January 1st, 2014

Massive survey studies children’s behavior

A recently concluded study by Brown University School of Medicine, the Children’s National Medical Center and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology is unique in several ways: size, scope and, in some ways, subject matter.

The three organizations teamed up for a massive online research project called The Learning Habit Survey. Polling parents of K-12 students nationwide, the survey examined the routines, habits, personality traits and abilities of their children, searching for common interactions and causalities. More than 43,000 parents from 4,100 cities participated, making for a sample size that may be unprecedented for this type of undertaking.

Responses to the 108-item survey were collected from Sept. 4 through Oct. 31 and the data are currently being analyzed. Findings will be presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., Aug. 7-10, 2014.

Information in six basic categories was solicited from the respondents: parenting styles; family routines; emotional aspects; presence and use of media; self regulation; measures of performance.

“We’re looking at the interaction among all of these components,” says Robert M. Pressman, Ph.D., ABPP, director of research at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology in Providence, R.I., and the principal investigator for the study. “Maybe one or two of these have been studied but our goal is to look at it in a broader scope to see how all these things relate to each other.”

Participants were solicited through popular Internet outlets, such as WebMD and online versions of the Huffington Post, Parents Magazine and National PTA.

Of particular interest to many is the research about media usage. “We call it screen time,” says Pressman. “It includes games, computers, iPhones and tablets.”

The survey examines specific usage patterns, such as whether the child’s media time is spent alone, with an adult or with another child. These findings, after analysis and correlation, will provide valuable information about the effects of “screen time” on sleep, grades and social behavior.

With extensive media usage a fairly recent phenomenon and one which we know little about, this aspect of the project is certain to create a buzz in psychology circles and beyond. “This is something that has been under-studied and we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it down the road,” Pressman says.

The project is being funded by the three co-sponsors, each of which has a different perspective and potential application for the findings. Pressman is a clinician who works with children and their families. “My personal goal is to learn what is helpful for treatment in family counseling and child counseling, gaining greater insight into the dynamics of children,” he says.

Allison Schettini Evans, Ph.D., is a pediatric neuropsychologist at Brown University School of Medicine. Her focus is determining how brain function relates to specific psychological processes and behaviors in children.

Judith Anne Owens, M.D., of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is medical director of the Sleep Laboratory and Sleep Medicine Clinic. Owens’ interest is learning more about the effects of sleep on routines and other behaviors and vice versa.

The final report from The Learning Habit Survey is due in August.

By Howard Newman

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