In Praise of Slow-Paced Media for Children
Slowing down is valuable for kids, especially on the screen.
Posted July 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Making space for reflection and pondering can be highly beneficial during divisive and polarising times.
- Digital designs currently tend to favour rapid decision-making and fast actions.
- Slow design would benefit all media but is most urgently needed for children's media.
There is a lot of value in slowing down. When we slow down, we divert from automatic and emotion-charged thinking to abstract and neutral ideas. We begin noticing details we would miss otherwise and develop a new appreciation for everyday activities.
We may have forgotten to appreciate the value of slowing down until the lockdown reminded us otherwise. Some engaged in meditative activities, and others enjoyed contemplating the growth of vegetables in their garden or of the home-baked bread in their oven. For those seeking some slow engagement on the screen, there was not much to choose from.
The Fast-Paced Internet
Adrian Ward’s research on how the Internet is changing our minds explains how a lot of digital design misuses the human tendency to react to fast-moving content. Given the vast amount of information online, designers need to use various tricks to direct our attention to their sites. Fast-paced content is one such trick. Responding to fast movements is part of our adaptive behavior that triggers the fight-and-flight response.
Some designers misuse the natural response to usurp our attention to a flashing screen. Such persuasive design is embedded in algorithms, in moving images, but also in the texts and news we read — far too many websites are designed to hijack our attention for commercial gains. We do not only consume quick content, but we produce it too — Instagram and Snapchat stories that disappear after a tap, are another example. The problem is that such commercially-driven, fast-paced design was normalized and has swept into children’s media.
Children’s Fast-Paced Media
Many parents notice, on an intuitive level, that the TV programs that their children watch today move faster than those they used to watch at their age. Popular children’s cartoons are far from the calm, kind and reflective style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (The educational TV series for young children that ran from 1968 until 2001 in the US has some similarities with the “slow TV” in Norway I wrote about).
But it is not only the pace of TV images. Apps designed to accelerate reading or cut down reading time have been around for a while. It is the pace of daily activities and routines too. In my book, I describe acceleration as the key culprit behind the misbalances we see in today’s children. One area that is of particular interest to me is that of children’s story reading — given the unique reflective space that stories can grant readers.
Children read a lot on screen and this has increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. The latest Common Sense Media survey shows that during the pandemic, e-reading increased for some groups of US children more than for others (for example for children from families who earn less than $30,000 a year the amount of e-reading per day doubled). The quality of e-books children access becomes even more important knowing these statistics. And yet, many popular e-books for young children are of low educational quality. The reading pace is one of the quality indicators we look for when evaluating e-books.
When e-books and reading apps rose in popularity in 2010, many were designed without the possibility for children to stop or slow down the pace of reading. Letters were flashed at children at milli-second speed, text was read by robot-like narrators who did not pause but whizzed through the text. Some e-books still have these features, some don’t even allow the child to turn the digital page and browse the images at their own pace. This harms children’s learning.
Reading requires a lot of children’s focused attention. To understand a story, children need to have a good vocabulary, sensitivity to the structure of the narrative (set-up, conflict, resolution), ability to access prior knowledge and make inferences to other situations. It is a complex process and it is impeded with texts and images presented in a quick loop.
In contrast, when there are pauses and gaps in text, readers can consolidate their thoughts. They can immerse themselves in the story and let their mind wander to the imagined place painted by the words. Silent moments can be introduced by story authors and illustrators with reflective writing techniques. They can be also intentionally designed by the developers of children’s e-books.
Feeling time-pressured and not having time to consolidate our thoughts is the reason for the current malaise in the Internet debates. With no in-built safeguards and mechanisms for children’s control of the digital design, young readers have become subjects of commercial self-exploitation. The worst kind of design is that where children are bombarded with multimedia without any sense of control or agency. The best kind of design is responsive to the users, with the possibility to adjust the pace and slow down if they wish to. This is where we must be heading back to with future design.
Kucirkova, N. (2021). The Future of the Self: Understanding Personalization in Childhood and Beyond. Emerald Group Publishing.