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Tech companies use “persuasive design” to get us hooked. Psychologists say it’s unethical.

A group of psychologists say kids are suffering from “hidden manipulation techniques” that companies like Facebook and Twitter use.

Kids now have 10 times the amount of screen time they did in 2011, according to one study.
Getty Images
As much as adults are now constantly inundated with technology — those constant Facebook notifications and that next episode on Netflix already cued up — children today are even more primed to become hooked on their devices. Kids have 10 times the amount of screen time they did in 2011, and spend an average of six hours and 40 minutes using technology, according to Common Sense Media.
Behind the screens of the games we play and digital communities we interact with are psychologists and other behavioral science experts, who are hired to create products that we want to use more and more. Big tech now employs mental health experts to use persuasive technology, a new field of research that looks at how computers can change the way humans think and act. This technique, also known as persuasive design, is built into thousands of games and apps, and companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft rely on it to encourage specific human behavior starting from a very young age.
While defenders of persuasive tech will say it can have positive effects, like training people to take medicine on time or develop weight loss habits, some health professionals believe children’s behaviors are being exploited in the name of the tech world’s profit. On Wednesday, a letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques” and asks the APA to take an ethical stand on behalf of kids.
Richard Freed, a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, is one of the authors of the letter, which was sent on behalf of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. I spoke to Freed about how tech companies are able to manipulate human behavior and why he believes psychology is being used as “a weapon against children.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Chavie Lieber

Where did the field of persuasive technology come from?

Richard Freed

The founding father of this research is B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University [where there’s a lab dedicated to this field]. Fogg has been called the “millionaire maker,” and he developed an entire field of study based off research that proved that with some simple techniques, tech can manipulate human behavior. His research is now the blueprint for tech companies who are developing products to keep consumers plugged in.

Chavie Lieber

How did his research become so popular in the tech world?

Richard Freed

Fogg spent half his time educating [at Stanford] and [the other half] consulting with the industry. He taught classes on the concept, and people that attended such classes include Mike Krieger, who went on to co-found Instagram. [Fogg is] a guru in Silicon Valley, where tech companies follow his every word. Over time, tech companies have tested his research and iterated it, and then designed their machines and smartphones and games around it. Now it is remarkably effective, and the model is giving the tech industry what it wants: to keep you on and not let you go.

Chavie Lieber

How does persuasive design work?

Richard Freed

It’s actually quite simple, although studied at length, it is sophisticated. The formula is that in order to have behavioral change, you need motivation, ability, and triggers. In the case of social media, the motivation is people’s cravings for social connection; it can also be the fear of social rejection. For video games, it’s the desire to gain skills and accomplishments. Ability basically means making sure that the product is remarkably easy to use.
Finally, you add triggers, which keeps people coming back. So those videos you can’t look away from, the rewards you get inside an app when you use it longer, or the hidden treasure boxes in games once you reach a certain level — these are all triggers, put there as part of the persuasive design.

Chavie Lieber

I can see how the “trigger” technique is used at Snapchat, where users get badges when they’re on the app more. Can you give me some other examples of how tech companies use it?

Richard Freed

All social media companies are built with it. When you sign on to Twitter, sometimes it won’t give you notifications right away. You might get it in a few seconds. Twitter doesn’t want to give it to you on purpose, because they’ve instead developed a formula for you that will keep you on the site. Facebook will also save up notifications and give them to you on a schedule that they believe will most likely stimulate you to get you back. The iPhone and Apple [are guilty too] because I think of the iPhone as a conduit where kids access the persuasion tech of social media and video games, and it’s more dangerous for them.

Chavie Lieber

Why is persuasive design more dangerous for children than adults?

Richard Freed

Adults get affected by not working [at their jobs] properly and are getting more distracted. But kids are being robbed. The type of manipulation and isolation persuasive technology creates pulls kids away from real-life engagements like family, focusing on school, making friends. There are adolescent [cornerstones], and children are being pulled away from the lives they need.
As a population, kids are also more vulnerable [to the techniques]. Teenagers are sensitive to social situations, like being accepted or rejected, and social media is built to prey on these insecurities.

Chavie Lieber

What does this look like in real life for children?

Richard Freed

Everyone is attached to their screens, but specific problems vary by gender. Video games are more addictive for boys. Boys have a developmental drive to gain abilities and accomplishments, and so video games are created to give them rewards, coins, cash boxes. These are built to make them feel like they are mastering something; it creates bad [gaming] habits and statistically poor academic performance.
Girls, on the other hand, are more inclined to fall prey to social media, and there are serious effects on mental health struggles, since social media can be hurtful for young girls, and there’s been an increase in suicide.

Chavie Lieber

Haven’t medical professionals always had a problem with video games?

