As the father of a 12-year-old who would be glued to an iPad all day if he was allowed to, and a 17-year-old who would rather I buy her physical books than an e-reader, I have a personal interest in how the “touch-screen generation,” as the Atlantic dubs them, views the world through the various media now available to them, and how it shapes their minds.
There’s an excellent piece in the latest issue of the magazine about toddlers that are growing up with touchscreens; it’s a valuable read both for parents as well as anyone interested in how young minds might be shaped – for better or worse – by all the devices around them. It’s a smart, nuanced piece that’s backed by much solid research.
And there’s much in it that – I think – applies to the non-toddler set as well. In particular, it cites a fascinating experiment about how kids perceive information.
In one series of studies, conducted by Georgene Troseth, a developmental psychologist at Vanderbilt University, children watched on a live video monitor as a person in the next room hid a stuffed dog. Others watched the exact same scene unfold directly, through a window between the rooms. The children were then unleashed into the room to find the toy. Almost all the kids who viewed the hiding through the window found the toy, but the ones who watched on the monitor had a much harder time.
That sort of plays to all our (older folks’) prejudices about how screen viewing encourages a passivity about the world, doesn’t it? But Troseth redid the experiment a couple of years later, making the video demonstration much more interactive. When the kids watched the monitor, a researcher talked to them through the video link, asking them question and inviting them to sing along with her.
She gave them the distinct impression that she—this person on the screen—could interact with them, and that what she had to say was relevant to the world they lived in. Then the researcher told the children she was going to hide the toy and, after she did so, came back on the screen to instruct them where to find it. That exchange was enough to nearly erase the video deficit. The majority of the toddlers who participated in the live video demonstration found the toy.
OK, so there’s a limit to how much you can extrapolate findings about toddlers to the rest of the world (although if you’ve been in some of the newsrooms I’ve been in, you might find lots of similarities between squabbling two-year-olds and some journalists at major news organizations), but it does point to how much interactivity can change the way we view information.
If we can explore and manipulate information – perhaps have some sense of control over it – it seems natural that we’d have a different relationship to it then if we simply passively read or watch or listen to it. And perhaps it sinks it more.
Who knows? But it’s clear that the human brain doesn’t simply process information the way a computer does – how we receive it, and how it’s presented, makes a huge difference to our understanding and acceptance of it. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has some great examples, as I’ve written before – and certainly smart journalists know how to build stories around characters readers can relate to, to make the information stick. Those are techniques learned from much experience; but as new story-telling techniques become available to us – data visualizations, non-narrative multimedia packages, interactive graphics, to name a few – it’s probably worth doing research to understand how they affect readers/users differently.
Or our readers might move beyond us, and we’ll be like magazine publishers trying to engage the two-year-old set in this video: