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Tech for Good: How Screens Can Help Kids

Tech for Good: How Screens Can Help Kids

Last year at Techonomy the consensus was the opposite, so we’re eager to hear from this expert on children and media.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: Sara DeWitt who is at PBS KIDS and has been in public media for 18 years. She’s all about innovative strategies for new kinds of educational experiences for kids on different media platforms. She’s going to talk for a couple of minutes, I’m going to come up and just facilitate a few Q&As after that. So, Sara.
Sara DeWitt: Hi. Good morning. I am so excited to be following that. That was amazing. So, I am with PBS KIDS and I had to explain it to a few people yesterday so I put it in here. We are the US public broadcaster and we receive 15% of our funding from the federal government, the rest of it comes from grants, from corporate sponsorships, from viewers like you, thank you. And we really are a non-profit media organization.
What I focus on, specifically, is development of digital tools for kids, kids from the ages of two to eight. So really right at the beginning of their media experiences. And the things that I work on are games, streaming video, and R&D on new platforms. So looking at AR and what can voice speakers do with kids, how can we find educational ways to explore technology for young children? And we reach about 12 million kids a month with these things.
So, all of that kind of sets the stage for the fact that I have lived for 20 years in this space, creating media content for kids. And it’s just been in the last probably five years that I will be at a tech conference or out in Silicon Valley meeting with some of our tech partners, some of the folks who distribute our content, and I’ll be deep in conversation with someone about a PBS KIDS app and then they will pull me aside and say, “Just so you know, I don’t let my kids use screens.”
It’s exactly what Doug was just talking about. There is this big movement in Silicon Valley for people who are in the tech industry every day, not letting their kids do anything with screens. And I get it because this is a big topic right now. This is in the media all the time, what are screens doing to our kids? Is this making them antisocial? Are they addicted? What’s happening?
And I think this is a really dangerous way to focus on this debate, the whole idea of screen time. And so I want us to reframe it and push back on it a bit. I, personally, think it’s dangerous for people in Silicon Valley to be completely banning their kids from screens. And I’ll get into that in a minute. But, really, what we need to be thinking about is the fact that the screen itself is just a tool. It’s an empty vessel. What’s freaking us out is the content on the screens. So it’s not about turning it on or turning it off, it’s about thinking about what’s actually happening in it.
And yesterday there was a lot of conversation about what’s driving the bottom line in Silicon Valley right now. And it really is centered around specific metrics. The metrics that everybody watches to see whether or not you’re successful when you’re making an app is how much time is being spent with this. Because the more time and how many repeat visitors—so, the more time you’re spending with it, that means the more ads you can serve, that means the more potential for in-app purchases, that means the more data collected. Those same success metrics, the things that make something really successful, are trickling down into the kids’ tech space.
So kids’ technology also is being rewarded if it keeps kids on it longer and if it keeps kids coming back. It’s being designed using persuasive design so that kids will keep scrolling and keep wanting to spend time. This is what is making us crazy. It’s the way that the content is being created for kids.
So we need to rethink this. We need to really focus on what’s happening on these screens, how can it actually be a positive? Because I sit in a space at a nonprofit where we are not having to watch all of the revenue, I sit in a space where we’re trying to think about what is it about these technologies that can be educational, that can be pro-social, that can really open up new ideas for kids?
So I’m going to go through a few examples, some of the research that we’re doing on the development we’re doing for PBS KIDS games and give you some things that I think will kind of help clarify this a little bit.
So this is a game from, “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That,” a science show on PBS KIDS. And in this game, you’re building a marvelous marble coaster, you’re trying to build a big Rube Goldberg machine where you are letting a marble go through ramps and go on springs and through levers and pullies to try to make it go faster. And this is an open-ended game and lets kids play with it and it’s built on a physics engine so that when the marble rolls, it’s going as fast as it should to get down that ramp to jump to a certain space.
The reason why this is exciting is that it’s letting kids play with real world concepts in a computer space. Most kids don’t have all these things in their garage, they cannot go build a Rube Goldberg machine with these kinds of things. So we’re letting them tinker with it here in hopes that at some point when they see real springs, they get to play with it and have an idea of what it might do.
This one, PBS KIDS for parents, “Play and Learn Science,” is a game designed for kids and parents to play together. And in this particular screenshot, what we’re doing is seeing how much force does it take to roll a golf ball across brick or grass or dirt. The idea for this one is get kids thinking about force in motion, thinking about different textures and surfaces. Because we want them to then go outside and try this with a ball. How could it inspire them to take it out into the world?
