Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

You walk into a classroom and you notice every fourth grader sitting at their desk holding an iPad and tilting it back and forth as if attempting to balance an invisible ball on it. You hear sounds coming from the children that signify their intense captivation: “Oh I almost got that one.” “Aw, how could I have missed that?” “Yes, got it!” You look over a student’s shoulder and notice a ball, with a fraction written inside it, bouncing on top of a thick line at the bottom of the screen in a forest-like setting. The student is tilting the iPad until the ball falls onto the line. When the ball fails to land on the correct spot, tiny marks appear on the line, which seem to serve as hints. Their teacher walks over to you and says, “Can you believe that this game Motion Math is teaching them fractions?” 

Motion Math and other commercially available educational games have entered classrooms across the country, with research demonstrating benefits of digital game play for K-16 students across a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics, science, and social studies. For example, a study showed that fourth graders who played Motion Mathfor 20 minutes a day for just 5 days outperformed a control group on a fractions test and expressed more favorable attitudes and confidence towards learning fractions. Another study found that third graders who played digital math games such as Motion Math, performed similarly on math tests compared to a control group that had completed digital worksheets. However, the former was associated with higher levels of enjoyment and engagement and children were more likely to play with math games when given several other options during free time. 

Game-based learning is not only limited to educational games, but can also be extended to commercial simulation games such as SimCity and Minecraft. For example, one controlled study found that adolescents demonstrated an increased understanding of urban and civic issues after several weeks of building residential, commercial, public, and industrial city structures in SimCity. Similarly, Minecraft, has been used in schools across the world to support visualization in a wide range of academic content areas including spatial geometry and ancient history. Although there are relatively few controlled studies examining the benefits of Minecraft, a study of college students found that there are several social benefits to the digital game (and other multiplayer digital games) such as improved collaboration and adaptability skills and resourcefulness. Recent case studies suggest that Minecraft and associated forums may also provide supportive contexts for children with autism to engage with peers and for learners of English as a second language to develop communication skills. Such findings are not unexpected, as game play has long served as a social lubricant and tool for building relationships among people of all ages. 

For commercial digital games to contribute effectively to student learning in school settings, professional development may be needed where teachers learn game mechanics and about the participatory culture of game play. Indeed a recent report suggested that K-8 teachers who self-identified as “gamers” were more likely to include digital games for learning in their classes, whereas teachers who did not use games often reported being unsure how to integrate games into the curriculum. Although 74% of teachers reported using digital games in their classroom, only 5% indicated use of commercial video games.  For the most part, teachers tended to use traditional drill-and-practice educational games in their classes as opposed to immersive games designed for entertainment. 

Despite children’s nearly continuous access to digital games via the Internet and their popularity, there remains a paucity of research on the cognitive effects of digital game play for preadolescent youth. As emphasized in a recent Society for Research in Child Development policy report, more research is needed to identify the specific features of digital games that foster cognitive skills development and motivation. Value-added research, comparing minimally different versions of the same game to determine if specific features enhance learning outcomes, needs to be extended to children, as most studies to date have involved college students. As an example, research on game-based multimedia lessons for plant biology, conducted with both seventh graders and college students, demonstrated advantages for inclusion of an animated pedagogical agent who spoke to the game-player as they engaged in the science activity. In a similar vein, research with toddlers has shown that familiarizing them with the featured character of an instructional math video enhanced concept learning as compared to children who did not have prior exposure to the character in the video. Such findings suggest that forming parasocial relationships with on-screen characters while engaging in game play or other multimedia instruction may foster children’s learning and retention of information. 

Overall, digital game play offers a multitude of opportunities for children to learn, but it is necessary for content creators to create appropriate content that is based on empirical research. Building a strong evidence base for optimizing digital games for learning can only be accomplished through dedicated funding. In February 2019, the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act was introduced to Congress with the aim of providing federal funding for scientific investigations of the impact of technology on children’s socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Unfortunately, passage of this bill has stalled. Funding CAMRA is a first step in recognizing at a national level the importance of digital games as a critical context for children’s development and for building partnerships between content creators and researchers aimed at establishing best practices for digital game play in schools and extra-curricular programs. 

