Can You Say Interaction?

A cute baby during video conferencing. Photo Credit: chimothy27.
A cute baby during video conferencing.
Photo Credit: chimothy27.

Interacting with a screen is an increasing part of our lives – and our children’s lives. But do children really interact with TV?

Many parents are concerned about “screen time”, and rightly so – it has been linked to obesity, and some people argue that 24/7 connectivity is not good for productivity. TV today has certainly changed since I was a kid. My son expects the characters on TV to talk to him, to invite him to participate in “adventures”, and to applaud him (but he’s three and a half and thinks everyone should applaud him all the time). My son grew up in a home where grandma and grandpa are on the screen every weekend, sometimes as child-minders (if mommy really has to go to the washroom) and daddy is on the screen fairly often, from various hotels around the world. But can three-year-old kids really understand what it means to be “on TV”?

Can Dora See Me?

So, here’s a clever little study published recently that looked into what kids think when they are “interacting” with a TV character. The researchers had a setup in which the child was sitting across the table from a live girl and a TV-screen with a computerized cartoon of a girl. On the table were two different boxes, and the child had to turn her back while the experimenter hid a sticker in one of the boxes. When the child turned back to face the table, each of the girls told her where she thought the sticker was. The child had to choose the box in which the sticker was hidden. Five-year-old children chose to follow the live girl’s clues as often as they chose to follow the TV cartoon’s clues. Seven-year-olds were a little bit better at it, performing significantly better than chance (that is, they chose the live girl’s clues significantly more than 50% of the times), and 9-year-olds did a bit better than that – they chose the live girl’s clues about 75% of the times. It would seem that at least the 5-year-olds think that the televised character can actually see what was happening in the room. Interestingly, children’s TV-time or experience with video-conferencing did not correlate with performance in this study.

Can On-Screen Interaction Replace Live Interactions?

If children think that characters on TV can see them, can we replace live interaction with on-screen interaction? There’s a study done a couple of years ago on young children’s interactions with their parents through a live video feed. The researchers used a “Strange Situation” paradigm (a paradigm used to measure children’s attachment to the parent in infants). In this paradigm, the child plays with the parent in a strange room. A strange person (a researcher typically) enters the room and interacts with the child a bit. Then the parent leaves and the child is left with the researcher. The parent comes back, and the amount of comforting the child needs from the parent is recorded. The separation-reunion cycle is typically done twice. In this study, the researcher did this cycle once as usual, and once with the parent available to the child through a live video feed. They found that the children interacted with the videoed parent as much as they did with the physically present parent, and that they needed less comforting after a separation period in which the parent was available to them. In other words, the video presence of the parent was “as good as” a physical presence – that’s a strong finding. There are a couple of problems with this study (one is that the strange situation was designed for the first year of life, and it was used with children of a wide age-range, all of whom are past their first year of life), but that’s still interesting stuff (that’s my professional opinion, by the way).

Let’s take both these studies together. It would appear that children, at least up to the second grade or so, assume that “people” (either people they know through live feed or fantasy characters such as Elmo) on TV can see them and the room they are in. The kids would treat those on TV as if they were in the room, in all respects. I would say this is good news for my husband, who gets to test this hypothesis every other week or so. However, we find that most of the time – especially if they’re watching TV or doing something really interesting – the kids are not really interested in talking with their dad on the iPhone. They treat him so much as if he were in the room that they do not take into account that he’s not actually here. I can’t tell you whether it’s good or bad, but it sure can be frustrating for the person on the other side of that FaceTime.

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