Interaction & Relationships


Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder ascertained in 2013 that “co-viewing” (viewing digital media simultaneously with the child) produced statistically significant better outcomes in learning while watching an educational video than the child watching the video independently. While the immediate outcomes were similar, long-term retention was significantly higher when the parents engaged with their child about the video content and followed-up with activities.

This information can be paired with a 2006 study from Australia which found that mere presence in co-viewing – that is, sitting next to the child without interaction or follow-up – produced no statistically-significant positive impact on learning or retention whatsoever, meaning that interaction is the key variable in co-viewing. This mirrors what effective teachers do when using media intentionally in good instructional design: turning on a video and sitting down for the duration is passive, and is “showing a movie,” not teaching. However, meaningful use of video materials, pausing to discuss and analyze, and developing a meaningful activity around limited video content, can be highly effective.

There is evidence that this can also be effective modeling, as to effectively do this, parents must change their behaviors, moving away from passive consumption of media to thoughtful interaction around media. The longitudinal Nepean study, conducted between 1996 and 2006, found a correlation between family viewing habits and the establishment of patterns long-term, as well as a correlation with increased calorie intake during media consumption.

A 2015 study found that what some of you may be thinking is true: This is hard to do, especially with media with which they aren’t as familiar. Parents are far more likely to co-view using traditional media like books and movies, than they are to co-use video games. Moving outside of our comfort zone can be facilitated by asking the child to teach us how to play, and taking the time to explore with them and genuinely trying to develop the skills to engage in the new media, instead of simply being aware of it.

Another significant consideration for us adults is our own set of habits: A 2015 study found that over half of parents bottle-feeding their children were multitasking, especially watching screen media. A 2014 study found that 73% of observed parents eating a meal at a particular restaurant with their toddlers present used their mobile devices during the meal. Given that we know (from yet another 2015 study) that parental habits are strongly associated with child habits, this tasks us, as the adults, with changing our behaviors if we expect benefits for and positive behaviors from our children.

It should be noted that a significant-scale 2008 study found that co-viewing itself was not effective in reducing the risk of online risk encounters for children aged 12-17, and so interactive co-viewing is one strategy, but should not be the only strategy, employed with children regarding online media.

Developmental Progression

While all children are different, the human anima’s brain development does generally follow a sequence of stages. An outstanding research and instructional resource that we utilize is the book Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom, Ages 4-14 by Chip Wood, part of the Responsive Classroom model. While those who work with children, especially professionally, have an ethical responsibility to approach every child as an individual – as all humans are unique and innately deserving of being conceived by others, especially caretakers, as authentic individuals – we can also equip ourselves with general “rules of thumb” that help inform our decision making. Parents can do the same thing.

For example, research tells us generally what is happening in the brains of children of young ages when experiencing media, as reflected in this list assembled by pediatric speech therapist Leslie Humes:

  • <6 months: Prefer to look at faces, understand little from the screen.
  • 6 months: Recognize familiar objects on screen but don’t understand how they relate to other objects on the screen or in reality. (Anderson & Hanson, 2010)
  • 3-9 months: Babies’ eye-gaze moves to faces on screen. (Frank, Vul, & Johnson, 2009)
  • <12 months: Babies’ eye gaze is directed by formal features (zoom, noise, light variation, movement). (Gola & Calvert, 2011)
  • 18 months: Children have some ability to relate on-screen objects to real world objects; familiar context helps.
  • 3 Years: Children can transfer between 2D and 3D, meaning this is the age when they fully understand the content being presented.
  • 3 ½ to 5 ½ years: May still struggle to transfer advanced concepts from 2D to 3D (such as solutions to problems). (Richert & Smith, 2011)

Given this information, there is minimal substantive benefit to digital media for children under the age of 36 months. Photographic materials transfer ideas, individuals, and objects from the two-dimensional medium to the concept of a three-dimensional medium with greater ease and effectiveness, than do, for example, cartoon representations, and situating these ideas, individuals, and objects in familiar settings further enhances facility.


