Northwesternâ€™s Ellen Wartella has a lifelong passion for kids and the media.
Words by Kelly Konrad / photography by Robin Subar
â€śThe first step is to look at your own technology use in the house and see if you can reduce thatâ€¦ particularly when the kids come home from schoolâ€¦â€ť
Wartella is director of Northwestern Universityâ€™s Center on Media and Human Development and has spent her entire career in pursuit of understanding the relationship between children and the electronic world that surrounds them.
â€śI started doing research in this area as a graduate student,â€ť she says. Originally intending to get her Masterâ€™s degree and become a community organizer, she was taking a research methods class and subsequently asked to serve as a research assistant on a study investigating how children use money and learn to buy. Knowing nothing about kids and media, she set out to learn everything she could and found herself hooked.
â€śI started taking classes in child psychology and I was sold.
I always wanted to do research that had an impact.â€ť
Not a new fight
Debate surrounding a childâ€™s digital diet has been around longer than the most popular mommy blogs. Wartella has been in the mix since the late 70s, when she first testified in front of the Federal Trade Commission on the topic of advertising directed at kids.
â€śI testified at the FTC about what we knew about how children of different ages make sense of advertising content and that got me hooked I realized I could do research with kids, which I like doing, that could address a whole host of policy questions.â€ť
Policy questions that likely have been around for more than 100 years. Wartella points to the introduction of newspapers in the late 19th century, then the advent of film, radio, and television in the 20th century. â€śEvery new media technology has entered our society with concerns about its likely impact on vulnerable audiences and children,â€ť she says. â€śThere are just so many questions about children and media that parents, caregivers, schools, and even policymakers have.â€ť
Along the way, sheâ€™s been tapped to advise the heavyweights, including Sesame Workshop for the last 15 years. â€śI consult with a variety of childrenâ€™s television shows and now am involved in digital online programming for kids.â€ť
Balancing the digital diet
It is possible, Wartella notes, to get your kidsâ€™ noses out of their smartphones and computers, but you have to make an effort. â€śYou have to work at it. Parents themselves shouldnâ€™t be coming home using technology constantly and ignoring their children. Unfortunately, a lot of parents do that because they are equally caught up in it.â€ť
There are steps parents can take to improve a childâ€™s digital diet. â€śThe first step is to look at your own technology use in the house and see if you can reduce that,â€ť she says. â€śParticularly when the kids come home from school. If thereâ€™s a time I would recommend to try to reduce technology, it is when your son or daughter walks in the house from school.
If you are there, try to spend at least 15â€“20 minutes talking
to them about their day.â€ť
Secondly, Wartella advises keeping the cell phones off the kitchen table. â€śTry not to have technology at the dinner table and during mealsâ€”thatâ€™s another opportunity to talk about whatâ€™s going on and to either talk about the day youâ€™re expecting at breakfast or the day youâ€™ve hadâ€”the day everyone has had.â€ť
Last, but not least, keep the screens out of the bedroom. â€śThere is a lot of evidence that having a television in the bedroom and allowing kids to use their texting into the night is really not very helpful, particularly with young children like preschoolers and young elementary school children,â€ť she says. â€śTelevision in the bedroom is associated with less academic achievement in school.â€ť
She knows it isnâ€™t easy. â€śI think a lot of it has to do with parents that are stressed and trying to keep work going. If you can monitor your own media use while you are monitoring your childrenâ€™s use youâ€™ll have a better time with it.â€ť
Is this amount of technology a game changer?
Wartella notes that even babies can find their way around iPads and mobile phonesâ€”the two technologies that really are game changers she says. But parents donâ€™t have to demonize it just yet.
â€śWhat we know about the context in which children thrive and develop best is that they are well cared for, they have a loving adult that takes care of them, and they are engaged in activities that encourage their cognitive and social development,â€ť she says. â€śTechnology can be part of those activities but the more diverse the activities the healthier the child will be.â€ť
And the future holds â€¦
Thatâ€™s the questions stuck in Wartellaâ€™s craw at the momentâ€”the impact of this level of technology on the
next generation of adults. â€śWhat are the consequences of
this generationâ€™s children growing up in a technologized world? There hasnâ€™t been much speculation or research on what kind of adults we are raising today and thatâ€™s the one Iâ€™m intrigued by right now.â€ť
If you would like to learn more, the Center on Media
and Human Development offers access to participate in
a variety of studies. You can learn more about their work