Jessica Taylor Piotrowski

Associate Professor
Director, Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media
Co-Director, FMG Teaching & Learning Centre
University of Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Personal website

What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I have several ongoing projects – all in different stages of the research cycle. But for now, I’ll focus on the two that have me most excited.

The first project, Project DANDELION (Developing AND Experience LIfe ONline) is currently in its early stages of development and funding acquisition. In this project, I’m trying to understand the (1) predictors of digital literacy in childhood, (2) the manners in which we can support digital literacy, and (3) the ways in which digital literacy can contribute to children’s healthy cognitive and social-emotional development. For me, the most interesting part is diving into digital literacy – it’s a concept we think we understand, but as I have started digging, it is clear there is so much still to learn.

The second project, also new (fielding this spring!), is still looking for a name (I welcome suggestions). It is a collaborative project whereby I am working to understand the role of virtual assistants in the homes of young children (think Echo, Alexa, and the like). From one perspective, I am interested to understand how families – particularly children – accept and use these devices. What is their role? How does this differ by different family ecosystems? How do young children use these devices? At the same time, I am also interested in using this information to think more about ethics when it comes to such devices. We are in a brilliant space of technological innovation, but just as I see digital literacy as a way to help all of us respond to the technological transformations of our time, I also believe there is clear need for policy that guides us on what can and should be done as technology is developed for use by young people. I find Sonia Livingstone’s work on children’s digital rights very inspirational when it comes to this topic and am hoping to use her work to help me connect the dots between access, usage, and ethical design principles.

Fun Fact: I became interested in virtual assistants when I observed my niece interacting with Alexa as part of a pilot study with Sesame Workshop!

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
Most memorable? This is a tough one – I have so many! I think, for me, it wasn’t a project per se but it was observing an interaction between a parent and child that stands out most. I was conducting some early pilot research, focused on how parents and children negotiate media decisions. During one session, while a mother was discussing with her son whether or not she would allow him to have a smartphone, I observed the following scene (paraphrased):

Son: “Fine, we can make annoying smartphone rules. Just let me get a phone like my friends have!”

Mother: “Okay, I am going to write down the rules here. First rule … [thinking] … no phone during dinner.”

Son: [looks directly at mother]. “Okay – but same goes for you! If I can’t use my phone at dinner, neither can you.”

Mother: [surprised] “Well … well yes, that does seem fair I guess.”

I remember watching that moment – seeing the interaction and the surprised look – it was emblematic of so much of what we all study. Children are socialized to learn about media from the different ecosystems of their daily life. Amy Jordan has written about this eloquently many years ago, and it remains true. We cannot understand children’s relationship to media without understanding their context. That moment has always stuck with me, and probably always will.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
From the very early days of my career, I have always found myself straddling the academia-industry fence. My motivation for my research work comes from the world around me, and my hope is that my research ultimately funnels back to enrich the lives of young people. The ivory tower has simply never appealed to me, and my students can attest that I am committed to fueling the research-to-practice circle. Perhaps that’s why there are two competing ‘most proud’ achievements for me – one in research, one in teaching.

The first was the highly successful CAM preconference that I organized at ICA in San Francisco (#InventIntervent). I remember when ICA headquarters told me that the #InventIntervent was more like its own mini-conference than a preconference – with swag bags and keynote speakers and a jam-packed event. It was brilliant. I was committed to ‘turning the table’ on traditional preconferences. Here, no academic was on stage. Instead, we were able to convince incredible representatives from the media industry to come and share their work and highlight what they need from us – the academy. I remember watching J.J. Johnson (yay Sinking Ship Entertainment!) speak during his keynote address…every single person taking it in. Jennifer Kotler-Clarke had the room on their feet cheering for Sesame Street. Alison Bryant had us all reflecting on grandparent communication. David Kleeman made us think about how to translate our work better. And the list goes on and on. We stopped writing. We stopped researching. We started listening to what industry needs from us – not just what we hope from them.

As we closed the preconference, everyone was clapping… I remember feeling such pride for what happened that day. Indeed, it was one of my proudest moments as a CAMmer. (Special shout-out here to all of the wonderful people that made this a reality with me: Patti Valkenburg, Ellen Wartella, Laura Vandenbosch, and Karin Fikkers… talk about a #DreamTeam).

Fun Fact: this article came out of that preconference. Still a fav of mine.

