hearing from students about their use of technology at home.
“I think it is really nice for kids to have a break from screens because when they go home, that’s kind of all they do,” Hobert said.
Still, Hobert has found ways to utilize technology while teaching. She fosters her students’ connection to technology through KIBO, a screen-free robot. KIBO was developed by former Tufts Professor Marina Bers,and is designed for children ages between the ages of 4–7. Children can tell KIBO to perform different actions by sequencing an order of wooden blocks that KIBO can then scan.
Unlike just staring at an iPad or TV, KIBO is an interactive medium that teaches young students engineering basics. Hobert discussed the advantages of using KIBO.
“I think some of the drawbacks with screen technology are just [that] it is kind of mind-numbing,” Hobert said. “With KIBO, [the students] have to physically move the robot and move around the coding block so it gets not just their mind engaged but their body [as well].”
Hobert spoke about the importance of introducing kids to a certain degree of technology.
“I think it is really important to teach kids to use technology in a way that is not just to play games or just something they do at home as a way to pass time,” Hobert said. “It can also be used to teach them things like coding and engineering.”
Conclusions on technology’s impact on children do not have clear-cut answers. It is true that screen time can have adverse effects on children’s development and that media can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. At the same time, technology can be a learning tool to expand students’ minds. When done well, technology can introduce them to different cultures and worldviews.
Dobrow shared how her strategy is to accept technology’s prevalence and not fight it.
“My own personal philosophy is, rather than disparage media, … we need to harness it in positive ways,” Dobrow said. “As my students will tell you, I am forever talking about the importance of media literacy, by which I mean making us all into people who can assess media, analyze it and also create it in ways that are thoughtful and informed.”
As research continues to be developed, the one idea experts can agree on is that technology is not going away anytime soon, and children need to be prepared to utilize it.