Patricia J. Brooks & Maya C. Rose

College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

The Power of Talking to Kids

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

-Maya Angelou

I have spent a lot of years as an executive in children’s content at public broadcasters. I’ve interviewed lots of young girls, and talked to them about many topics. Recently-with the Dream Gap research from Barbie- I wanted to chat with more girls. Such interesting research! Mostly, I talked to young girls I know, to see what they thought of the results of this research: that by the age of 5, girls begin to lose self-confidence in their intelligence and abilities. This was more than for my job, it was for me, other women, and girls for the future! A lot at stake.

As always, the girls had a lot to say, and I loved how quickly they came up with reasons for the results. Two young girls said that boys see boys when they watch TV...that most lead characters on shows are boys, making boys seem like they are smarter, because they are leaders. The girls are right. In North America, 65% of protagonists in kid’s shows are boys, with girls only being the main character about 35% of the time.

I spent last weekend with one of my best friends, her young daughter and her daughter’s bestie. The girls spent almost the whole time choreographing dance routines, so I wasn’t sure if they would be interested in this research. But it only took them a moment to talk about how they mostly hear about men in school. The historical leaders, presidents, prime ministers, heroes, astronauts and other people they are told about. They don’t hear about famous women nearly as much. They said they want to hear more about women leaders!

On my way home from the weekend away, I chatted with two 10 year old girls on my street about The Dream Gap Project. They agreed that girls would feel smarter if they saw more role models, and felt strongly about changing the names of all the schools. “They are all named after men,” one said. “That’s why we have to fight for girl power, ” said the other.

I felt so girl powered up after the weekend that I just wanted to say “Thanks, Barbie” for doing the research that can get lots of girls talking. All good movements start from the ground up, so we need our girls to feel empowered. Now we just have to find ways to make girls more present on tv shows, in school, and at the forefront of the world around them. I’m totally in and feel like I have to do my part. Girl power, indeed!

Because we love talking to kids, here’s a video we shot at the Center for Scholars and Storytellers with boys and girls reacting to the Dream Gap research.

Directed by Eliza Rocco

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

To learn more about Barbie's work to close the Dream Gap click here.

What Teens Really Think About Their Social Media Lives: Tips for Storytellers

Social Media and Teens

© Photo by Jen Siska

© Photo by Jen Siska

In Common Sense Media’s latest research, teens share their experiences on everything from digital distraction to how social media makes them feel.

What teenagers look like they’re doing and what they’re actually doing can be two totally different things — especially when it comes to social media. A bored-looking ninth-grader could be majorly bonding with her new BFF on Snapchat. A 10th-grade gamer may complain loudly when you cut off his internet but be secretly relieved. An awkward eighth-grader may be YouTube’s hottest star. To find out what’s really going on in teens’ social media lives, Common Sense Media polled more than 1,100 13- to 17-year-olds in its latest nationally-representative research, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences. The new study updates our 2012 study on teens and social media with surprising new findings that address many of parents’ most pressing concerns about issues such as cyberbullying,depression, and even the popularity of Facebook (spoiler alert: It’s not).

Why now? Today, 89 percent of teens have their own smartphones (compared with 41 percent in 2012). They grew up right alongside Instagram and Snapchat. They do research papers on Google Classroom, find emotional support on teen forums, share poetry on Tumblr, and may text “I love you” before they’d ever say it to your face. But concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity among teens. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction,cyberbullying, and eroding social skills have caused many people, from parents to teachers to the tech industry itself, to look at social media as a potential contributor — if not the cause — of these issues. This survey clarifies some of those concerns and draws attention to the reasons some kids are deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds.

Key Findings of Social Media Report & Actionable Insights:

  • Thumbs mostly up. Only a very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect. Twenty-five percent say social media makes them feel less lonely (compared to 3 percent who say more); eighteen percent say it makes them feel better about themselves (compared to 4 percent who say worse); and 16 percent say it makes them feel less depressed (compared to 3 percent who say more).

  • Managing devices is hit or miss. Many turn off, silence, or put away their phones at key times such as when going to sleep, having meals with people, visiting family, or doing homework. But many others do not: A significant number of teens say they “hardly ever” or “never” silence or put away their devices.

  • Less talking, more texting. In 2012, about half of all teens still said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person; today less than a third say so. But more than half of all teens say that social media takes them away from personal relationships and distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re with.  

