Professor Spotlight: Dr. Michaela Slusareff

The faculty of the University of New York in Prague participates in collaborative scientific ventures all over the world. Our educators are visionaries and thought pioneers who provide exceptional instruction, and their research informs their teaching, brings imaginative concepts into the classroom, and motivates UNYP students to achieve the highest results. 

Dr. Michaela Slussareff teaches sociology and technology-related courses in the Communication and Media program at UNYP. For this interview, she kindly agreed to share the details of her ongoing research, and talk about current Czech perceptions of technology use by small children. Dr. Slussareff’s research team uses specially designed smartphone apps to determine the impact of communication technologies on children and learning. 

The School of Communication and Media at UNYP is filled with scholars from diverse backgrounds, who share an interest in understanding the ways in which communication technology structures social life. 

Dr. Slussareff, could you please briefly introduce us to your career?

I teach Introduction to Sociology at UNYP, as well as Theories of New Media and Digital Tools for Education. I studied Sociology, and subsequently, Adult Education, and my Ph.D. research was about digital learning and digital educational games. After completing my Ph.D., I became a mother and developed an interest in other related themes. It was then that I found out that we do not know much about the effects of touchscreen technology on pre-school age children. 

Before 2013, the American Association of Pediatrics advised that until the age of two, children should not interact with screens at all, because such interaction can have adverse effects, and that basically, children at this age do not learn anything from screens. In 2013, the AAP revised this advice with a new announcement stating that parents can, in fact, use technology with under-twos. Of course, this announcement sparked a huge debate. We do not currently have enough data, and this is a serious problem. For example, one study that was published last year followed the young participants for ten years. When the research subjects were four years old, they were asked a series of questions, including whether they had a TV in their room. Ten years later, the researchers found out that at the age of fourteen, children who had had a TV in their room as four-year-olds (TV was the only widely available screen back then) had a higher body mass index, and a higher anxiety and depression score. Interestingly, the result did not correlate with the socio-economic status of families. However, this study was already outdated by the time it was published because today, children of all ages have access to tablets, smartphones, and gaming consoles. Of course, we need long-term data, but technology changes so quickly that by the time we get the data, it is already obsolete. We still have a lot more questions than answers, so this motivated me to dig deeper into researching these effects. 

AAP explained their decision by stating that in the 21st century, we cannot completely forbid children to interact with media technology because that would slow their learning, and could cause them to lose future opportunities – but they were mostly referring to activities such as Skyping with great-grandparents. I set up a small initiative for Czech parents, where I evaluate apps for children. At the time I got into it, there was nothing for small children in the Czech online world. The available Czech-language information was completely outdated, with a general undertone of “screens are as bad for our children as heroin.” A very negative attitude, with parents, generally feeling guilty for letting kids play with their phones. I thought that as a society, we need a more constructive approach to these things, meaning that we accept that technology can have both negative and positive effects. If used wisely, media technology is a great learning tool. 

I started interviewing parents of small children because when your children are small, you have the power to quickly change a lot of things in their lives. However, once they get their first smartphone, without guidance, they can get lost in the online world, and you cannot make so many changes.

These days I also focus on high schoolers. I talk to high school teachers and parents, and my colleagues and I organize seminars on digital addiction, usage of social media, and exposure to pornography – which is also a critical topic for teenagers and students in elementary schools. This initiative is called the Slow Tech Institute. This is a platform that puts together Czech research on these topics, with the intention of educating Czech society. 

Could you please tell us about your current project?

Our project started at Georgetown University in Washington. Raichel Barr has been studying the effects of screens and technology for many years, and she created a worldwide project combining research from groups in the USA, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Netherlands, focusing on children 0 to 5 years old. For this research, we developed an Android application called Chronicle App, which observes the child’s actual screen time and looks at the quality of the media consumed. For example, if the participant watched YouTube, the app would specify what kind of content was chosen, whether it was entertainment or educational, etc. 

We use this app on the family devices, so we also know which data came from children and which from parents. Our second tool is a Time Use Diary, which reminds a Google calendar on which parents have to track their child’s screen interactions. By combining these two tools, we can say whether, for example, the parent was on their phone while the child was playing outside, which is also very important. We also use more traditional questions for parents, with answers about their child’s sleep patterns, language development, parenting style. Using this app is much better than asking questions such as “How much time does your child spend on the phone?” because it gives us information about the quality of the time spent exposed to the screen. I also want to mention that for a good understanding of a child’s habits, we need to learn how much time their parents spend on the phone because parents are always role models for preschoolers. 

At this point, we are approaching the final phase in our study. We need to confirm the validation and the reliability of this scale. We have data from many countries, and the data from Czech parents is actually the most comprehensive; we got about 300 Czech parents to participate in this study. We have a well-weighted sample, which we are currently evaluating, and we are comparing this data worldwide. We hope that this will become a longterm study, and we will apply for a European grant because right now only the American team has funding. Our research is the first study in the Czech Republic to focus on screen time in preschoolers. Now we know whether they watch TV before bed, and how much time they spend on screens during the day, so we can answer some of the questions that most concern Czech parents – such as whether their child will become addicted to media, or be exposed to violent or sexual content. It is important for parents to supervise the screen time of children between 0 and 5 years old, and fortunately, this is easy to do at that age. We now know that the real risks of too much screen time are delayed language development, and insomnia caused by screen time before bed, and we find it fascinating that the majority of Czech parents are comparatively less concerned about these problems. We have started to participate in Czech conferences for pediatricians, sharing our research, and we have found that our pediatricians do not have any guidelines on how to talk to parents about their children’s screen time. Thus our next project will aim at changing this reality.

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