How parents and teens can reduce the impact of social media on youth well-being

 Engaging with your teen’s online 
world will make it easier to have difficult conversations about some of the 
risks and ways  to manage them. 

Knowing how to navigate the online social networking world is crucial for parents and teens. Being educated and talking about online experiences can help reduce any negative impacts on youth mental health and well-being.

The Australian Psychology Society (APS) recently released a national survey looking at the impact of technology and social media on the well-being of Australians.

Around 1,000 adults over the age of 18 and 150 young people aged 14-17 years took part. The survey found more than three in four young people (78.8%) and more than half of all adults (54%) were highly involved with their mobile phones. Young people are reportedly using social media for an average of 3.3 hours each day, on five or more days of the week.

The vast majority of adults and teenagers reported their screens and social media accounts were a positive part of their lives. Many use social media channels to connect with family, friends and to entertain themselves.

Too much social media use can effect self-esteem

Despite social media playing a positive role for most, the survey found the high use of social media and technology can have a negative impact on youth self-esteem. Two in three young people feel pressure to look good and nearly a third of youth have been bullied online. Nearly half (42%) of frequent users look at social media in bed before sleeping.

The survey also found 15% of teenagers reported being approached by strangers on a daily basis through their online world.

Around 60% of parents never monitor their teen’s social media account and are wrestling their own issues about how much is too much screen time. Most are unsure of how to provide good guidance of appropriate social media use with their teens.

Engage with your teen’s online world

Parents and teens need to be informed about engaging with the online world. Parents can ask their teen to show them how they use social media and what it is. Try to navigate the social world together, rather than acting as a supervisor. Ask your teen to help you understand how they use the internet so you can make good decisions about social media use together.

Here are a few tips to connect with your teen’s online world:

  • Together with your teen visit their social media channels. Take a look at what your teen is posting online. Check out their favourites and which YouTube channels they are subscribed to. Favourites and subscriptions can give you clues about what they’re watching on the site
  • Ask your teen to create playlists of their favourite videos, while you create your own. Then, sit and watch them together. You can see what they’re watching, and it gives them an opportunity to share what they enjoy online with you
  • Make using the internet together a game. For example, you can guess what kinds of videos are popular in a particular place and use the “advanced search” function to see videos only in that location.

Difficult conversations about social media

An important step in navigating the risks of social networking is to have ongoing conversations about social media use with your teens. If you’re already engaged in your teen’s online world, it will be easier to have difficult conversations about some of the risks and ways to manage them.

Many people believe internet browsing is anonymous. Educate your teen about their digital reputation. Whenever your teen visits a website, shares content, posts something on a blog or uploads information, they’re adding to their digital footprint.

This information can be gathered under their real name and possibly accessed by future employers or marketing departments. This can happen without you or your teen knowing. Protecting your personal information and knowing it’s not truly anonymous are important conversations to have together.

Cyberbullying can occur if online users try to intimidate, exclude or humiliate others online through abusive texts or emails, hurtful messages, images or videos, or online gossip and chat. Let your teen know to try not to retaliate or respond, and to speak to a trusted adult right away. Aim to block the bully and report the behaviour to the social media platform.

Create a family media plan to help manage social media use with options to create different guidelines for each teen. In the plan, promote healthy technology use habits with your teen. This includes not using technology too close to bed time.

Research showsusing technology at night can have a negative impact on sleep quality. Try to not to use technology for around 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Consider using devices in the living spaces in the house rather than in the bedroom  when it’s time to go to sleep.

Here’s some more information on how to talk to your teens about their internet use, and thriving in an online age.

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Why children need to be taught to think critically about Remembrance Day

 Students should be taught to recognise the  
political, social, and economic factors that influence how a society conducts 
and participates in memorialisation of the past. David Crosling/AAP

A few years ago, my then four-year-old daughter came home from preschool wanting to know who the soldiers were and why they died.

As a history teacher for nearly two decades, I thought I had it covered. This was my moment to shine as a parent and educator. Unfortunately, I had grossly overestimated my capabilities. I found myself stumbling over explanations and unable to find the words. Anyone who has tried knows it’s nearly impossible to describe to a four-year-old the machinations of war in a non-terrifying way. How would I unpack the complex cultural participation in commemorations? I resorted to telling her:

I’ll explain it when you’re older.