  • Vulnerable teens need extra support. Social media is significantly more important in the lives of vulnerable teens (those who rate themselves low on a social-emotional well-being scale). This group is more likely to say they’ve had a variety of negative responses to social media (such as feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments on or likes their posts). But they’re also more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on them.

Tips for Storytellers:

  • Show kids (and their parents) putting phones away or on “do not disturb” at key times, such as mealtimes or bedtime. Kids know social media can get in the way of important things, but they have a hard time regulating their own use. Modeling mindful and intentional use can help to normalize behaviors. It’s also worthwhile to depict kids who take phone breaks for a day or more to feel less distracted, or to avoid digital drama.

  • Highlight the teens who need the most help. An honest depiction of teen social media use for a depressed teen might include a teen feeling unusually happy after receiving online validation (through likes or replies), but also deeply affected by comparing themselves negatively to others online (like on Instagram), or not getting likes or feedback after posting something.

  • Show the creative side of media to inspire teens to use media to learn and grow. Teens express themselves in a variety of ways on social media: creating and sharing art, photography, poetry and other writing, and music. Take care to show kids creating with their mobile devices, and not just consuming or mindlessly scrolling.

To find out the latest on what teens are doing on social media, check out Common Sense Media.

Michael Robb, Ph.D.

Senior Director of Research, Common Sense

Caroline Knorr

Senior Parenting Editor, Common Sense

The Fun of Empowering Girls

For over 20 years, I worked in public broadcasting making shows for young people. We made television and digital content and even hosted events in communities across the country. As a public broadcaster, I was keenly aware of what we needed to work hard on, including empowering children…especially girls. We knew from research that if girls saw positive role models on screen, it could have an incredible impact. But no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t control what happened after they saw a program. We knew that the impact would be higher if the ideas in the shows were talked about at home. And even higher if a parent watched with them.

As a parent, I want great role models too. Like most parents,  I feel a lot of pressure to try to make all the right choices. It can be a lot. So, I think it’s time to make a switch and take the pressure off.

I say let’s have fun with empowering the girls (and boys!) in our lives. Instead of trying to find all the right everything to introduce them to, let’s make it an adventure together.

With your own kids, try to think outside of the box to find awesome role models on your screen, and in your own neighbourhood or town. Make it a quest. A Mission. Make a chart. Or just do it for fun. Find what works with your family dynamic but make the goal finding awesome women near where you live. Here are some suggestions:

1/ Make it a challenge to see who can find the coolest girl character in a tv show. And then watch it together.

2/ Go to the library and see if any women authors are speaking. Or reading from their picture or chapter books.

3/ Check out cool women running for office where you live and go and hear them speak. Even if your kids are too young to understand the issues, all the clapping and sign waiving will make it fun. And they get to see women being supported by other women and men.

4/ In your play- whether it’s with stuffed animals, dolls or action characters- make the role playing about inventing or leading (hey let’s find a way to invent a colour changing t-shirt or create a cardboard starship to fly us to the stars!). Remember that young kids imaginations are way better than ours as adults, so let them run with it.

5/ Celebrate the women in your extended family who have interesting jobs- in science, architecture, a small startup- and have them tell your kids about it

6/ Go old school. Kids still love to play board games. Print off pictures of powerful women- from politicians to pilots- that you can glue to cardboard and use as pieces in any of your favourite family games instead of the regular pieces.

And remember moms, research shows that this isn’t just about our kids. A study in the journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that working women who viewed images of powerful women succeeded in stressful leadership tasks. So have fun with it!

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

Dreams of a Six Year Old Girl

Have you ever spoken to a six year old girl? Seemingly the epitome of confidence,the world is her oyster, and she believes she can be anything:

  • An astronaut;

  • A ballet dancer;

  • The President;

  • All at the SAME TIME.

Moreover, young girls frequently do better than boys in elementary school, where their abilities to sit still and follow rules often makes their teachers give them plenty of gold stars.

The traditional thinking is that young girls’ confidence doesn’t drop until they hit puberty. But something else is happening during the ages of five to seven, as children develop cognitively, becoming aware that others are evaluating their behavior.

As a well designed experiment found, at five years of age, girls say that both genders are smart, but by six years old, they classify boys as belonging to the “really really smart” category at a higher rate. Thus, what children see and hear during this developmental stage shapes thinking in ways that adults may not always see or recognize.

