Heather Kirkorian




Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Personal website

What are you currently working on?
I like to juggle a few different projects at any given time. I also like to harness many different research tools (e.g., observations, behavioral assessments, eye-tracking, heart rate) and study different systems (e.g., internal cognitive processes, behavioral responses, social contexts).

Many of my projects focus on young children’s learning from different sources of information. I’m especially excited about my newest learning study: I am testing the extent to which 2-year-olds remember in-person, video, and app demonstrations over extended periods of time (2, 4, or 8 weeks). Most learning studies with toddlers focus on shorter-term memory retrieval, testing children immediately or after just one day. However, memory research shows that what children remember immediately after a demonstration does not necessarily predict what they remember several weeks later. This new study will help us understand toddlers’ longer-term learning in different contexts. At the same time, my research team is conducting other learning studies to identify specific conditions that increase learning from television, apps, and eBooks.

Other projects focus on children’s attention and play when using media, such as the low-level perceptual features that capture visual fixations (measured by eye-tracking) when children watch television, or the features of background television that pull children’s attention away from toy play.

Still other projects focus on the family media ecology. For instance, I am working with collaborators in several countries to assess the content and context of media use in families with a young child. We use many data-collection tools, including surveys, time-use diaries, and passive mobile sensing. We are currently updating these tools to assess changes in the family media ecology during the COVID-19 global pandemic. We are especially interested to know the extent to which caregivers view screen media as a help versus a hinderance during this time.

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
There are so many, but I think my most memorable projects have involved outreach and community engagement. If I have to pick just one, I think my most memorable project was presenting in Stand-Up Science, a series created by award-winning American comedian Shane Mauss. In this series, researchers and stand-up comics share the stage for an evening of playful scientific dialogue.

I was one of two scientists presenting at the very first Stand-Up Science in Madison, Wisconsin (October 2018). I was excited to try this new platform for science communication. I was also extremely nervous, afraid of being heckled, and unsure whether a comedy-club audience would really want to hear about research on children and media. But in fact, this event became one of the highlights of my career to date. I had so much fun presenting alongside comedians. The audience was also very supportive and engaged. The question-and-answer period was especially rich. Shane recently celebrated his 100th event. I hope this series continues to grow.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
I am proud of many things, including research publications, grants, and especially the accomplishments of my graduate students. Above all, though, I think I am most proud of opportunities I have had to engage with children’s media creators. A career highlight was serving on an advisory board for a children’s television show focused on science education. This experience gave me a valuable opportunity to bridge the research-practice gap, helping to create an educational opportunity for children across the United States. Moreover, it was an extraordinarily valuable learning experience. I learned a great deal from the creators, observing the production process behind-the-scenes. Experiences like this give my work meaning, and they make me a more effective educator and researcher.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
What is the impact of digital media on the developing brain? People love to talk about the brain – and especially the impacts of digital media on the developing brain – but the reality is that no one actually has an answer to this question. We are beginning to see the results from the first neuroscientific studies in our field, but there is still so much we don’t know. And we greatly lack the kind of experimental and longitudinal evidence that is needed to answer questions about long-term impact.

What would be your work motto?
“The medium isn’t the message; the message is the message.” Dan Anderson and colleagues wrote this statement on the final page of their SRCD Monograph describing the results of the Recontact Study (Anderson et al., 2001). It tells us that the types of media activities children engage in matter at least as much as (and probably more than) how much time children spend with media. This continues to be a guiding principle in my research to this day.

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I think my answer to this question varies from one day to the next, depending on what project I’m focusing on in the moment. Today, I think I would pick my recent publication in Child Development Perspectives. I wrote this article the year that I was going up for tenure at my university – a time when I was reflecting on my career so far and the extent to which I had an impact on my field. It was also a time for pausing and considering what to focus on in future research. CDP articles are brief reviews, requiring the author to be succinct and choose only the most relevant facts to support their perspective. In this way, my 2018 CDP article is a brief snapshot of what I was thinking during that unique period in my life.

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
With unlimited resources, I would love to conduct a large-scale longitudinal/intervention study with comprehensive measures (neurological, physiological, behavioral) that would allow researchers to study the long-term outcomes associated with early media use. Such a study would have a sufficiently large and diverse sample to identify individual- and family-level differences that moderate effects. Comprehensive media-use measures would capture content and context on all media devices. Cross-lagged analyses would test for transactional effects over time. And in an ideal world, the data set would be shared in an open-science platform for use by all CAMmers!

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Be willing to challenge your own assumptions. Objective observation and theory development are parts of the scientific process. We might start each study with hypotheses, but we also must be prepared to be wrong. In fact, some of my most rewarding scientific discoveries have evolved from unexpected findings and null hypotheses. To put it another way, I’ll borrow another quote from Dan Anderson: “The kids are always right.” It might take a while to understand the message kids are telling us in our data, but the message is there if we’re willing to hear it.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to shine the spotlight on Vikki Katz. Whenever I have had the opportunity to hear Vikki speak, I have been inspired to see problems in a new way.

To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.