Media and Young Children

An MRI-based study looked at the effects of:

–simply reading a story to a child

–telling the story with the kind of animation that might be presented on a tablet or a TV screen

–telling the story with the aid of a traditional picture book

For the 4-year-old kids who were studied, the MRI data was said to suggest better patterns of mental development for the third type of storytelling than for either of the other two.  Note that it was a very small study: only 27 kids, probably too few to draw any kind of definitive conclusions…but interesting.

From the WSJ article:

The sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life—a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

This ties in with some comments I made on my post Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking, which expands on some of Neal Stephenson’s ideas:

I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

5 thoughts on “Media and Young Children”

  1. I found as a medical student that writing out material was a memory aid. Underlining, as I saw some students do, was not effective. Simply reading material was good but did not implant it in memory. Explaining concepts or putting them into your own words was also effective.

  2. Same here – writing it out in my own words fixed it in memory…
    And … reading to younger children. I read to my little brother; a whole library of stuff, including all of Lord of the Rings. Did the same with my daughter, later. And both of them, to this day, are passionate readers.

  3. It’s not clear from the article how the just-reading part of the study was done…was it a specific adult doing the reading, or just a disembodied voice?

    From the WSJ article:

    “Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.”

    …so one would expect the results to be different depending on which of the two reading methods described above was used.

  4. And read with animation in your voice….and pacing*….and if it is an old familiar story sneak in a few side ideas about what is going on. In my prime I had a dozen different character voices including Valley Girl, smooth talking French guy, Russian spy (guess I was ahead of my time there). Several times I had the pleasure of having a kid’s book series made into a show for PBS and noting that they “did” the voice for say, Arthur, just the way I did.

    Eventually this morphs into stories and songs that don’t need a book. Possums seem to turn up often in these.

    Now on my second generation of kid stories. Nice to have a few things that I’m getting better at with age!


    *very few 21st century youngsters can stand up and speak in anything other than a mumbly monotone. Drives me crazy…probably a byproduct of so much passive absorption of screens.

  5. Two marriages, two batches of kids. Read to both almost religiously when they were young.

    Started with Golden Books and later especially loved by all the kids was “A great big ugly man came up and tied his horse to me” by Wallace Tripp. And yes there were voices.

    When they got a bit older, we went into the Hobbit, followed by Fellowship of the Ring. When we were into Fellowship, they started reading on their own.

    I have my first grandchild, seven months old. I have already bought her AGBUMCUATHHTM, even though it is long out of print. Being old, I’m pretty sure I will not finish the Trilogy with her, but we will give it a try.

    Subotai Bahadur

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