Bright Start: Teaching Parenting Skills to At-Risk Mothers

Bright Start is a study that teaches key parenting skills to first-time moms between the ages of 18 and 24 - a group whose children have an increased risk of developing attention problems, being overly aggressive and having other developmental and behavioral challenges.

Our team is instructing study participants on how to create better learning environments. Among other things, we are teaching parents the best ways to read to their kids, giving tips on which types of TV programs to avoid, and teaching games to play with their children as an alternative to TV.

We will follow these families from the time their kids are born until they're four years old, tracking key milestones to see if the strategies improve the children's development. Because the innovative study delivers its lessons over the Internet, it could provide a breakthrough model for teaching parenting strategies that help families nationwide.

Investigating Whether "Baby DVDs" Promote Learning

Our lab is comparing how watching an educational baby DVD vs. playing with blocks stimulates learning in nine- to 12-month-old babies. To determine this, our researchers are measuring the levels of cortisol - a stress hormone that indicates when children are engaged in learning - in participants' saliva. Preliminary data suggest that playing with blocks stimulates higher cortisol levels than watching DVDs. This underscores our previous findings that indicate baby DVDs have little educational value, while playing with blocks and engaging in other forms of interactive play improve language development and have other developmental benefits.

Using Facebook to Screen for Risky Adolescent Behavior

One problem in pediatric medicine is that it is very hard to screen adolescents for alcohol abuse and other risky behavior. Working together with Dr. Megan Moreno of the University of Wisconsin, our team is investigating whether monitoring adolescents' Facebook activity could be a solution.

This project builds on our previous findings that what teens say on Facebook and in other online forums reflects their real-world behavior. Our current study will spend four years following the Facebook status of University of Wisconsin and University of Washington students who volunteered to participate. When their status mentions risky, alcohol-related behaviors, our team will assess whether that status matches with their actual behavior and offer counseling to those who might need it. If this proves to be an effective way to screen for damaging behaviors, it could help deliver interventions that lessen those behaviors' effects.

Healthier "Media Diets" Improve Childhood Behavior and Development

This study, which has been completed, compared how different types of television programs affect children between three and five years old. The study's goal was to teach parents how to give their children a healthier "media diet" by teaching them how to substitute educational programs for violent programs. Parents were taught how to use the V-chip - a chip that blocks out violent programming in most modern televisions - and instructed on what kinds of non-violent programming offered the most potential benefit.

The study found that children who watched educational programming were less aggressive and had healthier social behaviors than children who watched violent programming. Boys in low-income groups benefitted the most, raising the possibility that good television habits can reduce that groups' risk of developing harmful behaviors.