I know, I know, shame on me.

But it got me thinking about how we position our students to engage meaningfully with wartime narratives and commemorations. I think we’re missing valuable opportunities to teach students how to critically evaluate memorialisation as a historical artefact. This deserves our attention because artefacts embody the ideological value systems of the community that create it and the society that, 100 years later, continues to use and observe it. In critiquing Remembrance Day, students will likely learn a great deal about the social and political customs of their own community.

How do schools now participate in commemoration?

What happens now is fairly straightforward. Schools will consult a website such as the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs to find a runsheet. Students will be organised to speak, taking heed of the advice for the commemorative address to “highlight the service and sacrifice of men and women in all conflicts”. A wreath may be purchased, a minute’s silence will be observed, and a recording of The Last Post and The Rouse and the Reveille will be played.

School children and members of the public observing Remembrance Day at the Shrine of Remembrance
School children and members of the public observing Remembrance Day at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Julian Smith/AAP

The concern is that uncritical engagement in the social act of commemoration is creating generations of historical tourists. These “tourists” are not enabled to understand that memorials and commemorative services are interpretations of the past, or that such services are a representation of how present-day society believes it should interact with that past. They simply pass through without understanding the full context. Asking pupils to organise and participate in a commemorative event, or providing red paper to make poppies, will not help students develop capacity to recognise that memorial sites and the framing of historical narratives are responses to the context of the time they were created.

Why is this important?

Memorials and commemorative services use rhetoric that speaks to national identities. Political leaders are adept at using these monuments, ceremonies and rhetoric to respond to current social anxieties in a way that often creates further divisions.

As historical tourists attending commemorative services, students (and the adults they grow into) are at risk of accepting without question nationalistic and political agendas that may not be in their best interests. I want my students and pre-service teachers to recognise the political, social, and economic factors that influence how a society conducts and participates in memorialisation of the past. Recognising and understanding this influence leads to active and proactive citizenship.

Malcolm Turnbull at a 2016 Remembrance Day ceremony
Malcolm Turnbull at a 2016 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Preparing our students

How can teachers best prepare primary and secondary school students to think critically about memorialisation? Here is some sound advice from around the globe.

Monique Eckmann from the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland says:

the history of memory has to be studied; it is important to understand the context and the history of the decision to create a memorial or a commemoration day. Which advocacy groups took the initiative to propose a memorial place or a commemorative date, when, and for whom? What groups were involved in memorialisation politics? What victims are named, who is mentioned in the official memory, and who is not included in it?

Alan S. Marcus, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut suggests:

  • providing students with or asking them to research the public and private purposes and missions of the memorial, and asking students to discuss how they may influence what is displayed,
  • asking students to interview other visitors at the memorial to learn about their experiences and how those visitors understand the monument and the commemorative services conducted there.

Barnaby Nemko, Head of History at St Helen’s School in Northwood, London, set his students the task of producing their own photographic memorial of the first world war, which would serve as a record for future generations. The aim was for pupils to construct their own First World War photo memorial based on what they experienced on their day trip to the site of Ypres. Subsequently, the pupils would have to justify their choice of “exhibits”.

As a history teacher, I see great value in all these strategies. So I was surprised by the results of Nemko’s study. The work his students produced displayed a complete lack of understanding that the photographic memorial they created was indeed an interpretation of the past. He found that the historical monuments elicited such a strong emotional reaction from the students that it impaired their analytical skills, which were otherwise well developed in relation to other kinds of historical accounts.

What about the place of commemoration in pre-school?

My second child attends a different preschool. Fortunately, there are no commemorative activities offered at this centre. I am more than a little relieved. I avoid stumbling again through the murky waters of attempting to explain war and remembrance to a child under the age of five. More importantly, I just don’t think she’s ready to engage in the horrors of war and the complexities of how societies construct narratives to memorialise such events.

This article was written by:
Image of Kim Wilson Kim Wilson – [Lecturer in History Education, Macquarie University]






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How to use music to fine tune your child for school

 Babies start their musical development
in the womb. 

Can music actually make us smarter? Research suggests that from as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy, when auditory function is forming, babies begin their musical development. Their early adaptive exposure to sounds, including those familiar sounds of parents’ voices, enhance extraordinary processing skills.

