The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Student Research Spotlight: Shayl Griffith

Although to most American families a world without a television in the home seems like a distant fiction, it was only sixty years ago that the television first hit retail shelves. In reaction to television’s rapid dissemination throughout homes in the U.S., psychologists were driven to ask a progression of questions, including how frequently was TV watched, how did TV affect family dynamics, how did children learn from TV, how did parents guide viewing, and what co-viewing activities were most beneficial. The progression of questions provided nuanced answers that showed that the important information is how children use TV with parents, not whether they watch TV or not. A similar trend in technology is currently unfolding in the American family today.

Despite trickling into homes only ten years ago, smart phones and smart devices have quickly become a nearly ubiquitous part of the American home and the American life. Much like the television and other technologies, the smart device was once thought of as a luxury, but is now owned by 85% of parent-aged adults. Even among lower income groups, over half of parent-aged adults own a smart device. Similarly, and astoundingly, between 2011 and 2013 the proportion of children with access to a smart device at home increased from 50% to 75%. Analogous to today’s adults who grew accustomed to televisions, America’s future adolescents will not remember a time when smart devices did not exist.

In part due to their rapid proliferation, there has been, unfortunately, no research on how smart phones are being used by children or their parents. Although there are a great deal of data on how prevalent smart devices are in the home, there has been no systematic investigation into how smart devices are being used. Similar to the television, which was also adopted by households before researchers could study its effects, smart phones could have significant impacts on family dynamics and on how children learn.

For her dissertation and CRF Family Research Fellowship, Shayl Griffith is working with Professor David Arnold to analyze the use of smart devices in the home. Shayl is coding video recordings of parents and children interacting while using smart devices to look for patterns and interactions that exemplify features crucial for learning. The observations, which were previously collected for other research conducted by Griffith and Arnold, consist of interactions from families of a broad range of socioeconomic levels. Broadly speaking, Shayl will be looking at the levels of engagement between children, the devices, and their parents.

“There is a reasonable analogy between degrees of engagement in smart devices and co-viewing in television,” remarks Shayl. An important factor in the use of televisions is the degree to which parents move from not viewing with children, to co-viewing, to actually co-viewing and engaging with the programs on television. Ideally, parents actively interact with the children and the smart device. The idea is to keep children in the “zone of proximal development,” where they are being challenged but encouraged with feasible tasks.

One specific thing Shayl may look for, for example, is scaffolding, a crucial learning concept. “One thing we know is that educational apps are being downloaded frequently;” says Shayl, “however, we don’t know if these apps are being used effectively.” Shayl will look at scaffolding to see if parents are providing a proper balance between guidance and autonomy for their children as they use smart devices, and gradually increasing the difficulty of apps as children’s skills improve.

Because of the widespread availability of smart devices, “the potential to impact children, positively or negatively, is immense.” Smart devices, and their associated software apps, have the ability to hold an immense amount of knowledge that was, previously, inaccessible to low income parents and children. Studying the ways in which parents across the socio-economic spectrum effectively or ineffectively use the apps will potentially allow interventions and programs to be designed that are meant to improve use. “That would be my dream--- to one day design an intervention for smart devices based on my research,” says Shayl.

To Shayl, the CRF fellowship award was crucial to the completion of her research as it allowed her more time to dedicate towards her work. “I don’t know what I would have done without the CRF Fellowship.” Without the fellowship Shayl says she “would be working round the clock with teaching assistantships.” Shayl hopes to one day use this fellowship to advance our understanding of smart devices in the home. 


Every year the Center for Research on Families awards research grants to undergraduate and graduate students. The awards fund research that is interdisciplinary, ranging from a broad selection of fields. CRF is currently accepting applications for the 2016-2017 student awardees. To learn more and apply go to our Student Awards page.