But as I said there were two moments (yes, I realize I’m supposed to give one) and that’s because just as I value research, I also place an incredibly high value on teaching. Those of us in the academy know that we are – first and foremost – in the business of education. What we do matters, a lot. We have the potential to shape lives in ways we don’t even fully understand, and I do not take that lightly. I enter my classroom with energy (a lot of it!), I work hard to engage and excite my students, I push them to ask questions, make connections, and to go beyond the limits they think they have. I’m a tough professor, I know this. I believe they have so much potential and I push them to ‘be comfortable being uncomfortable’. And so, in 2016, when I was awarded an “Excellence in Teaching” award for my commitment to strengthening the relationship between education and communication practice – I was deeply honored and humbled. As the awards committee began to read quotes from my students about their experiences in my classroom, I felt tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. To be recognized for something so core to who I am … there are simply no words.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
For me, I think I first want to change the question that we are asked. So many times I’m asked “how much time can s/he ….?” and while I know that we all have used “time” as a heuristic to help us get a feel for the media space, I am increasingly convinced that time is not giving us the direction we think it is. Rather, I think it’s a broken compass. On the one hand, I do not believe we are able to measure time use accurately. We struggled before digital media, and now … I don’t think I can report on my own media use accurately! How do we handle multitasking? What is ‘use’ exactly? And at the same time, I am also not sure that time means what we think. Does spending 10 minutes scrolling on Instagram about favorite travel destinations influence a young person the same way as spending 5 minutes reading angry comments on their recent selfie? Of course not.  Even more, we are increasingly seeing data that shows how the relationship between ‘time’ and outcomes is rarely linear in nature. We struggle to measure ‘time’ … we struggle to define ‘media’ … we struggle to understand ‘use’ … and the relationships are likely far more nuanced than any linear models might suggest (context! consumer! content!). So, I guess I hope that we – as academics – start improving our message so that we are asked questions that we can meaningfully answer. In my view, the time is up on time.

What would be your work motto?
In a world where you can be anything, be kind. Practicing kindness is not always the ‘easy’ route. But, in my experience, I’ve never regretted being kind. I practice kindness in my teaching. I listen. My feedback may be firm at points, but my delivery is kind. I try to remember there is a person on the other side of that feedback. I also practice kindness in my research. I truly appreciate every single person that plays a role in the research journey (there are many). I also try to remember that the reviewer process is not a space to knock people down, but a space to empower and improve our shared scientific insight. And as a research director and team leader, I try to lead with kindness – valuing every single person’s unique constellation of strengths. I’m not perfect at this, of course, but I find that kindness has never steered me wrong.

(Oh – and next to kindness – one more motto: “there is no such thing as too much coffee!”)

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I’ve read this Spotlight series for years and never realized how hard it is – just one, geez! There are so many that stick with me. But okay, just one? That would have to be Plugged In – coauthored with my dear colleague, Patti Valkenburg. This book has my heart and soul. Patti and I spent months writing this together. Emails, phone calls, text messages – nights, weekends – on repeat. We didn’t stop until we had it right. So much went into making that book something that we felt would be a contribution to the field … it is my ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ piece. But ultimately, when I finally saw it in print – I just knew it was what we wanted. And the icing on the cake? Yale University Press agreed to publish an open access copy of the book … making it accessible to all. Now that’s IMPACT!

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
Do you know the study design where you can see how individual differences intersect with environmental differences to affect media selection, media processing, and media effects resulting in an inherently nuanced understanding about the dynamic relationship between youth and media in both immediate and long-term contexts? Yeah, I don’t know that design either – but that’s the study I want to do!

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Find your ideal self-care. Let’s be honest, whatever our journey, it’s not always going to be easy. Academia certainly knows how to keep the challenges rolling – we all have moments of wanting to just scream. It is tough. That is normal. The question is how do you handle the moments of toughness? I always tell my PhD students that their first job is to figure out what their go-to-self-care will be when they just need to decompress and rejuvenate. Maybe it’s running, maybe it’s yoga. Maybe its Netflix. Or chocolate. Or brunch dates with friends. Cooking. Movie nights. A really good cappuccino with jazz music at a favorite cafe. An engaging book. Find what rejuvenates you and keep that in your wheelhouse. Don’t be afraid to practice self-care. Take care of you. In fact, you should make sure to take care of you every day… but have some extra special self-care ready for those particularly tough moments. Always keep yourself on your list. You matter, too.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
In true research-to-practice style, I would like to nominate someone that has been inspirational throughout my career … an industry scholar who has always been able to navigate the academic-industry divide – inspiring both sides in meaningful ways and contributing heavily to my theoretical thinking on how young children are affected by media: Shalom Fisch.

I would love to know what Sholly is working on these days, and when we can find Capacity Model 2.0 in print. We need it!

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