One of my favorite examples, if you don’t know any show on PBS KIDS, you should know about “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” this is based on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” “Daniel Tiger” focuses on social and emotional development for kids. There’s been a lot of research on this show that it actually can help kids with their social and emotional growth. And this game was built on an app so that you had access to a camera. Which means, for kids, you can begin to think about what you look like. So, for this particular game, we’re trying to get preschoolers to recognize emotions. And it’s asking kids to take pictures of surprise, smile, sad, and frustrated. These are from my own camera roll when I—my son was three years old, I was trying to put the baby down for a nap and I said, “Here, play with this new app.” And when I looked at it a week later, I discovered these pictures in the camera roll.
The thing that’s amazing about this, though, is that these pictures then get placed in the game. And what I’ve been hearing from teachers, preschool teachers, is that for kids in their classes who have trouble reading social cues, something about having their own photos in the game is really helping. It’s helping them understand what these emotions look like.
And then, finally, this is from our newest show, “Let’s Go Luna!” which is focused on world cultures. And you are cooking because this is a great entry point for kids to understand about different parts of the world. And in this case, you have some ingredients that are familiar to kids, chocolate, chicken, onions, and you’re making mole chicken. And what we’re hearing when we do play testing with kids is they actually say, “I should try this. This looks really good.” So, that’s exactly what we want to happen, we want them to think about, “Okay, how can I explore this in the real world?”
So technology actually has this ability, the affordances of the technology have this ability to get kids up and moving, to get kids to think about what someone else is feeling, to get kids to think about what they’re feeling, to get kids to have a conversation with a parent or go outside and explore. But we’re not necessarily designing content that way for kids. Because right now, there’s not a good revenue model for that kind of technology development.
If you’re interested in more of this research, I mean, there’ve been studies published about some of these games, feel free to email me. All of the research is public and Routledge just published a book called, “Getting Ready to Learn,” which focuses on some of the PBS KIDS media experiments over the years and some of the research on them.
So I said that I think screen time bans are the wrong way to go. And the first is, content, because we’re not paying attention to the right thing, we need to be thinking about how to make the content better for kids. The second, is that we need to teach kids to use technology. And if we’re completely banning it from their lives, they aren’t learning how to use it in healthy and productive ways. This is where parents play a really big role, where parents and teachers do, and it’s critical that parents think about the role that they’re playing in their kids’ tech.
I get a lot of complaints from parents about how the biggest battles in their house are really when they’re trying to take the screens away from their kids or telling them to turn it off. And what I try to remind people is that it’s also really, really hard to get your kid out of a bouncy house when they’re at a preschool birthday party. If you left the ice cream out on the counter, your kid is probably going to eat five bowls of it.
Kids are really terrible at self-regulation. This is not something that they’re naturally wired to do, it’s something they have to learn. Now, of course, they’re struggling with turning off the screens because most of the content that’s there is being designed by algorithm to make them stay longer and longer. So, this self-regulation is incredibly hard in this space. But it means that parents need to play an active role in how kids are engaging with the screens.
When parents are really busy and just need a few quiet moments and hand an iPad to a kid, that’s going to make it incredibly hard for the kid to turn off the iPad because it just came to them, surprise, they can play whatever they want. What we talk about is talking to parents about how you plan out the week. Like, if you’re doing your meal planning for the week or you’re thinking about, “Okay, on Tuesday, we’ve got soccer practice. Who is going to pick up whom?” Then also think about, “What are the times this week when I most need some quiet time? Me, as a parent, and what are the times of the week when it’s going to make the most sense for my kids to have some screens.” And then actually schedule it in. And then think about what you want your kid to watch. What’s the universe of choices you’re giving them? Is it a choice of a few PBS KIDS apps or some of the really great stuff that Toca Boca is doing? That makes a lot more sense than just handing it to them and letting them explore whatever they want. You give them a little universe of choice, you let them to decide, and then you also kind of help them understand what the limits are going to be. And it’s still going to be hard to turn it off but they’re going to need to begin to learn that there’s a time you have to turn it off.
So Henry Jenkins has said this and I think it’s just really helpful for us to remember that, “Without mentorship, we can’t expect children to develop the appropriate ethical norms to cope with complex and diverse social environments online. So, we need to help them.” So, this is super aspirational, what if we took digital play into the real world, you play with that ramp and pulley game and then you actually go made some ramps and played with them. We’re doing some experiments with member stations throughout the country right now where we’re trying to do this. We’re going in and talking about how do you use media in your household and how can you lead that into other educational experiences?
Now, I know most parents, myself included, would look at this and say, “That’s impossible. My kids are going to use screens while I’m making dinner and then we don’t have time to get out cups and ramps to do all this.” But what we’re learning in the workshops as we’re working with parents is that they do feel like this is something they could do maybe once a month, that they could carve out some time for playtime that starts digitally and moves to physical play.
