Research partners aim to do GUD work with groundbreaking study
A groundbreaking new study being led by the Alberta Teachers’ Association will examine the education and health effects of hyperexposure to technology in children.
With a project that has the potential to be the world’s largest study of technology, learning and health impacts on K–12 students, the Association is teaming up with a Harvard researcher and the University of Alberta to conduct a groundbreaking, long-term study of Alberta students.
“We have a world-class research team committing their time, energy and intellectual capital to the project,” said Dr. Phil McRae, executive staff officer and researcher with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Each day, the average Canadian child aged 8 to 18 spends about seven hours and 45 minutes in front of some sort of screen, such as a television, computer, phone or tablet, McRae said. This level of exposure has developed so quickly that little is known about its effects on children.
In an effort to fill that void, McRae is partnering with pediatrician Dr. Michael Rich of the Harvard Medical School and two researchers from the U of A’s Faculty of Extension: Dr. Stanley Varnhagen and Dr. Jason Daniels.
Dubbed Growing Up Digital (GUD) in Alberta, the project will attempt to identify the scope of physical, mental and social consequences of digital technologies in areas such as exercise, homework, identity formation, distraction, cognition, nutrition and sleep quality/quantity.
The project is designed to unfold in two phases. The first phase will gauge the extent of children’s exposure to digital media — referred to as “screens” — then assess the social, learning and health impacts of this exposure. Researchers will use self-reports, observations and surveys to gather data through a comprehensive provincial sampling of teachers, parents and students. Some results should be available by the end of next year, McRae said.
“It’s a very exciting project,” he said. “It’s undiscovered country.”
The project’s second phase will involve tracking a number of Alberta youth through a unique protocol that Rich has pioneered. Participating students will be contacted by text message — or “pinged” — at random times. The students will then fill out a short questionnaire detailing their use of technology at that moment and use their cellphones to take a 360-degree video scan of their environments.
Rich’s previous experience with this method has found that these video scans can reveal the presence of elements that study subjects weren’t aware of or weren’t willing to admit in their questionnaires. With this study, these video pans may reveal the complexity of media multitasking in which students engage, such as texting, listening to music and using social media all at the same time.
Dubbed the “mediatrician,” Rich abandoned a career as a Hollywood filmmaker to become a pediatrician, and in the years since has become a recognized expert on the effects of media on youth.
A regular speaker at universities and in the media, Rich suggests that periods of rest from constant stimulation are critical for children’s brain development: for creating new connections, synthesizing information and forging a sense of self.
McRae has been working with Rich since 2011 in an effort to bring “an evidence-informed conversation to the teaching profession and the public on this issue,” McRae said.
This latest study has been in the works since May, and the research team is still finalizing its details, McRae said. The study is expected to begin in 2015.
Alberta youth are a good group to study since they are very well connected to technology, he added.
“In some ways we are in an environment that is a little bit ahead of the rest of the world. It’s like an early indicator of what being hyperconnected means for learning and health outcomes,” McRae said.
“Without question there will be findings here that help us inform other parts of the world.”
Ultimately, he hopes this research will yield new knowledge that will help build regulations and policy for teachers, parents, students and school authorities. ❚