In fact, even at younger ages, children quickly absorb the stereotypes we communicate about activities and skills associated with each gender. Children learn in the context of their social and cultural milieu and the messages they are given (from parents, media, teachers and other socialization agents) promote gender identities, sometimes with stereotypes attached to them.

The good news is that in the US, things may be starting to change.  One study found that when asked to draw a scientist, kids in the United States increasingly draw women. Back in the sixties and seventies, when asked the same question, less than one percent of children drew a female scientist. Today the average is twenty eight percent. But still, as kids get older, they begin to draw more men in this role. At five or six girls draw the same number of men and women, but by seven and eight they begin to draw more men.

So there is still plenty of work to do. Luckily research has helped us become more aware of these biases. Moreover, companies who create media and product for kids are helping change entrenched patterns. Many companies are focusing on creating strong female characters, and their audience is responding – even boys!  

What can you do to help encourage your child to dream big and help your girl recognize that boys and girls are equally “really really smart?  One answer: Play! Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models. And young kids like to play with the objects that will teach them the most.

Here are a few ways caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality:

  1. Choose media that highlight strong female role models.

Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.

  1. Highlight real life female role models, including yourself if you are a woman.

Why? Because connecting to the real world helps make children understand what’s truly possible. And young girls focus on what their female caregiver is doing.

  1. Encourage boys to diversify their play patterns. Support their play with dolls, and help them recognize that women are equally brilliant to men.

Why? Because until we recognize that boys can enjoy more “feminine” pursuits, masculine stereotypes of strength and brilliance will persist and undermine progress for women.

Yalda Uhls, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

“It Depends”

“It Depends” – The Most Annoying and Honest Response that I Give

“Does media violence harm young people?”

It depends.

“Do apps that are labelled educational actually help children learn better?”

It depends.

“Is multitasking problematic for teens?”

It depends.

“Can social media, like Facebook, really support social wellbeing?”

It depends.

As the director of one of the world’s largest centres for the study of young people and the media, and as the chair of the Children, Adolescents, and Media division of the International Communication Association, I get asked to talk about this field – A LOT.  Phone calls from journalists are the norm. Invitations to speak globally flood my inbox. Parents and caregivers send messages. Creators send me pitches. Even family parties are flooded with questions.  The topic of children and media is a topic that quickly sends everyone on high alert. Everyone has a perspective – and one they are ready to defend.

Some argue passionately that media has robust and meaningful effects that must be understood and capitalized upon. Others argue just as passionately that media has little effects in the grand scheme of things, and that media panics of our day are ‘much ado about nothing’. Some are convinced that today’s smartphone generation is dumbing itself down, others are convinced that the same generation will be far more equipped for the years to come thanks to their digital literacy and flexible thinking.

Everyone has a perspective.

So do I.

Except my perspective is not the popular one. My perspective often elicits a few eye rolls followed by the push to ‘pick a team’. (PS: I have picked a team … it’s the Philadelphia Eagles!)

Just as others passionately argue for their perspective, I passionately argue for mine – which is ‘It Depends’.  You see, after more than a decade in this field, and after having a bird’s eye perspective of the field and its (enormous) growth for some time now – I know one thing for sure: Effects are not that simple.

Time and time again, we see that WHO a young person is dramatically influences the extent to which they select, experience, and are affected by media content. Age matters – this we know. But so too does a host of personality traits and range of background variables. Some children love sensation and they seek out fast-paced content, experience deep physiological reactions to it, and then experience intense effects. Other children with comparably lower need for sensation are uninterested or relatively unaffected by the content altogether. Same thing goes for differences in intelligence, or personality traits like degree of extroversion, trait empathy, curiosity, and more.  And let’s not forget the larger context with which the child is growing up. My own research with colleagues at CcaM has shown remarkable differences in the extent to which media has any effects based on how parents mediate the home media environment, as well as based on the peer environment that surrounds young people.

Naysayers of media effects tend to suggest that the statistical media effects found in research studies are quite small, and as a result, are relatively meaningless. Proponents of media effects like to hold up these effects and highlight how many effects are similar in strength to those found in investigations on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

But I am not taking a side on this.