And another thing that’s much easier that has incredible power is just talking to kids about what they’re watching. There was a study that Texas Tech University did about “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and kids that watched the show were proven over time to develop deeper empathy, they measured this somehow. And then they had kids who talked to parents about different situations, also developed empathy. But when you put the two together, when the kid watched and talked to the parents, the gains were much greater. So this is kind of the most powerful thing a parent can do is always talk to their kid about what they watched or what they played. Their learning gains are going to be greater but also it sets up this habit that media is something to talk about, that technology is something you can be thinking about critically, you can have questions about.
So we are doing this kind of experimentation all the time. But I think it’s important for us to remember that we’ve been here before, 50 years ago, we were all stressed about the vast cultural wasteland of the television. How it was making kids antisocial and removing them from each other. And, Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers, who did “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” really upended the entire industry by going in and using it differently. By talking to kids on the show, not as an entertainment spectacle but as a conversation and encouraging kids to respond back to the television. It really changed the way children’s television was produced and proved to a lot of people that it could be really positive.
I was stunned when I came across this quote, in 1985, Fred Rogers said this about computers and was making the point, “Really, this isn’t a tradeoff, this is something that can be incorporated into your kids’ lives and it is another building block for how they learn.” I started at PBS in 1999 because Fred Rogers felt like it was critically important for PBS to begin building more internet experiences for kids, that we had an opportunity to do something positive with this new technology that was taking off.
So, we have this possibility and this opportunity to do really amazing things. We just need to reframe how we’re looking at it. So, thank you.
Kirkpatrick: That was, I think, one of the most important talks we’re going to have at this conference, so you did it really well. And, unfortunately, we don’t have much time left.
DeWitt: Okay.
Kirkpatrick: But I want to ask you one thing, stay standing if you don’t mind.
DeWitt: Okay.
Kirkpatrick: The persuasive technology that now pervades children’s technology tools is being used because data is being gathered and children, themselves, are being targeted for advertising.
DeWitt: Right.
Kirkpatrick: My own opinion is that that is something that is fundamentally inappropriate. Do you agree with that?
DeWitt: Oh, absolutely, yes.
Kirkpatrick: Because this is something that is not being much discussed but it’s starting to be discussed in some other countries. I happen to believe this is one of the major frontiers of technology regulation is that it should be illegal to gather data about children and target them with advertising. So, you agree with that?
DeWitt: I definitely agree. And I’d also say that it’s starting in other countries, there’s kind of a bigger groundswell but it’s actually starting to happen here. Just in the last year, there have been more fines against companies for violating COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, than we’ve had in the whole time that COPPA has been in existence. It’s kind of the beginning of how parents, I think, and advocates are beginning to push back on this. And it’s really from the data side. And I think that’s great. Anytime people are going to push back on how the content is being crafted right now, what’s being collected, that’s a positive.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Where’s Kirstin? Do we have time for one audience question? One more question. Okay, who has got one quick question from the audience because I’m sure a lot of people have thoughts on this. Anybody have a—over there? And we’ll try to do this quickly but I think it was a compelling talk that requires interaction.
Kurdakul: Hi, I’m Sheri Kurdakul of VictimsVoice, I am a mother of two. I want to ask what PBS is doing to educate parents on time limitations with digital, regardless of whether it’s good for your kids or not. Digital time affects eyesight and we’re seeing an increase in eye issues.
DeWitt: Yes, so, first of all, the time piece, what we often say to parents is it really kind of depends on what’s happening in your household. And I absolutely agree. Like, the time—the eyesight issue is when kids are spending hours and hours and hours and hours. So, it is a problem and it’s something that we need to be paying attention to. So we do need to limit time. I really would go back to the idea though that time really depends on what you’re doing with the content itself. Like, if your kid is home sick and they watch “Daniel Tiger” for an hour and a half, that’s still probably going to be more better for the kid overall than if they’re watching a YouTube channel for 30 minutes that’s just pumping algorithm-created content at them. Like, there’s more happening there. So the time question, I think, kind of sends us down the wrong rabbit hole but I definitely agree with you, there are physiological things that are problems that require limitations on these kinds of things.
Kirkpatrick: An amazing piece, I don’t know whether it was in “The Wall Street Journal” or somewhere yesterday about a nine-year-old girl who started putting on YouTube racist content and because she was getting audience, she kept getting algorithmically supported and promoted on YouTube and now she’s making, like, $1,200 a month and she’s 14 and she’s like an ultra right wing crazy. And they finally realized that she had to be banned. But the algorithms of YouTube were facilitating that. It’s just some real awful things are not being understood.
But you’re really helping. So, thank you for that very eloquent and well thought through presentation.
DeWitt: Thank you so much.
Kirkpatrick: Really good.


Sara DeWitt

Vice President, PBS KIDS Digital

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