Richard Freed

Yes, but now companies are making sure persuasive design is built in. And we’re talking about companies with infinite resources hiring psychologists and other UX designers who are the best and the brightest and use experimental methods tested over and over until they’ve obtained products that don’t let users go.

Chavie Lieber

Is it public knowledge that psychologists are helping big tech?

Richard Freed

I don’t think the general public is aware of it. I have so many parents who say they’ve lost kids’ [attention] to social media, but they have never heard of Dr. Fogg, and they definitely haven’t heard of persuasive design. But you can go onto LinkedIn and find psychologists working for Facebook, Instagram, and tons of gaming companies. There are so many psychologists doing persuasive design at Microsoft’s Xbox — just look at their team list.
Not every tech company has them on staff; some companies hire them as outside consultants, and not everyone has a PhD or is a psychologist. Some experts are called UX researchers and have a different certification, but a lot of them are psychologists.

Chavie Lieber

Would these mental health professionals admit they are exploiting scientific research?

Richard Freed

I think they would probably say their job is to create a more attractive product, to make it more user-friendly, and that’s in the service of the general public. But it goes way beyond that. I think there’s a disconnect between the tech industry and the rest of the world. Silicon Valley and Stanford are in their own little bubble, and I wonder if they are aware of the consequences. These psychologists work in tech, so they see the product and the users’ reviews, but I work with kids and families and I see it otherwise. They are so removed from what’s happening in the life of real kids.

Chavie Lieber

Have tech companies and their manipulation tactics ever been fully exposed?

Richard Freed

We were given one window into what was happening when Facebook internal documents were leaked to the Australian, where Facebook openly talked about exploiting the emotions of teens, [tracking teens feeling “insecure,” “worthless,” “stressed,” “useless,” and like a “failure”]. They were bragging to stakeholders about their ability to do this.

Chavie Lieber

Have you seen any public objections to the use of persuasive technology?

Richard Freed

There have actually been people talking about it within the tech world itself. Tristan Harris [who worked at Google before starting a nonprofit aimed at developing ethics around this topic] has spoken out about this. Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, told Axios that the company’s initial thought process is “how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Big investors at Apple also put out a public letter saying they were concerned about how kids were using phones to access social media.
I give credit to these tech executives speaking out. But then again, they have the financial freedom and leverage to do so. I recognize that the psychologists in the industry are in a tough spot because they probably can’t afford to do so without losing their livelihood.

Chavie Lieber

Tech companies want people to use their product and only their product. But what is the endgame for them with persuasive technology?

Richard Freed

It’s about dollar signs. Time spent on social media apps means more people will be looking at ads longer, and that will increase their revenue. With video games, the more you spend time on the game, the more you’ll purchase [add-ons]. It’s an attention economy, and it’s the job of these psychologists to make sure people look at these things for as long as possible.

Chavie Lieber

Could the way persuasive design is used on kids get worse?

Richard Freed

It can, and I definitely don’t think it’s going to get better. There’s too much money to be made. If these companies back off, they know some other company will come up and take their place. And Facebook’s capabilities are just getting better, and they want to get kids involved, with Facebook’s Messenger Kids.
We asked Facebook not to market a social network to young kids in a letter (that they never responded to) because we know how social media is pulling down teens, especially teenage girls. It’s costing kids their emotional health, and it cannot start earlier.

Chavie Lieber

Will the tech world regret all of this once they have teenage kids of their own?

Richard Freed

Tony Fadell [who created the iPhone and iPod] believes people will regret it once they have kids. But people complain about the male ethic on the employment side of Silicon Valley, and how it’s not welcoming for women, and I think that’s manifested on the product side too. The focus is on venture capital and money and stock prices. Kids don’t seem a part of the equation here.

Chavie Lieber

Why does your letter call out the APA specifically?

Richard Freed

The psychology community needs to step up. I think psychology is going to be in remarkable trouble when parents find out that psychologists are developing the very products they can’t get their kids off of. The essence of these people’s jobs is to exploit vulnerabilities in order to change their behavior for profit, and that isn’t the job of a psychologist.

Chavie Lieber

What do you think the APA should be doing?

Richard Freed

The primary focus of this field is improving health, and yet here’s too large an element of the profession working against kids’ health and fostering the compulsive use of technology. The APA needs to issue a formal statement that psychologists can’t be involved in persuasive design, with the purpose of increasing phone and screen use. The APA should also be asking psychologists in the industry to come out and be a force for good. They need to help get the message across that this is a real danger that won’t go away, and help us learn more about how it’s such a risk for people of all ages, especially kids.

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected

America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.


The skills kids need to avoid getting fooled by fake news

Welcome to Small Humans, an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.

One day your kids are learning to walk and the next they're on their own sharing Russian propaganda on Youtube and Facebook.

You might think your great-uncle using an old desk top to "surf the internets" is the person at risk of accidentally spreading "fake news" on social networks, but kids these days aren't always faring so much better.