I don’t see these effect sizes as anything else than what they are – an aggregate of the relationship between media exposure and media effects. And while statistical effect sizes help us understand what is going on for most people, they can easily mask the messier truth: specifically, that a minority of children may be particularly influenced by (certain kinds) of media, while others may be less or unaffected altogether.

This perspective doesn’t make me popular. My response doesn’t lend itself to soundbites or so-called “chocolate headlines”. It frustrates people. How can we, after so many years of research, still say “it depends”?  Well, think about it. The media space is changing fast and furiously. So fast that I find myself texting my godson to tell me about the newest social media space I should know, and have him help me decipher what teens mean when they write #OOTD (… in case you were wondering, it’s Outfit Of the Day…). We are barely keeping pace with a media space that is increasingly on-demand, increasingly portable, and increasingly personalized. At the same time, our context of use is ever more complicated … the so-called ‘family hearth’ is a thing of the past. And, our ability to understand and study what young people bring to the media experience is more advanced than ever before. If you had told me 15 years ago that I could look at patterns of brain activity with fMRI to understand how Instagram use impacts teens’ neural processing, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. I am not saying our lessons of old aren’t valuable – they are, immensely so. But … we are in a new space that is increasingly complicated and I believe we do a disservice to our community if we make bold un-nuanced claims to effects.

Life is messy. It’s not that surprising that our research findings are messy as well. Rather than fight the mess, I am trying to embrace it. Sure, some days it makes me want to pull my hair out as I battle another manuscript or try to find a clear answer for a journalist.  Some days I find it frustrating that I cannot put everything into a neat and organized list for parents as they ask for tips about how to best manage their home media environment. Sometimes I wish I had a chocolate headline to share. It would be easier, that’s for sure.

But easy is overrated, right?

It depends.

Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam

Director, Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media (CcaM)

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers


Dr. Jessica Taylor Piotrowski is the Director of the Centre for research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media at the University of Amsterdam. She is the co-author of the book “Plugged In: How Media Attract and Affect Youth”. You can download an open-access copy of the book from the publisher’s website ( A Philadelphia native, Jessica traded cheesesteaks, cars, and the Liberty Bell for stroopwafel, running routes, and windmills in 2012 – and hasn’t looked back since. You can find her on the web at… or running her next marathon somewhere in Europe.

From In Front to Behind the Camera


If you wander through Sinking Ship Entertainment during the summer months, you might think you’ve entered into an episode of Odd Squad, where the characters from multiple children’s TV show posters lining the walls have come to life in young adult form, working entry-level jobs right in front of your eyes.

But your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. The unmistakable redhead sitting in the accounting office with laser focus is indeed the grown-up version of Daniel Cook, whom the world fell in love with over a decade ago when he starred in Sinking Ship’s very first show, “This is Daniel Cook”.

And the teenager with impeccable fashion that you see working away in the editing department is indeed the star of the show that took home the Daytime Emmy Award for best preschool program – Trek Buccino from Dino Dan: Trek’s Adventure.

The most convincing clue that you’re in an episode of Odd Squad, however, would be “Agent Oscar” (or Sean Kyer) sitting in the middle of the production department, working away with the same zest he had as the quirky scientist at Odd Squad’s headquarters.

But there’s more – if you were to step onto the set of Dino Dana, you might catch the sight of Annedroids star “Anne” (Addison Holley) shadowing various directors, or Annedroids’ “Nick” (Jadiel Dowlin) checking in on episodes he wrote (yes, you read that correctly, a teenage scriptwriter!).  

Daniel was the first to return to Sinking Ship, and partner J.J. Johnson could not have been more thrilled that the little boy who inspired the start of the company was now “coming home” to work there as a young adult. Since then, J.J. has delighted in welcoming back several former cast members and helping them discover their passion. These talented young adults could be doing anything (including acting; in fact, 3 of the 5 mentioned are Emmy-nominated actors!), yet they have chosen to lend their talents behind the scenes, where they have a unique perspective and expertise to share. J.J. is not unconvinced that they’ll all be running the place some day!

See below for insight from 4 of these individuals on what surprised them from going in front to behind the camera, and some of their thoughts on children’s TV content!

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD; Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

*In addition to her role as co-director of CSS, Colleen Russo Johnson is also the Director of Research at Sinking Ship Entertainment and married to Sinking Ship partner J.J. Johnson.