Academic scholarship on a subject requires more than anecdotal observation; it requires meaningful scientific inquiry. However, in the case of the statement “digital technology impacts the way we relate to one another,” seemingly everyone was in consensus that this was true before the science showed that yes, digital communication is highly prevalent at nearly every age level, and it does have an impact on the way we relate to one another. This has, of course, implications for children and digital communications technology, borne out by a series of studies conducted in the early 2000s.

We know (Pombreni, Kirchler, & Palmonari, 1990) that developing children need close non-family friendships, and that adolescent children develop capacity for “intimacy, openness, honesty, and self-disclosure” with those friends. (Brown, 2004). This self-disclosure is critical to development, as it makes neural connections between social input and how to process and mediate that input. (Buhrmeister & Prager, 1995). Long prior to children having access to instantaneous digital telecommunications – specifically in a study conducted in 1963 – the need for children to associate in groups was documented, specifically by Dexter Dunphy, and shown to generally fall into two group categories: cliques (a microgroup of three to nine generally homogeneous individuals) and crowds (a macrogroup of 15 to 30 individuals in two to four cliques, comprising a heterogeneous group). Unsurprisingly, the introduction of texting and social media has allowed the development and maintenance of these social dynamics both asynchronously (not at the same time) and nongeographically (not in the same place).

Consequently, when prosocial (good), such communication can be positively-reinforcing of healthy group dynamics. However, when damaging, hurtful, problematic, or compromising, problems can be amplified. In 2008, over 70% of students reported having been cyberbullied in the past year (Juvonen and Gross, 2008), and the majority of them (roughly 65%) knew the perpetrators of that digital violence. This was a sharp increase from a 2006 study (Li, 2006) showing about 2 in 4 students reporting the same experiences.

However, 20% of students, according to Common Sense Media, cite social media as one of the most important ways they gain confidence, 28% said social media makes them more outgoing, 29% say it makes them less shy, and a full 52% believe it had broadened their horizons and made them better people.

Consider reading this research and information from the Pew Research Center on the subject for more, current details.

So what can you do?

Firstly, as we discuss in other areas, wherever possible and practical, create intentional connections and help your child ensure the bar for privacy and security is set very high, so the only connections your students have online are those that are intentionally chosen by will. Secondly, ensure that you are involved wherever possible and practical, such as being “friends” on Facebook. (Research shows us children don’t use Facebook much at all; it’s much more for our generations, but it’s a salient example!) Thirdly, have proactive conversations with your children and help teach them about how to handle situations online, that are consistent with your family’s values and the positive, encouraging reinforcement that we know children need.

Finally, regularly model personal interactions with your students that don’t include digital media. When you’re spending time together as a unit – be it you and your child as a duo, or together with a larger set of friends and/or family – deactivate or set aside devices whenever appropriate, and be sure not to dip into your screen regularly while expecting your observing children not to do the same.

By proactively addressing positive, prosocial behaviors in all milieus, you can help strengthen your child’s individual agency, identity, and ability to mitigate circumstances both online and offline.

Connell, S.L., Lauricella, A.R., and Wartella, E. (2015). Parental Co-Use of Media Technology with their Young Children in the USA. Journal Of Children And Media. 9-1.

Hardy, L.L.., et al. (2006). Family and home correlates of television viewing in 12–13 year old adolescents: The Nepean Study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 3:24.

Linebarger, D. L., & Vaala, S. E. (2010). Screen media and language development in infants and toddlers: An ecological perspective. Developmental Review, 30(2), 176-202.

Livingstone, S. and Helsper, E.J. (2008). Parental Mediation of Children’s Internet Use. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. pp. 581-599.

Skouteris, H. and Kelly, L. (2006). Repeated-viewing and co-viewing of an animated video : an examination of factors that impact on young children’s comprehension of video content. Australian Journal of Early Childhood. 31-3. pp. 22-30.

Sims, Clare E. and Eliana Colunga. (2013). Parent-Child Screen Media Co-Viewing: Influences on Toddlers’ Word Learning and Retention.” CogSci.