A large-scale study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that young people at every stage from middle school to college were consistently unable to differentiate news from advertising, or false information from the truth, a state of affairs the researchers described as “bleak.”
Learning to question those messages is an important skill.
Compounding the problem is the way young people use the internet. Much of the news they do consume comes through intermediaries, chief among them Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, according to research from Common Sense Media. These networks often muddy the source of information, or make all outlets look similar, robbing the audience of visual cues to help them differentiate reliable and less-reliable sources. It’s worth remembering that adults have trouble identifying fake news in this environment as well.

The good news is, parents and caregivers are ideally placed to help. The same Common Sense Media study found that while children aged 10 to 18 were typically skeptical of mainstream media, 66% felt they could trust information from their families.

So how can you teach kids to spot fake news, rather than be fooled by it?

The A, B, Cs of media literacy

Common Sense Media’s vice president and editor-in-chief Jill Murphy says it starts with basic media literacy, which can be taught from as young as five—for example, telling your child why a show isn’t appropriate for them instead of just shutting it off. Toward the end of elementary school, they can grasp the fact that journalism is a job, which you might illustrate by showing them news stories on the same topic published by different outlets. “It may go against your values to look at the other side of an issue,” says Murphy. “But it's a way for them to absorb the concept that people write to convey a specific message. Learning to question those messages is an important skill.”

However, you don’t want to make them too critical, says Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at non-profit The News Literacy Project. “One mistake a lot of people make is to give the impression that all information is created with an ulterior motive. We don't want kids to be na├»ve, but we don't want them to be cynical, either.”

He thinks it’s helpful to be clear about the meaning of “fake news,” especially since the term has become politicized, used to mean anything from propaganda to a view you disagree with. “Fake news is a specific kind of misinformation that is entirely fictional but is designed to look like news, usually with an institutional-sounding name and an institutional-looking masthead.” He wouldn’t include manipulated images or conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in this definition but sees them as part of a culture of misinformation, which he describes as “an enormous problem.”

His organization teaches adolescents to ask a series of questions when they look at a news story, especially one that incites an emotional reaction, as fake news is designed to do. If they haven’t heard of the publication before, they should search to see if any recognizable news outlets have covered the story. “Then they can ask more nuanced questions, like: Is this fair? Does it give me everything I need to know? Could it be more objective? The goal is for those steps to become habitual so they have an internal sense of red flags.”

Psychologist David Anderson, PhD is the director of programs at the Child Mind Institute in New York. He says parents who want to talk to their children about fake news should tackle it the same way as any other potentially sensitive subject. “Think about a couple of talking points beforehand and approach the conversation calmly. Then we recommend opening it up and asking what kind of stories they’ve seen where they’ve wondered whether they were real.” He says the best way to know what media your child is consuming is to watch videos or look at social media with them, and let them tell you what they like, without judgment.

Use teenage angst for good

Adams says that teenagers are especially vulnerable to misinformation. They want to develop their own tastes, tend to distrust authority and YouTube’s algorithms mean that they can easily be exposed to extremist views, whether they seek them out or not. If they believe any of the conspiracy theories they come across, though, he says they can usually be guided to see the truth. “Ask probing questions, like: How is this sourced? How is there no proof that this exists beyond these types of videos? They're connecting these two dots, are they really related?” Just don’t lecture them, advises Anderson. “We tend to listen to those who share our views and discount those who don’t.”
The effect of misinformation on children is hard to measure, but Adams sees equipping them to deal with it as a moral imperative. “Information is the basis of students' civic literacy, civic engagement and civic empowerment, so to not give them the tools they need to navigate the 21st century information landscape and make smart decisions is fundamentally disempowering.”

Of course, adults aren’t immune, and you might need to brush up on your own media literacy alongside your kids. But the key to these conversations is a strong parent-child relationship, says Anderson. “It’s about whether or not kids feel like you have their best interests at heart and can help them think about something without forcing them into a particular perspective.” Peter Adams agrees. His top tip for talking to children about fake news? “Bring it to them. Don't wait for them to bring it to you.”

Read more great stories from Small Humans:   

Help Families Find a Screen Time Balance

The latest research on the effects of too much screen time tells us that excessive screen time adversely impacts communication and language development.

So, how should parents go about finding a good screen time balance for their children?  Below are strategies to convince parents how important face-to-face interaction is for their child’s development and health.

(Note: As always, children who use low- and high-tech augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC) should continue to use them at all times—and in an interactive way.)
  • Share screen time guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time prior to 18 months, and limiting screen use to an hour per day for children up through age 5. Recent research found that every additional half hour of screen time over recommended times increased the child’s risk for expressive language delays by 49 percent.
  • Teach passive versus active screen time. Passive screen time takes place when a child watches a show alone and isn’t encouraged to respond to the characters in any way. Active screen time includes using a device to make a video call or watching a show—or playing games—with a parent or caregiver who communicates with the child. Active screen time generates some two-way communication, encourages language use, and involves family members and friends. 
  • Explain how screens become addictive and can reinforce negative behavior. I help parents learn to recognize negative behavior as a form of demanding more and more use of these devices. Handing a screaming or upset child a device as a means of comfort only reinforces this negative behavior and can teach the child to always request via tantrum. I encourage parents to give their child a device or watch a show only when the child is calm—not when they are upset or crying.
  • Offer options in lieu of screen time as a distraction. Many parents share that they try to avoid their child melting down in public by handing them a device. The last thing anyone wants is a screaming child in the grocery store. However, I ask them to try books, toys they don’t see often, or even a snack. Keep phone use as a last resort.
  • Collaborate on screen time alternatives. For example, a parent says, “I always offer the phone while I feed my child, because otherwise he won’t eat.” The parent and I discuss possible options that might also be effective with practice—reading out loud to the child, listening to music, holding a small toy or plastic spoon.
Parents report back to me about their successful incorporation of time with their child not involving screens. They go outside to play, take trips to the library, organize play dates, take some type of a class—music, gymnastics, art—read aloud, free play with toys, and many other alternatives.

If parents also limit their own screen time and develop other interests, this puts into effect a purposeful, monitored and informed use of screen time for the entire family.

Young Children and Screen Time: Nothing to Gain & Lots to Lose!

Padma Ravichandran and Brandel France De Bravo, MPH and Rebbecca Beauport, National Center for Health Research

 Children in the United States are spending more time in front of screens — watching television, movies, and using computers and iPhones — than ever before. They are spending much more time with these types of media than with books or in free play, and it is happening at younger and younger ages. Parents are not just “letting” their children watch but are often actively encouraging these forms of passive entertainment. TV, iPads, and iPhones are always available babysitters, so it’s no wonder parents sometimes rely on screens to keep kids busy while grown-ups take care of household chores, bills, or catch up on their emails.

Children under two spend, on average, almost two hours every day watching TV or using other screen media like computer games and video games.[1] Previously the American Academy of Pediatrics, advised that children under 2 should not be watching any TV, videos, or DVDs. Though they changed their no screens recommendation at the end of 2016 to include only babies under the age of 18 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends no screen time for children between the ages of 15 months and two years by themselves. Parents should instead encourage more interactive activities such as playing and talking in order to improve their listening and social skills, but if they have to use a screen they should treat it more as a picture book and interact with the screen alongside their child.[2]

Research shows that, for children under 3, it’s not just what’s on the screen that matters but that it’s on at all. Even if the TV is simply “on” in the room where the child is playing, there are negative effects. For example, a study found that when an adult TV program was on in the room where babies or toddlers were playing, the children didn’t play as intently or as long as when the TV was off.[3] “Background TV” also affects how a child interacts with his or her parents. When the TV is on, parents tend to be more distracted and less attuned to their children and their needs, reducing the quality of the interaction. Young children are better able to complete complex and sophisticated tasks when they work with an adult or older child. When parents are attentive, children are also more likely to engage in independent goal-oriented play, higher quality play, and more focused play.[4]

What About TV Programs Intended for Young Children?

TV programs meant for babies and toddlers don’t really help them learn, and in some cases may slow down their learning. The more TV a child under 3 watches, the more likely he is to have trouble with reading and paying attention later on.[5][6] A study from 2007 found that the more television a baby 8 to 16 months watches, the fewer words she knows.[7]  Early childhood experts agree that because infants and toddlers learn differently from older children and adults, they don’t benefit from direct teaching, which is the technique most commonly used in “educational” TV shows and baby videos. It is important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics notes two programs, Sesame Workshop and PBS, as two makers of evidence-based children’s educational media.[2] Programs such as the Baby Einstein brand videos are just one of the many videos developed and marketed to parents of very young children as “educational.” But with research showing no benefit, and under threat of a class-action lawsuit for deceptive advertising, Disney began offering refunds for the videos in 2009.
Not only has screen time been linked to language delay and smaller vocabularies, but studies show that the more television infants and toddlers are exposed to, the more likely they are to be inactive and obese,[8] have difficulty sleeping,[9] and show aggression. A study published in 2009 found that the more TV a 3-year-old was exposed to (watching it or in the room where the television is on), the more likely he or she was to act aggressively.[10] Screens provide a lot of stimulation, but it’s all energy “in” and no energy “out” or expended.  This may explain why young children act out after hours of watching, and why hours in front of the TV can lead to weight gain.[11] Research shows that with every hour of television, children consume an additional 167 calories.[12] There are several reasons why children who spend a lot of time watching TV put on extra pounds: the number of food ads they are exposed to while watching can increase their appetites; many kids get into the habit of snacking while watching; and they burn off very few calories burned while watching.[13]

