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Dr. Michael Levine On Children in the Digital Age

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center takes children’s programming very seriously. Whether it’s going back to its roots where Sesame Street paved the way in children’s programming, or whether it’s in the research showing how to best educate our children, the people at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center show that they not only have smarts, they really care. The Center’s Executive Director, Michael Levine, PhD, took a few minutes to share with us the impact of media in this digital age, especially in regards to their research in “D is for Digital.”CP: According to the press release, a major part of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center will be to see how interactive technologies can be utilized to help accelerate children’s learning. In your opinion, are we going to hit a point soon where children who do not have access to the technology in their pre-school years will be at a disadvantage. Please explain why this is an issue or not.ML: Children in the pre-school years will, over time, like their older peers, be influenced deeply by the ubiquity of interactive technologies in their homes and communities. Whether it is how they will learn their first letters, or math concepts, or be introduced to relatives living in remote places around the globe, most children will begin to listen, talk, and learn in a new media environment beginning shortly after they are born. That does not mean, however, that pre-school youngsters who have limited access to technology will be disadvantaged in any fundamental way, so long as they have the basic elements to grow and develop the affinity for learning all that the world will one day offer. Young children today need the loving support of their parents and caregivers, consistent relationships of intense love and practical support, and the ability to explore diverse types of safe experiences with regularity and purpose.CP: In your opinion, and based on your studies, what should producers be focusing on in order to best help our children viewers?ML: Producers should encourage interactive – and particularly intergenerational – play through their products. The bulk of digital media products currently on the market follow the model of one child per screen, however human relationships and parental involvement are key to a child’s healthy development and success in a global age. The recent success of products such as the Wii indicates that the market is seeking products that they can play together in groups and as a family. Additionally, given that children spend nearly as much time interacting with media as they do in school, producers have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to produce digital media that furthers children’s learning. In the production of media with specific learning objectives, producers should base their products on pedagogy and research, and capitalize on the wealth of knowledge in the academic community, analogous to the model used in developing Sesame Street.CP: What can parents do to provide the best learning atmosphere for children in the multi-media world?ML: Parental involvement is absolutely key in mediating children’s experiences, and this is especially true for children’s digital media interactions. We encourage parents to use digital media with their children, as all of the positive potential of digital media is significantly amplified if a parent or teacher is present to guide the child’s learning experience. In terms of selecting digital media products for their children to consume, parents should look for products that encourage thinking, creativity, problem-solving and interactive play. In judging a product’s educational value they should seek out products based on pedagogy and research. There are a number of public interest groups – such as Common Sense Media and Parent’s Choice – that help guide parents in making decisions about the media that their children consume.CP: In your opinion, is there a time and place for media that is strictly for entertaining purposes or is it better for people to just break from the electronics?ML: There is certainly a time and place for media that is strictly entertaining; there is a time and place for media with specific educational value; and there is a time and place where people should take a break from electronics altogether. The overall message is a balanced diet of fun and engaging media that should not take up too much time in any given day.CP: What is one of the most surprising things you have discovered in your studies regarding children and media?ML: All of the stress and strain that parents feel over what types and how much media content should be the right amount for children in the pre-school years is a surprising debate, given the reality of children’s lives today, that we believe can be addressed by academic research. There is no doubt that we know too little about just what very young children (under age 3) can learn from interactive media, but we believe that there are giant leaps forward that may be possible in the future with interactive media that are mediated through parent and caregiver interactionsOur early research study D is For Digital also found a surprising lack of video games with educational value. We think that the market can be given incentives to change the learning equation for young children over timeCP: If you were not limited by funds or politics, what is one of the biggest changes you would like to see incorporated in upcoming media?ML: Although digital media is ubiquitous in the world children are growing up in today, finding the positive potential of new media to accelerate children’s learning is not yet part of our national conversation. As Joan Ganz Cooney – creator of Sesame Street and namesake of our center – says: “If we can harness media as a powerful teaching tool, we can help children grow-up as literate, responsible global citizens. Now is the time to turn the new media that children have a natural attraction to into learning tools that will build their knowledge and broaden their perspectives.”

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