Neuroscience teaches us that a child’s brain is plastic. By this, we mean it is malleable and has the ability to change. The first year of life, more than any other year, will see the most rapid change in brain size and function as all the sensory receptors activate. Intriguingly, neuro-imaging shows that music alone turns on large sectors of a child’s brain, opening crucial neural pathways that will become the highways and byways for every piece of information the process.

We’d all love to think our children will grow up intelligent, blissfully free from academic struggle. Truth is, the learning journey is speckled with challenges, and each child will have a unique intelligence and learner disposition. One thing we know is that parental involvement in cognitive stimulation from the earliest years will help form solid foundations that underpin a more successful schooling journey.

So, what can parents do to prepare young learners for school?

Sing like no one’s listening

Singing nursery rhymes to your child, however old fashioned you may think it is, will get them off to a flying start. Children become particularly responsive because reciprocal communication occurs as they begin to mimic you – pre-empting certain sounds, tones or words that they recognise. Using pitch and rhythm in the rhymes and lullabies we introduce to our children will begin to create neural stimulation that develops the brain’s auditory cortex, transforming their ability to communicate.

Bang on those pots and pans

Picture of a young child on the floor with pots and pans

While it may fray the nerves, banging on the pots and pans is a fantastic way to improve spatial reasoning. With background music blaring, children first develop the coordination required to hit the metallic targets, and as their sensory cortex develops, they begin to keep in time. Research shows that spatial reasoning, along with a sense of beat and rhythm (which invariably includes an aural and tactile sense of measure and counting) will enhance mathematical abilities.

Join a children’s music group

Early childhood music-based playgroups offer a unique learning context for children. The songs and activities employ beat patterns, movement, repeated chorus lines and echo singing to engage with young participants. The cerebellum at the base of our brains is responsible for movement and balance, and interestingly, is where emotional reactions to music form. Universally, early childhood educators use rhyme and song to teach children how language is constructed, and with good reason. Movement, foot tapping and dancing to a beat are also good ways of developing the brain’s motor cortex.

The ‘Mozart Effect’

There is a popular hypothesis that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. The “Mozart Effect” refers primarily to a landmark study in 1993, where participants listening to Mozart’s music (rather than to relaxation music or silence) achieved higher spatial-temporal results. Importantly, spatial-temporal reasoning is crucially active when children are performing science and maths tasks. Listening to music in any capacity induces endorphin production in the brain, causing improvement in mood and creative problem solving.

Learn an instrument

Picture of a young child at a piano

Many parents wonder when a child should start learning their first musical instrument. Importantly, instrumental tuition is not about producing the next Mozart or Delta Goodrem. Music lessons, for even the briefest of periods, are enjoyable and establish a life-long skill. It has also been noted that musicians’ brains develop a thickened pre-frontal cortex – their brains are actually bigger. And this is the area of the brain most crucially involved in memory. One thing researchers and music educators endorse is the amazing impact it has on the development of executive functions such as working memory, attention span and cognition.

Many schools are putting research into practice, and Queensland is leading the way with music taught in 87% of schools. Immersion music programs, where all students learn an instrument for a one-year minimum, have become commonplace. The results speak for themselves.

Psychologists from a Californian University conducted research on pre-school aged children, and proved that those who had weekly keyboard lessons improved their spatial-temporal skills 34% more than those who didn’t. The benefits did not stop there. Children developed fine motor skills, reading, auditory recognition, resilience, and increased their memory capacity. All of these benefits of instrumental tuition bode well for the classroom journey ahead.

You may never have considered the impact of music on the development of your child’s brain, but it’s not too late to start. Just because you can’t sing, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Your little one’s brain is far more malleable during infancy, and there is a “window of opportunity” where intervention is most effective. If you engage your child in musical activities, then research shows you are directly helping to fine tune them for success in later years.

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Australia’s new national space agency will help students reach for the stars in STEM

The establishment of a new Australian national space agency was announced by federal minister for education and training, Simon Birmingham, at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide this past week. The announcement was met with loud cheers from the 4,300 delegates attending from around the world, 30% of whom were Australians.

While the details are pending, it’s worth considering whether the space agency could play a vital role in inspiring students to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

The broad answer to that came during a debate at the IAC this week among heads of space agencies (not including Australia – yet) on whether science comes before business, or business before science. The acting head of NASA, Robert Lightfoot, said it was neither, but in between science and business is inspiration.

And that’s the point. It is why all space agencies have education and outreach programs. Space inspires. That is why there a number of space education facilities have already sprung up in Australia, such as the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC), the Mars Lab at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, the South Australian Space School (SASS) and the CSIRO education program at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

Michael Pakakis, Director of VSSEC, has taught high school students for 32 years. He maintains:

“Take any subject and make it space-related. Engagement goes up by 100%.”

An example might be a plant biology subject and then relating that to remote sensing and what we can see from space. VSSEC, on the grounds of a high school in Victoria, has seen 100,000 students go through its facility since 2006, according to Pakakis.

VSSEC has also provided 3,000 teachers with professional development. Pakakis says teachers seek this professional development because few have been taught the skills to teach STEM in an interdisciplinary way. Space education offers the basis for an inspirational and interdisciplinary approach to STEM.

Engagement matters

Engagement is a word that is often used, but rarely defined. I have heard it said that engagement is the number of students paying attention in class and passing the subsequent test. As an evidence-based science communicator, I see engagement as half my online University of New South Wales (UNSW) astrobiology course students continuing to access the materials two months after the course has ended because they want to. Space education in Australia already attracts thousands of students – not because they are required to pay attention to pass a test, but because the students want to participate. By this definition, space education engages students in STEM.

For example, the Mars Lab at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney attracts 3,000 students a year, according to MAAS. The Mars Lab education program was partly funded by the Australian Space Research Program in 2010 and created in a partnership between UNSW, the University of Sydney and MAAS. Students create their own Mars missions in the 140 square metre Mars Yard and drive the three experimental Mars rovers from their classrooms. The video below was made by students of their experience.

Space education influences student choice in STEM

One of the papers given at the IAC was from SASS charting its own experience how space education is influential in STEM. SASS ran a survey earlier this year of program participants over the 20 years they have been running. 84% of those who responded said they had been influenced by their experience to take at least one STEM subject at university level.

CSIRO has long been convinced of the impact space education has on students in encouraging them in STEM related study and careers. It attracts tens of thousands of students and hundreds of teachers every year across a wide range of programs. The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex education program alone attracts 10,000 students a year, according to CSIRO.

Why should we care about STEM education and outreach?

We only need look at the national or international reports to know Australia suffers the same problem as other developed nations: students are not engaging in STEM subjects or skills. That’s a problem for the future, where 75% of the fastest growing occupations are predicted to need at least some STEM skills. As Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye (better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy) pointedly said at the IAC, innovation does not happen without science, or indeed STEM skills – and these drive the economy of a nation.

The Australian space agency has the opportunity to transform the way STEM is taught by building on the innovative home-grown space education programs that already exist here. These effective and successful programs enable an engaging and interdisciplinary approach to STEM education as well as critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills needed in the workplace.

The Space Agency is well positioned to engage more students in STEM

There are already a number of examples that indicate activity in primary and high school education will result in the space skilled workforce Australia needs.

Will Read is a student who was inspired by a VSSEC program and who eventually came to the Mars Yard to create an experimental Mars Rover, which was on show at the IAC. He has now completed his doctoral degree and has been snapped up by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work on a similar rover.

Read is not alone. For example, the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW has three past students at NASA. Dr Abby Allwood is the first woman and the first Australian to lead an experiment on Mars rover mission, slated for 2020. Working as one of her co-investigators in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is David Flannery. At NASA Headquarters, Dr Adrian Brown is Deputy Program Scientist for the Mars Exploration Program.

Not everyone goes overseas, either. Solange Cunin, an alumnus of the UNSW astrobiology course, now runs Cuberider. This STEM education program is aimed at educating thousands of young people in near-space satellite use.

The good news is that a substantial part of the space education infrastructure for an Australian space agency already exists, in the VSSEC, the Mars Lab, SASS and the CSIRO programs based in states around Australia.

These existing facilities are the foundation on which an Australian space agency can build a world class national STEM education and outreach program. This national space initiative has the potential to inspire thousands more Australian students to take up STEM studies.

This article was written by:

Image of Carol OliverCarol Oliver – [Deputy Director, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, UNSW]





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Baby boomer women make up for lost study time and head back to university

 We should encourage older women to  
see academic study as a fruitful, challenging way forward, regardless of age.

Statistics from the Department of Education and Training show a steady cohort of baby boomer postgraduates, mostly women, enrolling at university at the age of 60 or over.

“Why on earth are you doing that?” friends ask. “Aren’t you a bit old? Your grandchildren will feel neglected.”

An upward trend

Between 2012 and 2015, Australian universities recorded a steady stream of enrolments. The larger the university, the higher the numbers. Take Western Australia’s five universities for example:

The numbers for male postgraduates were similar, occasionally slightly lower. Available figures for 2016 do not indicate appreciable changes in enrolment numbers of males or females. Both groups may include existing academic staff, but the question remains as to why baby boomers are moving towards higher academic studies rather than retirement.

Completion rates for senior researchers indicate that whatever their reasons, they are highly successful:

The old status quo

Social changes for women since the 1950s explain a lot. Women, it seems, are reaching towards long-held but unsatisfied desires for academic study.

In 1960s Australia, only 27% of university students were female. University was not a common goal for girls in that era. They were not expected to have long careers, if any at all. Acceptable options were nursing, clerical positions, teaching or hairdressing, none of which required a degree. Young married women were asked at job interviews if they intended to become pregnant, and learned to say “no” regardless of their intentions, rather than risk failing the interview.

University was not a common pathway for a girl, but marriage was. In the same time period, 45% of girls who left formal education after secondary school were married by the time they were 20. On the flip side, only 20% of those who did attend university were married by 20.

The era’s unwritten rule was marry early, have children straight away. Once children arrived, returning to work was frowned upon. For example, one colleague waited until her children were over 18, then delayed her academic aspirations even longer to help care for grandchildren. “Family first,” she said. She was halfway through a PhD when we met, and closer to 70 years old than 60.

Social change

Since the 1960s, the status of women and the acceptability of post-marriage careers and further social changes have made university education for young women a viable option. Baby boomers who missed out are now seizing their opportunity. Their motivation is not the apprehension of retirement and subsequent loss of identity, as is the case with older male postgraduates, but rather the lure of a new phase of life. One that was out of reach before. At university, senior women are achieving in their own right, no longer functioning as complementary bodies to men as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters.

I began postgraduate research at 63. In 2015, I was among 118 women over 60 at Western Australia’s five universities who successfully completed their degrees. In Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, 373 senior women from 13 universities gained postgraduate degrees.

Studies show the intellectual, physical and emotional benefit of such challenges for older people. In 1989, UNESCO viewed academic and further education for older people as a legitimate use of higher education. In 2005 the OECD recognised the needs and aspirations of older people.

While it may still be seen as unusual for women to begin academic studies in their later years, it is not strange for women in their sixties to continue fulfilling academic careers. Academia is one place where seniors of any gender continue working until they decide to call it a day. Examples of women who do just that are easy to find: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University Mary Beard, age 62. Germaine Greer, writer and Professor at Warwick University, age 78. Curtin University’s Associate Professor Liz Byrski, age 73. The list goes on.

Senior female academics’ potential

We should encourage older women to see academic study as a fruitful, challenging way forward, regardless of age.

For the trailblazing cohort of older researchers, the question remains – is there a future for them after graduating? They can assure themselves that they are role-models to grandchildren, other women, and the wider community. Some become mentors, officially or unofficially, to younger postgraduates or they may take up sessional academic positions – but they can do and be so much more.

People are living longer. We are healthier and more active in our later years. We are told 50 is the new 40, so surely 60 can be the new 50. Baby boomer postgraduates want to participate long after they are 60. It is shortsighted not to see the social and economic benefits of this. To the universities who nurtured them, and awarded scholarships, these women are an untapped asset. They could easily become research pods of energy and output, supported by their alma maters, to the advantage of both.

This article was written by:

Image of Lesley NealeLesley Neale – [Adjunct Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Curtin University]






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When it comes to kids and social media, it’s not all bad news

Image of kids texting Parents should understand 
where the value is in social media so they can guide their kids to positive use.

While we often hear about the negative impact social media has on children, the use of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Children use it in a wide variety of ways – some of which are adding value to their lives.

There are risks associated with social media use. But it’s also important to understand where the value is, and how to guide children to get the most out of their time online.

Social media is a platform for sharing ideas, information and points of view. This can have important educational value: it extends the information young people can access while also giving them insight into how others think about and use that information.

For example, an Instagram image can give first-hand insight into how an artist today – or many artists around the world – interprets and applies Picasso’s cubist technique. This insight makes the information about Picasso real for the child. It supports a deeper understanding of his techniques, and a deeper appreciation that learning about them is worthwhile.

With so many trending topics online, young people can be exposed to “insider” knowledge across many different subjects they are familiar with, as well as introducing them to new ones.

Maximum educational benefit comes from combining factual information with shared reflection. This can support a balanced, varied and “real” input for kids, which can help deepen their understanding of a subject.

Health benefits

Research shows social media can have significant benefits for children with a medical condition.

A dedicated online Facebook group can help kids connect with others who understand and relate to their condition. This can support them with a sense of belonging, a safe space for expression, and opportunities to better understand and cope with their condition.

Social media can also raise community awareness about certain health problems. While it’s not a replacement for reliable, medically sourced information, a thought-provoking image, or first-hand Facebook account posted by someone with depression, or multiple sclerosis, can spark new thinking for others about the condition and how it affects people’s daily lives.

Sharing health information in this informal way has been found to help combat the stigma about such conditions in the community.

New social avenues

One of the benefits of using Snapchat or Instagram is that the regular online connection can help to strengthen the friendships young people have formed offline.

For those children who feel marginalised in their local community, social media can help them connect with other people who share the same interests or outlook on life.

In some cases, teenagers with critical problems can turn to social networks for fast support and guidance. There are plenty of groups that offer such help online.

Social media is also an important platform for driving social issues, such as racial issues, to greater national and international attention. For example, The Books N Bros online book club was established by an 11-year-old boy who wanted to make reading fun for kids while highlighting African-American literature.

The Black Lives Matter movement started as a Twitter hashtag before it became a major political movement and a noteworthy issue in the 2016 US presidential election.

What should parents do?

An awareness of social media’s benefits can help adults understand why technology is so attractive to young people, the potential positive uses of these online spaces, and how to talk to children about their social media use.

When approaching a conversation with kids about social media, it’s important not to have an “us-versus-them” attitude. Understanding and accepting that different generations use technology differently is a good starting point. It provides opportunities for understanding each other as technology users, to be more aware of when issues arise, and how to guide children to positive and empowering uses of technology.

This article was written by:
Image of Joanne OrlandoJoanne Orlando – [Researcher: Technology and Learning, Western Sydney University]






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How building your child’s spoken word bank can boost their capacity to read

Image of a child on a parkl bench reading Children benefit from previous 
understanding of spoken words before reading them.Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Children’s oral vocabulary – their knowledge of the sounds and meanings of words – is strongly positively associated with their reading all the way through school. Understanding this relationship is important for making children’s reading as strong as possible.

Our new research has pointed to one mechanism underlying this association: when primary school children know a spoken word, they form an expectation of what that word should look like when it is written down – and they do this even if they have never seen it before.

Using eye-tracking technology, we demonstrated that these expectations can help children to process orally familiar words more quickly when they read them for the first time.

The tech: understanding eye-tracking

Advances in technology have made it much easier to use eye-tracking with children. Unlike old systems that were mounted on participants’ heads, new systems (shown below) sit on the desk in front of the child. The eye-tracker finds a small target sticker on the child’s forehead and uses it to work out where the child’s eyes are.

Image of a child at a computer
Jo Stephan, Macquarie University, Author provided

Eye-trackers are special cameras that can follow the movement of the eyes as children read in real time. They provide information about where children look and how long they look for, giving insight into what is happening when children read.

When the properties of a written word are changed (for example, how many letters it has or how frequently it occurs in written language), this influences how easy or difficult those words are to process.

Put simply, when processing is easy, looking times are shorter. When processing is hard, looking times are longer.

The experiment: from hearing to seeing

In order to form expectations about written words that have not yet been seen, children require a combination of knowledge about:

  • the pronunciation and meaning of a spoken word; and
  • the links between the sounds in spoken words and the written letters that represent them.

The figure below illustrates that by drawing this information together, children can imagine the written form of words they cannot see.

Picture showing how vocabulary knowledge works
The formation of ‘Finch’. Author provided

We taught children in Year 4 the pronunciations and meanings of some made-up words. We told them the words were inventions coming from “Professor Parsnip’s invention factory”. Each invention had a name and a function. A “nesh”, for example, is an automatic card shuffler (see below).

During this training period children learned some new oral vocabulary but they never saw any of the words written down.

Drawing provided by the author

Later we took the words the children had learned about and some other words they hadn’t learned about, and put them into some simple sentences. We then tracked the movement of the children’s eyes as they read.

Previously heard versus previously unheard words

We found that when children had previously learned about a spoken word, they spent less time looking at it than other words they hadn’t heard about. This suggested their reading was enhanced by their previous oral vocabulary.

The time spent looking at the words they had learned about was also affected by how predictable the spellings of the words were. This revealed that children formed advance expectations about how the words were likely to be spelled.

When a word was spelled in a way that was what they expected to see, this helped their reading. For example, if the children had learned the spoken word “nesh”, we showed them the written word nesh.

Recognising nesh.

But when we showed them a word that was spelled in a way the children probably did not expect to see, the children were surprised by this and they focused on it longer. For example, the children were surprised when they learned the spoken word “coib” but we showed them the written word koyb.

Recognising koyb.

In the two videos, there is a clear difference in reading times for the unpredictably spelled word koyb and the predictably spelled word nesh.

The fact that children’s reading was affected by whether they knew the spoken form of the word and how predictably it was spelled shows that when children hear spoken words they form expectations about what those words should look like before they see them. In turn, this can help their reading.

Building oral vocabulary and boosting literacy skills

Making deposits in children’s spoken word banks – their store of words with known pronunciations and meanings – is an important and practical way of helping to support their literacy development.

Classrooms are logical places to teach children new spoken words, but parents can create learning opportunities at home too. If an unfamiliar word arises during conversation or shared book reading, perhaps try starting a dialogue by asking your child whether they have heard it before.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Signy WegenerSigny Wegener – [PhD Candidate in the Department of Cognitive Science and ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University]
Image of Anne Castles Anne Castles – [Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University]






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Electronic games: how much is too much for kids?

Image of kids playing an electronic game When played in moderation, electronic games
can be beneficial for children’s learning and development.

Most parents view their children’s playing of electronic games as potentially problematic – or even dangerous.

Concerns about electronic gaming do not stack up against the research. So, how much gaming is too much for young children?

Electronic games (also called computer or digital games) are found in 90% of households in Australia. 65% of households have three or more game devices. Given this prevalence, it’s timely to look more closely at electronic game playing and what it really means for children’s development and learning.

study of more than 3,000 children participating in the Growing Up in Australia: Longitudinal Study of Australian Children explored children’s electronic gaming. This national sample was broadly representative of the Australian population.

The study had two phases:

  • parents reported on their children’s use of electronic games when their children were eight or nine years of age; and
  • teachers reported two years later on these children’s social and emotional development and academic achievement, when the children were 10 or 11.

How much time do kids spend gaming?

As the table below shows, there was wide variation in the number of hours per week the children spent playing electronic games.

Most children (52%) played electronic games for four or fewer hours per week. But nearly one-year of the children (24%) were reported as playing electronic games for more than seven hours per week.

How much time should kids spend gaming?

Taking into account family background and parental education, the good news is that low-to-moderate use of electronic games (between two and four hours per week) had a positive effect on children’s later academic achievement.

However, over-use of electronic games (more than seven hours per week) had a negative effect on children’s social and emotional development.

Children whose parents reported they played electronic games for two-to-four hours per week were identified by their teachers as showing better literacy and mathematical skills.

Surprisingly, children who were reported as playing electronic games infrequently or not at all (less than two hours per week) did not appear to benefit in terms of literacy or mathematics achievement.

However, children whose parents reported that they played electronic games for more than one hour per day were identified two years later by their teachers as having poor attention span, less ability to stay on task, and displaying more emotional difficulties.

As the graphs below show, moderate game playing was associated with the most benefits both academically and emotionally.

Are some games better than others?

It is likely that the relationship between the use of electronic games and children’s academic and developmental outcomes is far from straightforward. The quality of electronic games and the family context play important roles.