Very young children learn best by relating to real live people, but they also learn by moving and doing. Screen time detracts from children using their communication skills, and if they don’t practice their face-to-face interactions, they may lose their ability to evaluate emotions as well. Part of the problem with screen time is that young children who watch TV and DVDs or use computer games may be substituting these activities for free play. Play, as it turns out, is the ultimate “personalized educational curriculum,” with each child creating his own challenges and solutions — at little or no cost. It teaches children to think abstractly about different situations and learn from other people’s perspectives, and it taps into their curiosity, motivating them to learn.[14] Play provides children with opportunities for different types of learning – physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and language development — in a context they understand. Because of this, children are more likely to retain what they learn while playing. This is why child development experts insist that play is essential to social, cognitive, emotional, physical and moral development.[15]

Children’s Media Exposure

So if play is the real teacher and the best babysitter, how do we limit children’s exposure when TVs, iPads, and smartphones are everywhere? The average household has 3 television sets,[16] and over 40% of children have one in their bedroom by the time they’re 6 years old![17] TVs are present and watched in most child care centers, too. Whether it’s home-based child care or a center-based child care setting, children often watch TV as part of their daily routine. It is estimated that children watch 2-3 hours of TV in home-based child care settings per day and about 1.5 in center-based child care settings.[18]

Some parents and early childhood settings are replacing televisions with computers. While computers can be terrific teaching tools, too much time in front of a computer can lead to some of the same problems as too much time watching TV, such as obesity. According to one study, children ages 4 to 7 who were overweight were able to become more physically active by parents’ cutting their screen time in half, including computer use.

What about School Age Children and Teens?

With media use on the rise, screens are not only in every home, but in every pocket. Within the past 10 years, the amount of time that adolescents spend on a screen has increased by 2 ½ hours. Teenagers spend an average of 8-9 hours a day on their phones, including streaming videos, texting, and scrolling on social media, and lower income children spend even more. Tweens spend an average of 6 hours/day.[19][20] All of us — not just children and teens — have been affected by the spike in media consumption: we spend less time reading[21] and less time sleeping.[22]

Spending a lot of time in front of screens in the early years can also lead to increased screen time later in childhood, which may contribute to problems with peers and at school. While media use itself may not be the cause, kids who spend a lot of time using media, tend to get lower grades. One study allowed 12 to 14-years olds to play computer games for a long time or watch a lot of television and found that both types of entertainment affected sleep, and the computer games also affected the children’s performance on certain memory tests.[23] New technology such as iPads or smartphones are keeping children up at night when they should be asleep. These devices are disrupting their sleeping habits and are creating an unhealthy environment to develop in.[24] Research also shows that children and teens who watch a lot of television are more likely to have health and behavior problems, including drinking and taking drugs.[25] The more movies and TV that children in grades 5-8 watch where characters or actors are smoking, the more likely children are to smoke later on.[26]

So What’s a Parent To Do?

Very young children have nothing to gain and lots to lose from spending time in front of screens, instead of playing and interacting with friends and loved ones. Even when the TV is simply on in the background, infants and toddlers lose out. For older children (two and up), the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time  to 1-2 hours a day, and keep televisions in common areas — never in a child’s bedroom. TiVo, DVRs and other devices are terrific tools for parents, allowing them to record shows for children that can be seen by them at an hour that’s right for your family’s sleep schedule and without commercials!

Here are some ways you can limit screen exposure and increase interactive play:
  • Get your toddlers and pre-school age children involved in household chores and let it be a learning opportunity. You can get them small brooms so they can sweep one part of the room while you sweep another, and you can teach them the names and colors of vegetables while you are cooking.
  • Make it a point to eat dinner together and ask your child about his or her day. If it is a very young child, you can remind him of all the things he did that day, asking a few simple questions, such as what he liked best about the day.
  • If you really need your child to be occupied during an important call or while you complete a task and you don’t think that she will be able to play long enough by herself, let her listen to pre-recorded stories on a tape or CD. You can buy these but better yet, record yourself telling or reading your child’s favorite stories. This way your child will have you, even when you are not available or are away on a trip. Listening to stories, as opposed to watching them on TV or on a computer, helps children develop listening skills.
  • When you want to watch an adult show, record it and watch it after your child goes to sleep.
  • If your child is going to watch something, watch with her and comment or ask questions about what you are watching. You can make passive TV viewing active this way.
  • Provide your young child with simple toys and household objects that aren’t automated (if the toy needs batteries, save it for when the child is older). The more the toy does, the less your child will do.(Remember the “personalized educational curriculum”!)

