Social Learning: What do children learn from screens?

Beginning early in development, children learn from watching others and through social interaction.  Do children learn about the social world when they watch screens, and can that compare with real life?
Social interaction is an important pathway towards learning social cognition throughout the lifespan, but may be particularly critical in the first few years of life.   As of 2011, a nationwide survey of children under eight found that, in America, two thirds of 0- to 1-year olds have watched TV, and 37% do so at least once every day; moreover, nearly one in three children under one year of age have a TV in their bedroom (Common Sense Media, 2011). Because media are in children’s learning environments from such an early age, they are an important influence on burgeoning social cognition  (Greenfield, 2009a; Rideout et al., 2010).

Research regarding what children learn about the social world through what they observe on screens, particularly on the television screen, is robust (Guernsey, 2011; Wartella et al., 2000;  Wartella, 2012).  Beginning with Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment, in which 3- to 5- year old children observed a man on film hitting a doll, and then hit the doll in much the same way when left alone with it, research rapidly developed that found similar effects with many different kinds of early imitative behavior (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963).  Yet as the research on Baby Einstein indicates, you can not park a child in front of a video and expect them to automatically learn from what they watch.  In fact, specific actions increase and/ or decrease learning.  In addition, a developmental trajectory exists; how and when children begin to imitate, attend to and learn from what they see on the screen develops in a somewhat linear fashion (Wartella, 2012). So what exactly do children learn from screens, and how does this differ from real life learning?

Many decades of psychological research found that, in many cases, screens, in and of themselves, are inferior to face-to-face social interaction.  During the first and second year of a child’s life, children do learn from screens, but in most instances, learn more from live models (Barr & Hayne, 1999; Richert et al., 2011; Barr, 2010; Guernsey, 2011). Even at later ages, 24- and 30- months, research found that learning from imitating television is inferior to live models.  For example, Hayne and colleagues (2003) performed a series of experiments using matched live and videotaped models, who performed a series of actions with a rattle and stuffed animals.  At this age, children imitated from television, but the mean imitation scores were significantly higher in the live versus video condition.  This discrepancy in imitation appears to last until 30- months and was coined the “video deficit” (Hayne, Herbert, & Simcock, 2003).

So why do children imitate less what they see on a video versus real life?  A classic experiment by Troseth and DeLoache (1998) examined whether the medium through which information is presented (i.e. television) affects imitation. The test was designed to measure young children’s ability to use symbolic representation, to transfer the knowledge they learned from watching television, as a means to learn useful information in their natural environment. The researchers designed their study using 2- and 2 ½-year olds and presented a retrieval problem.  Each group of children were placed in one of two conditions, video or window, and watched as an adult hid a toy in a room next door to where the children were placed.  The 2-year olds who watched through a window performed better than those that watched the video (Troseth & DeLoache, 1998).  This experiment demonstrated that very young children have difficulty understanding that a video screen provides information about the world they live in.

Even though young children do not learn much from watching video, if the content is age appropriate, can television viewing harm them?  Expert advice is mixed.  For example, the APA recently reviewed their recommendation that children under two should be discouraged from media use, but again concluded that the negative effects of media are more significant than the positive effects (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011).  Yet many researchers do not agree that the effects are overwhelmingly negative.  For example, reviews of early learning from screens found that when social interaction with an adult human is part of the process of consuming media, media can affect learning in a positive manner even with very young children (Richert et al., 2011).

In many of the experiments that found a video deficit, the live model and videotaped person were matched and no other social cues were introduced; thus the contribution of social interaction was difficult to measure.  Those designs tested imitation, but may not be as ecologically valid in a world where adult caregivers often engage in some media consumption with young children and may thus teach through simple social cognitive mechanisms what and how the children should attend to in a video.  Thus, while it is likely that many factors contribute to the deficit in video versus live model learning, including developmental differences in attention and cognition, more recently, more recent research in media effects focuses on how social interaction impacts learning (DeLoache & Chiong, 2009).  Current research looks at whether a social interaction with a screen (e.g. as in Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer where an on screen character talks to the children and then waits for their response) could influence whether even very young children learn from watching videos?

To examine whether the actions of an on screen agent could influence whether or not a child learned from a screen, Nielsen, Simcock and Jenkins (2008) conducted several experiments with 24-month olds, comparing video versus live models.  They found, as in most of the literature, that children copied the live model more than the videotaped model. They attributed this finding to the opportunity for the spontaneous contingent interaction available only in the live condition (Nielsen, Simcock, & Jenkins, 2008). In a following experiment the researchers further tested this hypothesis by creating a videotaped version of the demonstration, which provided interactive elements such as talking to the child and waiting for the response. This interactive video condition was tested opposite a video condition whereby the model did not attempt to socially engage the child.  Significant differences in learning behavior were found between the two conditions.  The researchers concluded that imitative behavior is positively affected by the social nature of the model, even when televised (Nielsen et al., 2008).

Newer digital technologies such as tablets and smart phones which are particularly easy to use, even for very young children, hold much promise for interactive communication (Gutnick et al., 2011).  Many speculate that early cognitive and even some motor skills develop through utilizing these technologies (Ito et al., 2009;Wellings & Levine, 2009), but their use is likely to interfere with time otherwise spent playing or interacting with adults and peers.  As such, it is essential to understand how and what young children learn when they watch and interact with these kinds of screens.

Well-designed empirical studies studying these newer technologies are rare (Wartella et al., 2000).  In 2010 however, Lauricella and colleagues published an illuminating study using computers with children aged 30- and 36-months (Lauricella, Pempek, Barr, & Calvert, 2010).  The study played a hide and seek retrieval game, much like the early Troseth study (Troseth & DeLoache, 1998), where children, in different conditions, watched an object being hidden and then searched for it.  Children watched in one of three conditions, live, interactive computer and video.  In order to overcome the “video deficit,” the researchers decided that in the video and interactive computer conditions, children should be given six exposures to the stimuli while they received only one exposure in the live condition.  In the live condition, children watched through a window while an adult in a playroom hid three stuffed animals. In the interactive computer condition, children watched as the same animals, appearing as animated characters in an playroom with the same hiding places as in the real world playroom, hid; when children were prompted to press a button, the characters popped up from their hiding place.  In the video only condition, the video was matched to that in the computer screen condition, and the same prompts were used; however, children had no control over when the characters appeared from their hiding place. After all three conditions, children were taken into the real playroom and measured on their object retrieval performance.  As predicted, the children in the live and interactive conditions were significantly more successful with finding the hidden animals, and neither age nor condition varied these results.  However, it’s important to note that it took six repetitions in the computer condition to get the same result from just one exposure in the live condition.  And even though the difference between the two was not significant, the children in the live condition still had higher retrieval scores.  Thus, the live face-to-face social interaction was superior to an interactive computer experience.

As this short review indicates, children can learn from screens, but unless adult social interaction is part of the viewing experience, young children will learn a great deal more from face to face interaction.  More research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms at play, and whether newer technologies, which allow social interaction can influence learning. As neural networks commit to environmental cues, the likelihood is that a media saturated environment affects critical early learning in important ways.  Children will continue to immerse themselves in digital media, and psychologists and other researchers can bring their understanding of how environmental cues affect behavior, apply this understanding to media, and thus contribute to a better understanding of the digital world our children are immersed in.