Meryl Alper



Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Studies
Northeastern University
Personal website

What are you currently working on?
At the moment, my main project is my next book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age, which is currently under contract with MIT Press. It will be the first book to delve deep into what children and adolescents on the autism spectrum are doing with media and technology in their daily lives. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about autistic people and technology (i.e., naturally skilled at it, socially isolated by it), but these claims are not supported by empirical research. Kids Across the Spectrums debunks these myths and misconceptions through in-depth ethnographic research that I’ve conducted in the homes of over 60 autistic kids ages 3-13 and their families in Boston and Los Angeles. I started working on the project in 2013 amidst my dissertation, a study on the use of iPads for assistive communication purposes among children with speech disabilities. That study population included a number of non-speaking and minimally speaking autistic kids. By the end of that project, I became interested in everything else that youth on the spectrum were doing with tablets and other digital devices. Another important undercurrent in my dissertation work was the role of income, class, race, and ethnicity in how disabled youth and their families make sense of technology and the social institutions shaping device use in their day-to-day lives. When I reviewed the published work on autistic kids’ media and technology use, such demographic variables were either not reported or the participant sample was primarily white, middle-class boys. Intersectionality is an important lens to bring to CAM research, and it will be central to this book project as well.

What has been your most memorable project so far?
One project that remains really vivid is a content analysis that I conducted of mid-1980s computing magazines (e.g., Enter, Family Computing) that were geared towards kids and families but surprisingly contained a lot of discussion about computer security, hacking, and hacker culture, which we currently think about as more within the domain of adults. I double majored in Communication Studies and History in college, so I really love the immersive feeling of time travel enabled by archival materials. For this project, I got to dig through hundreds of colorful magazine pages including some truly wacky articles, artwork, and advertisements. The paper was eventually published in International Journal of Communication, if you want to see some examples!

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
I am very proud of the acclaim that my book Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017) has garnered, which was based on my aforementioned dissertation. The most important feedback has been from people with speech disabilities who have read the book, like leaders of the nonprofit organization CommunicationFIRST, and expressed that it articulated many of their frustrations and hopes around assistive technology. It has also been exciting to see the book earn critical recognition across the media/communication field as well as other disciplines, especially since work on kids, disability, and their intersections is all too easily dismissed as being outside the main concerns of society. In 2018, the book received an Honorable Mention from the PROSE Awards, sponsored annually by the Association of American Publishers. It was one of only two books to be honored in the Media and Cultural Studies category that year. Other luminaries in the communication/media field to receive the honor include Fred Turner and Tom Boellstorff. Giving Voice was also named the American Sociological Association’s 2018 Outstanding Publication in the Sociology of Disability. A paper based on one of the chapters additionally won Top Faculty Paper in ICA’s Philosophy, Theory and Critique Division in 2017. That award is particularly meaningful because it is rarely bestowed upon a junior faculty member, let alone for a sole-authored paper.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
There are certain questions that I think have less definitive answers and work more to hold up a lens to our current times and concerns. One of those is, “At what age should I give my child their own phone/smartphone?” The range of possible answers have evolved alongside a number of variables: the cost of electronics going down, growth in the amount and types of data possibly generated and collected by these devices, and a lack of regulation on how tech companies analyze and act on the insights they gain from said data. The fact is that children on average are getting their first mobile phones at increasingly younger ages, but there is no magic number for when they should cross that threshold. These challenging decisions do not exist outside the other social factors that shape adolescents’ lives (e.g., caregiving responsibilities, staying connected to family from a distance).

What would be your work motto?
This is a pretty nerdy math metaphor, but it would be: “Be a vector, not a line.” (As a kid, I really loved Harold and the Purple Crayon and the satirical book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.) Basically, a line is just a collection of points in space, but a vector has direction and magnitude. To me, that means to always have momentum, be working on something, and not waiting around for opportunities to come to you. It is a lot easier to pivot and change directions in your work if you have already got something going. Try to prevent getting stuck and finding yourself at an endpoint with nowhere to go next.

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
Besides those mentioned above, my other favorite piece would be my first article published in New Media & Society in 2013. It is not a CAM-related piece, but it was the first New Media & Society article about Instagram. (An actual line: “Future research into Instagram photography should further explore the relationship between hashtags and photos circulated on the platform.” Others have certainly followed suit!) It was also the first piece I wrote as a graduate student that I was brave enough to submit to a top journal, largely thanks to wonderfully encouraging feedback from my Ph.D. advisor Henry Jenkins and a pep talk from USC Annenberg alum Nikki Usher.

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
With unlimited resources, I would be expanding the qualitative work that I have been doing for Kids Across the Spectrums with a big international team of collaborators. How autism is culturally understood, medically diagnosed, and socially supported through education, policies, and services varies widely around the world. I have a good grasp on the kinds of structural inequalities facing children with disabilities in the U.S., and the role that media and technology can play in creating or limiting opportunity, but it is hard for me to fully comprehend what those same ecosystems look like in countries and regions with very different conceptions and realizations of disability rights, both for better and for worse.

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Follow your passions. Do not be afraid to study something in a way that has never been done before, or a topic that you can barely find any published work on. Also, related to my work motto above, try to keep little side projects handy, even long-dormant ones, because sometimes gathering momentum can be really hard and it is helpful to have a bit of intellectual kindling around to get a fire started.

Dr. Sarah Rosaen would like to know: How does your experience working in the children and media industry impact your research goals?
That is a great question. I would say that it goes both ways: my children’s media industry work energizes my academic research, and my research shapes the industry work that I pursue. There are parts of my academic life that will always be separate and perhaps a little more theoretical or abstract than can be immediately applied to industry settings and projects. I would also never want my research to be so externally influenced by industry trends either. At the same time, I strive to conduct research that is helpful for those in industry and answers key questions that they too have been grappling with. Ultimately, thousands may read my research but millions of kids will get to watch TV or play digital games that I have helped to create.

Back in 2003, during my sophomore year as an undergraduate at Northwestern, I was a research assistant on one of the first NSF grants focused on children and digital media. That summer, I was also lucky enough to intern in the Domestic Education and Research Department at Sesame Workshop, under the tutelage of Jen Kotler and Rosemarie Truglio. Thanks to Jen, Rosemarie, and their team, as well as professors at Northwestern at the time like Justine Cassell, I got imprinted early on in my career to think about research and high-quality children’s media and technology as joined in a never-ending feedback loop. I never really fully left industry after that, from interning at Noggin/The-N later in college to working at Disney and Nickelodeon post-graduation. Growing up in the NYC area and doing my Ph.D. in Los Angeles, I also had the privilege of ready access to industry contacts, networks, and opportunities throughout college and graduate school.

Currently, outside of my work at Northeastern, I am honored to regularly consult with PBS KIDS to support their development and distribution of accessible, educational TV and digital content across a wide array of learning settings and platforms. Jennifer Rodriguez, Director of Digital Learning at PBS KIDS, is such an amazing collaborator and thought partner who champions the incorporation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into PBS KIDS’ digital materials. I started to get very into UDL starting around 2012, when I noticed how students with disabilities, as well as their teachers and parents, were often marginalized from crucial conversations in the digital media and learning research space, which further widened the so-called digital “participation gap.” Since then, I have ended up publishing less academic research on UDL specifically and doing more applied industry work because the window of opportunity to make change is open.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to nominate Neta Kligler-Vilenchik because I think that her work on young people’s political participation and its entwinement with their media and technology practices has been way ahead of the curve for a number of years.