  1. Brown, Jeffrey. “Kids Increasingly Staring at Glowing Screens, Study Finds.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 25 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.
  2. Kamenetz, Anya. “American Academy Of Pediatrics Lifts ‘No Screens Under 2’ Rule.” NPR. NPR, 21 Oct. 2016. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.
  3. Schmidt, M.E., Pempek, T.A., Kirkorian, H.L., Lund, A.F., Anderson, D.R. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Development. (79). 1137-1151.
  4. Schmidt, M.E., Pempek, T.A., Kirkorian, H.L., Lund, A.F., Anderson, D.R. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Development. (79).1137-1151.
  5. Kirkorian, H.L., Pempek, T.A., Murphy, L.A., Schmidt, M.E., Anderson, D.R. (2009). The impact of background television on parent-child interaction. Child Development. (80). 1350-1359.
  6. Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J. DiGiuseppe, D.L., and McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. American Academy of Pediatrics. 113;708-713.
  7. Zimmerman, F.J. and Christakis, D.A. (2005).  Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 159:619-625.
  8. Anderson, D.R. & Pempek, T.A. (January 2005). Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(5), 505-522.
  9. Hancox RJ, Poulton R. (2006) Watching television is associated with childhood obesity: but is it clinically important? International Journal of Obesity (1):171-175.
  10. Thompson, D.A. & Christakis, D. (2005). The association between television viewing and irregular sleep schedules among children less than 3 years of age. Pediatrics. 116 (4): 851-856.
  11. Manganello, J.A., Taylor, C.A. (2009). Television exposure as a risk factor for aggressive behavior among 3-year old children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. (163). 1037-1045.
  12. Epstein LH, Roemmich JN, Robinson JL, Paluch RA, Winiewicz DD, Fuerch JH, and Robinson TN. (2008) A Randomized Trial of the Effect of Reducing Television Viewing and Computer Use on Body Mass Index in Young Children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 162(3):239-245.
  14. Strasburger, V.C., Jordan, A.B. and Donnerstein, E. (2010). Health effects of media on children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 125. 756-767.
  15. Bay Area Early Childhood Funders. (2007). Play in the early years: Key to school success, a policy brief. Retrieved from:
  16. Ginsburg KR. (2007) The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics.
  18. Gilbert-Diamond D, Li Z, Adachi-Mejia AM, McClure AC, Sargent JD. Association of a Television in the Bedroom With Increased Adiposity Gain in a Nationally Representative Sample of Children and AdolescentsJAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):427-434. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3921
  19. Christakis, D.A., Garrison, M.M. (2009). Preschool-aged children’s television viewing in child care settings. Pediatrics. (124). 1627-1362.
  21. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2, Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.
  22. National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.
  23. National Sleep Foundation (2009).
  24. Dworak M, Schierl T, Bruns T, Struder HK.(2007)  Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Games and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-Aged Children. Pediatrics (120):978-985.
  25. Kaiser Family Foundation.(2008) Prepared for KFF by Frederick J. Zimmerman. Research Brief. Children’s Media Use and Sleep Problems: Issues and Unanswered Questions.
  26. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2001). Children, adolescents, and television. Pediatrics. (107). 423-426.
  27. Heatherton, T. F., & Sargent, J. D. (2009). Does Watching Smoking in Movies Promote Teenage Smoking? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(2), 63-67.

Finding Strength in Special Interests: A New Way to Frame Autism

Christina Reuterskiold remembers a child client with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who loved to recite the dictionary.

“She read the words perfectly fine, but she had no idea what they meant,” said Reuterskiold, a Speech@NYU professor and chair of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders External link .

Despite not understanding what she was reading, the girl exhibited no interest in discussing anything else. In fact, she would start to scream if another topic was introduced. While some might have deemed the girl’s interest a limitation in her learning, Reuterskiold saw it as an opportunity.
“Being able to decode new words is a strength,” she said.

Reuterskiold began tapping into the girl’s excitement to foster speech and language development. The client would read the word and Reuterskiold would act it out. The result was a newfound connection between words and their meanings.

The all-consuming nature of special interests is sometimes viewed as a hindrance to social and communicative development in children with autism – especially in a classroom setting. But speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have the opportunity to change that narrative, framing these interests as an entry point for language-building skills.

What are special interests?

One of the indications of autism is a strong attention to a specific topic. These special interests may take many forms and include things like subjects, objects, and activities.
  • Subjects: Math, transportation schedules, movies
  • Objects: Trains, dolls, stuffed animals, puzzles
  • Activities: Reading, blowing bubbles, cleaning
Compared to the interests of neuro-typical individuals (people who aren’t on the autism spectrum) the level of attentiveness expressed by those with ASD is often characterized as intense, as is the child’s prioritization over all other communication or activities. Simply put, they’d rather be fueling their interest than participating in any other social interaction, according to Reuterskiold.

