Shifting the lens on media: The relationship between digital content and family


Trista Sobeck

When you come home from work and your child presents you with yet another app he or she wants to download, you have a choice. Do you, A) say no because a 7-year-old does not need yet another game; B) say yes and walk away; or C) take a look at it, sit down with your child and open a dialogue about why this game is important and explore the potential problem-solving components?

Well, parenting is time-consuming, so the answer, of course is C. Or at least this is the answer that many new studies would point to. In a new book co-edited by ASU’s Elisabeth Gee, professor and Delbert and Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading and Literacy, along with Lori Takeuchi and Ellen Wartella, teams of researchers set out to investigate how families — especially those with young children — are incorporating digital media into their lives.

Children and Families in the Digital Age: Learning Together in a Media Saturated Culture” came about through an initiative with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the research arm of “Sesame Street.” Because the show teaches inclusion and family culture, and with its more recent foray into producing online games for children, the center’s charter of advancing children’s learning in a digital age fits perfectly with the celebrated show.

Who better to get to the bottom of questions such as: “How do families and digital media work together?” and “How can we improve a family culture of learning alongside, and with, digital media?” and moreover, “Although digital media is portrayed as something that is tearing families apart, why isn’t it showcased as a helpful educational tool used for communication and learning?”

Gee reports that the Cooney Center knew it was of dire importance to assemble a group of researchers to fully examine the role of digital media and the family. So it pulled together a network of teams of academicians from ASU, as well as, Stanford, Rutgers and Northwestern. The focus was the common theme of digital media in the context of family life.

Learning happens collectively

The complete edited volume is unique in that different researchers are featured as authors throughout the book. Often, you’ll come across the featured authors in more than one chapter, says Gee. “This way, the book doesn’t come across as simply presenting individual study findings in a chapter and then ending. Researchers collaborate across chapters to address common topics and themes throughout the book as it is appropriate to the studies.” Though the teams didn’t set out to create this format, it was the result of tight collaboration, and it enhances the cohesion. In addition to making the work fun, it creates a storyline that runs throughout the book. This sentiment also echoes an aspect of the findings of the research: Learning happens collectively.

The original research began in 2013 and the work on the book started a little over a year ago. “The research was very extensive,” says Gee. “In our research here at ASU, for example, we used surveys, and three home visits (each) with 15 families. We spent a lot of time getting to know the families and then getting together with the other researchers to talk about those findings. When you add up the research across teams, we gathered a very substantial amount of information on how families across the country are engaging with digital media.”

Digital media moves quickly, but overall family culture and dynamics typically don’t. So the insights are not tied to a particular form of media or technology; however, technological changes do make a difference in what families actually do. “One thing that surprised me,” says Gee, “was the number of tablets that young children are using.” This is probably no surprise to parents, but Gee explains this is not something that would have been an issue even five years ago.

A big point of the book is to let people see how other families use digital media differently. Typically, the scenario is that kids go off to use the media or play on their own. And sometimes, that really is best for everyone, admits Gee. Because of digital media, busy parents are able to get work done at home and the research teams recognized that.

But with this work, Gee and her team wanted to go beyond that stereotypical view and capture a broad view of how all family members of all ages are interacting around digital media even if they don’t have the media in front of them.

For example, Gee says one of the things they found that could be beneficial — and actually did happen in some families — is having an actual conversation about the media itself. “Much like recommending parents talk with their kids about what they’re reading, we found that talking about a game or interactive media is just as helpful,” she says.

Bonding time

Gee reflects on some of the think-alouds they did with young children and how fascinating it is to hear a 4-year-old think through an app or a game. “This type of dialogue is something parents can take part in with children to encourage language development,” she says. Who doesn’t have spare time when they are sitting in the car on the way to get groceries or run errands? Car rides are an ideal time to ask questions about the media and prompt the child to use more academic language or think through problem solving. “It’s also great for the child and creates a bond,” adds Gee.

In another instance, Gee remembers, a family had one smartphone that belonged to the father. “They had two young sons and at the end of the day it was their nightly ritual to spend time with Dad. As soon as he came home from work the boys played on the phone with their dad,” Gee says. “He wasn’t a ‘gamer’ and he probably wouldn’t be playing the games if it wasn’t for his children. It was a nice opportunity for him to spend quality time with the boys while Mom made dinner. In this situation, digital media gave the father and the sons a nice opportunity to connect,” explains Gee.

These examples and situations may be things parents take for granted, but Gee and her team set out to highlight the positive ripple effects these moments have, in terms of family cohesion and communication.

Who wants to be a gatekeeper anyway?

Gee explains that by now, most families are champs at telling kids to go read and then talk about the books. We are all well-trained to ask questions like, “Who is the main character of the story?” “What was his problem?” “Who helped him?” “Why do you think the author made that choice?” But when it comes to digital media and gaming, we don’t really think that way. “It’s a small shift and that's part of what we want to encourage with parents, Gee says. “We are just looking into making smaller changes.”

Gee explains that the negative stigma that our society has assigned to digital media is troubling and is something this research can help turn around. “There’s this idea that digital media is doing nothing but interfering with family communication and pulling people and families apart,” she says. “We wanted to pay attention also to things that were positive; we definitely did not ignore the negative and there is conflict in some families over kids’ media and games,” she explains.

However, Gee wants the group’s research to prompt people to think about how this conflict has been framed for us culturally and societally; it sets up parents as gatekeepers. “Parents are the ones who make sure kids use appropriate media and use it the amount of time that has been deemed ‘good’ for them,” she says. Right away this positions the parent and child against each other rather than trying to set it up as something that is mutually interesting and beneficial. “I think if you shift the lens in that direction it opens up a different way of thinking about the role that media can play,” she says.

Learning together as a family

Gee reflects on early research that was done several decades ago when video gaming first became popular. “If the parents cultivated a family-learning culture when it comes to addressing uncertainty, everyone is then positioned as a learner,” she says.

Gee says many times parents believe they have to act like they have all the information in the universe. Even though we want to believe that and impart it to our children just like Prometheus gave the Greeks fire, we aren’t gods. Nor should we be.

When children and parents get together and research a common love of something, like NASA and outer space (something Gee saw firsthand), you have shared learning taking place — not unlike what happens in many college classrooms.

It was with this example that Gee explains, “This child will take from this shared experience of researching NASA and internalize it and think, ‘Wow! As a family we really like to investigate things. We are learners.” And this is just one of the ultimate messages we want to impart to our children. We are indeed on this learning journey together.