With online communication options such as Skype and FaceTime becoming increasingly popular, people can keep in touch all over the world through real-time video conversations.
These technologies can be a blessing that allows family and friends to stay connected with children who live far away. A video conversation is certainly enjoyable for adults, but are young children able to take anything away from the interaction? For example, are toddlers able to recognize a live person as the same person who is “in the computer?” Can toddlers learn new things from the person on video?
These are some of the questions that Lauren J. Myers, assistant professor of psychology, is trying to answer, with the help of EXCEL Scholars Rachel LeWitt ’13 (Berwyn, Pa.), a double major in psychology and English, and Renee Gallo ’14 (Cheshire, Conn.), a psychology major.
“We are teaching 12- to 24-month-olds new things over FaceTime,” Myers explains. “We introduce children to novel toys that they have never seen before and teach them novel names (like “wug”) and novel actions for these toys. After several FaceTime sessions in a week, we bring families back to the lab to see what the children have learned. Because we invented the toy names and actions, if a child knows what the wug is and what the wug does, he/she only could have learned that from the person on FaceTime.”
The team also observes whether children bond socially with their FaceTime partner. They give the child a choice between two people and see whether they prefer to play with their FaceTime partner or a stranger.
“This research is important for the field because developmental psychologists know that children under two years old typically do not learn from video, and screen time should usually be limited,” says Myers. “This is because typically a person on video cannot respond to a child in real time, and this interactivity is essential for early learning. Toddlers learn best from other people. If we find that children under two years old learn from a person via video chat, then that will show that video chat is more like social interaction than it is like screen time.”
LeWitt and Gallo are involved in every aspect of the project—reading scholarly articles, designing materials, recruiting families to participate from the local community, collecting data with children, coding and analyzing data, writing results, and presenting findings. They participated in more than 100 FaceTime sessions over the summer. In the fall semester, psychology majors Samantha Nussbaum ’13 (Hopewell, N.J.), Nicole Maselli ’14 (Rockville Centre, N.Y.), and Makenzie Danis ’15 (Long Valley, N.J.) joined the research team.
“Technology is now changing the way kids grow up,” says Gallo, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializing in child development. “This project allows me to use empirical research to see if and how modern technology—iPads and FaceTime—can be used to teach children.”
LeWitt, who is considering pursuing an advanced degree in cognitive or experimental psychology or in linguistics, has been excited to use the techniques learned in the classroom for a project with many practical implications.
“While a good deal of my psychology major has been spent learning theories and different types of statistical measures, this research has been a novel way to integrate the intellectual components of psychology with the practical ones,” she says. “It’s been a great experience being able to engage with and tackle a few of the more recent questions emerging in developmental psychology.”
This research is ongoing and Myers and her students are looking for local families interested in getting involved. To be eligible, families must have a typically developing 12- to 24-month-old child and availability for approximately two hours over the course of one week (two 30-minute sessions on campus, and five 10-minute sessions at home). Participating families will receive $50 as compensation for time and travel. To participate, call (610) 330-5870 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit sites.lafayette.edu/kidslab.