Special interests should also be differentiated from obsessions in the context of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), though there can sometimes be an overlap as about 17 percent of people with ASD have a dual diagnosis of OCD External link . Beyond being interested in a subject or object, some people with autism also exhibit repeated behaviors related to their interest, called perseverations, that are similar to compulsions exhibited in OCD.

Where special interests don’t differ – or shouldn’t – is in the encouragement and validation required from parents, speech-language pathologists, teachers, and peers, according to professor Kristie Koenig External link , an occupational therapist and chair of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy External link , who works with Reuterskiold.

“Affirming one’s special interests can be pivotal in improving quality of life at any age,” Koenig said. “Practitioners often spend the most time on remediating weaknesses. But no one builds their life on remediated weaknesses. We should be building them on strengths.”

How can special interests influence speech?

According to Reuterskiold, special interests present opportunities to develop intentional communication skills. She said there’s a difference between communication for the sake of interaction and communication that is backed by intention. The former is uncommon for children with autism, who often present as less interested in socialization. The latter is where parents and SLPs should pay extra attention.

Intentional communication is characterized by instances in which children are particularly interested in talking about a specific topic or need. Recognizing the genuine excitement that permeates a conversation is a hallmark of intentional communication and a sure sign of a special interest, according to Reuterskiold.

Like the client who loved to read from the dictionary, “when kids are eager to communicate, it’s an opportunity to learn new words, practice social skills, and tap into their special interests,” she said.
Language is best understood when it creates meaningful connections between words, in addition to nonverbal communication.

“For example, if you have a child interested in the subway system, but you force them to talk about vegetables or some other semantic category during a session, the likelihood of communicative success is much lower,” Reuterskiold said.

Reuterskiold recommends linking treatment strategies to something they can relate to in order to get the most out of each session.    

The graphic below outlines best practices, both for SLPs and parents, to keep in mind when encouraging special interests.

View the text-only version of this graphic.

What is a strength-based approach?

While special interests have historically been viewed as restrictive, Koenig said she believes that speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, parents, and educators can flip the script.
Koenig recommends that parents ask themselves: “What does your child like doing? What makes them happy? We ask this of other children and of ourselves all the time; why should kids on the spectrum be any different?”
A strength-based approach, according to Koenig, is that simple. Being attentive is critical to helping people feel empowered and secure in their curiosity. Koenig recommends the following strategies to enable communication:
  • Spend less time trying to get them to be “normal.” “That’s a losing battle for the rest of your life,” Koenig said. Trying to get people with autism to act in a way that’s unnatural to them can foster feelings of insecurity and isolation. That effort could instead be spent on encouraging others to be more accepting and affirming of each other.
  • Be creative. Koenig remembered a client of a colleague who was captivated by the movie Titanic and had trouble acknowledging personal space with his peers. It wasn’t until personal space was put in the context of “Titanic” that things clicked. Saying “watch out for those icebergs” was all it took to connect the dots, and it helped the client navigate social interactions with others.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. “If you are deeply interested in something, why wouldn’t you want to talk about it?” Koenig said. Empathy reminds parents and SLPs that everyone has a passion for something, and encouraging those interests – no matter what they are – is an opportunity to connect with each other.

Across the life span, these tactics are helpful in supporting and empowering people with ASD in their linguistic and social development. Identifying and affirming a person’s passions can be simple, as long as others are willing to be attentive.

“When you allow kids to lead conversations,” Reuterskiold said, “you’re able to understand what speaks to them.”

Teaching Kindness to Children


As parents and educators, we all know how important it is to be kind to others.  How do we go about teaching our kids to be kind?  How do we instill this skill in our children so that they can create or add to a culture of kindness wherever they go?

Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, runs the Making Caring Common project with the graduate school of education.  This project aims to help teach kids to be kind.

A new study released by the group revealed an interesting trend.  About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common are:


1. Make caring for others a priority

Why? Parents tend to prioritize their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friend who is being bullied.

How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.

Try this:
  • Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
  • Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
  • Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.

2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude

Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.

How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition —whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job—make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practicing it.

Try this:
  • Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
  • Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
  • Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

3. Expand your child’s circle of concern.

Why? Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.

How? Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.

Try this:
  • Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.
  • Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
  • Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor.

Why? Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”

How? Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.

Try this:
  • Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.
  • Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.

5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings

Why? Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.

How? We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.

Try this:
  • Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.

Being kind to others feels good. It creates a feeling of community, of interconnectedness. Together, we can make the world a better place with acts of kindness both big and small!

Click here for a round-up of 24 Great Picture Books to Teach Students Kindness.

Let's end on a positive note with this video on kindness quotes, to inspire and motivate you and/or your little one! 

Top 15 Signs to Teach Your Baby & Why It's Important


In the video below, I will go through my selection of top 15 signs to teach and use with babies. 

Communicating with your baby is critical for his or her cognitive and language development.  Sign language is a way for little ones to learn how to communicate before they are able to use verbal speech!

Why teach a baby signs?

Typically, babies develop their receptive language, or understanding skills, far before they are able to use verbal speech to communicate. Most babies say their first word around 12 months of age. If babies learn signs, they might be able to use signs to communicate their wants and needs. Think about how powerful that would be for baby, to be able to use language to express, to ask for something, and to interact with Mom and Dad. Teaching a baby signs can really help the baby learn that language is so important – such an important tool – to change the environment around them or to connect with others.

When can I teach my baby signs?

Some babies can learn simple signs as young as 6 months of age. At six months, a baby might not have the fine motor coordination or hand control to be able to sign back to you until he or she is about 8 or 9 months of age, but you can start teaching signs to your baby when you think that your baby’s ready – even if your baby can’t sign back yet! Remember, babies typically take time to build up their understanding skills prior to expressing.

How do I teach signs?

Use signs in context! Use it just as you’d use verbal speech with your child. Pair the visual sign, which is something the baby sees, with the verbal, which is something the baby hears. When you speak, put an emphasis on the word that you’re signing. As an example, you might say, “Want the book?”

Teach and re-teach! Be repetitive and be consistent! Put signs into your daily routine and in everyday activities. The signs I’ll be showing you are very functional, high-frequency words that you’ll be sure to encounter and use on a regular basis.

What if the sign is too difficult for my baby's fingers/hands?

One thing I mentioned earlier is how a baby might not have some difficulty with making signs, putting their hands or fingers into a certain shape. Signing does take quite a bit of fine motor coordination! So, please know that it’s totally okay to use a replacement, or what is commonly referred to as “sign approximations”.  Watch the video for an example of how the sign for "more" can be made into an approximation.  The important part of using sign approximations is to be consistent.  For example, if clapping hands together for the sign "more" is what will physically work for your baby, this is how you should be signing as well.

Social Skills Stories - Free Online Storybook Readings [Videos]

Dear Parents and Educators,

Looking for social skills stories?  I'd like to share my free, online storybook readings!  These books focus on teaching children perspective-taking skills (what others may be thinking or feeling), identifying emotions, regulating emotions, social problem-solving, basic conversation skills, appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviors, and more.


Below are a few of the topics covered:

  • Cell phone rules 
  • Accepting 'no' for an answer / Disagreeing the right way
  • Throwing tantrums
  • Being a bad sport
  • Fighting
  • Being destructive
  • Interrupting
  • Disobeying
  • Complaining
  • Being bullied
  • Being bossy
  • Teasing
  • Being careless
  • Being mean
  • Cheating
  • Being lazy
  • Being selfish
  • Being rude
  • ...and more!

Hope you will find this to be a helpful resource!

J. Wang, M.A., CCC-SLP

Back to School: Let's Focus on Social & Emotional Learning with these Videos!


Dear Parents and Educators,

Many of us are well-aware that social-emotional skills are critically important for developing positive peer relationships, as well as in establishing a classroom culture that promotes learning, sharing, and taking risks.  It's not only about students being able to understand their own feelings and others' feelings, but how to learn to manage conflicts, navigate social problems, regulate emotions, communicate in a pro-social manner, and approach the world with a healthy attitude.

As the school year is beginning for many around the nation and world, consider watching these three short videos on Social & Emotional Learning, and answering the essential and reflection questions!


1. Grit: the power of passion and perseverance | Angela Lee Duckworth

Angela Duckworth is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies what makes some people more successful than others.  As you watch the video, think about the following: What is grit and what how does it influence success?

Essential Question

What is grit, and how does it influence success?

Reflection Question

Think about a moment in your own life when you showed grit. What happened? How did grit impact you in that moment? Explain.

(Extra Help: Duckworth defines grit as "passion and perseverance for very long term goals". When have you demonstrated grit in your life?)

2. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

This video describes the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  As you watch the video, think about the following: How can developing a growth mindset impact your life?

Essential Question

How can developing a growth mindset impact your life?

Reflection Question

Think of a time when you demonstrated a fixed mindset. What could you have done differently in that situation to demonstrate a growth mindset? How would this have affected you differently in the situation?

(Extra Help: People with a fixed mindset believe their qualities (e.g. intelligence, talent) are set in stone, while those with a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence and talent with effort.)

3. The Importance of Empathy

As you watch this video, think about a time when you experienced empathy.

Reflection Question

Describe a time when you experienced empathy. Use evidence from the video and from your experience to explain why the experience qualifies as empathy.

(Extra Help: Think about a time when you or someone else tried to understand another person's reality. What happened? How did you/the other person show the the habits of empathy (be observant of others, use active listening, and open up)?)


I hope you find these resources to be helpful. Have a wonderful start to the school year!

J. Wang, M.A., CCC-SLP