Electronic games known as sandbox games are recognised as offering opportunities for collaboration with others while engaging in creative and problem solving activities. One of the well-known examples of a sandbox game is Minecraft.

Social interactions are important in supporting children’s engagement in electronic games. A closer examination of children’s experiences at home may be beneficial in understanding the context of gaming in everyday life.

Often viewed as a leisure activity, studies show that when parents and siblings participate in the game playing, they offer opportunities to negotiate with each other, and engage in conversations and literacy practices. All of these potentially contribute to the child’s language, literacy and social development.

It is important to note that while we know the amount of time children spent playing electronic games, we do not know the detail of the kinds of games that were being played, with whom they were being played, or even the device on which they were played.

This contextual information is clearly relevant for consideration in any further research that explores the relationship across children’s electronic game playing, learning, and wellbeing.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Sue WalkerSue Walker – [ Professor, School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology]
Image of Susan DanbySusan Danby – [ Professor of Education, Queensland University of Technology]






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Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship?

English language tests will be used 
to decide Australian citizenship.

The Australian government is proposing tough new English language competency requirements for those seeking Australian citizenship.

Alongside a test of Australian values, and proof of your integration into Australian society, you’ll need to prove you can read, write and speak English at a competent level

We’ve been here before

Question: What do these two excerpts have in common – besides their clumsy sentence structure?

  1. If the land is ploughed when wet the furrows may, and in all probability will, wear a more finished appearance, and will be more pleasant to the eye, but land so ploughed will be more inclined to become set or baked, and when in this state will not produce a maximum yield.
  2. By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.

Answer: They are both language tests used to decide Australian citizenship.

The first is a 50 word dictation test that was key to the White Australia Policy. It was used to keep non-Europeans out of Australia.

Even if you passed the test in English, the immigration officer had the right to test you again in another European language. It was used from 1901 until 1958.

The second one is 50 words from a 1000 word reading comprehension exam with 40 questions that you must complete in 60 minutes.

This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017.

Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university.

So, could you pass the test?

The reading test

You have 60 minutes to read at least four texts taken from magazines, newspapers or training manuals, and answer 40 comprehension questions. Your short answer responses are also assessed for grammar and spelling. Here is an excerpt from a piece about bee behaviour.

The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.

Try the test for yourself.

The writing test

You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. For example,

Write a letter to the accommodation officer complaining about your room mate and asking for a new room.

You are marked on the length of your response, its cohesion, vocabulary and grammar.

To give you something to gauge yourself by, this one didn’t achieve the required score of 6. It begins,

Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with my room-mate. As you know we share one room, I can not study in the room at all any more if I still stay there.

As Senator Penny Wong observed about the test,

“Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle.”

Currently our national school test results from NAPLAN show that 15.3% of Year 9 students are below benchmark in writing. This means they would not achieve a Band 6 on the IELTS test.

A fair test?

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

Learning a language takes time

Even if we conclude that tests about dancing bees and recalcitrant room-mates are fit for the purpose of assessing worthiness for citizenship – and that is surely very debatable – we must acknowledge that it is going to take a very long time for our most vulnerable aspiring citizens to reach a proficiency that will enable them to pass the test.

Currently we offer them 510 hours of free English tuition. That is at least 5 years short of what the research says is required to reach English language competency.

Testing English doesn’t teach it

The three ingredients of successful language learning are motivation, opportunity and good tuition.

The Australian government must address all three if it wishes to increase the English language proficiency of its citizens.

An English language test may appear to be a compelling motivation to learn the language, but without the opportunity to learn and excellent tuition over time, the test is not a motivation. It is an unfair barrier to anyone for whom English is not their mother tongue.

And then this new policy starts to look and feel like Australia’s old White Australia Policy.

This article was written by:

Image of Misty Adoniou

Misty Adoniou – [Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra]






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Teenagers who are both bully and victim are more likely to have suicidal thoughts

Teens as bully & victim likely to have suicidal thoughts_Heading
Teenagers who bully also have a high risk of mental health issues
Teenagers who bully also have a high risk of mental health issues

Most research into teen bullying tends to focus only on the victim. This means we know little about how the bully is affected. A new Australian study shows that teenagers who have been both a victim and a bully are at greatest risk of mental health problems, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Author provided
Author provided

Bullies are victims too

When it comes to bullying, there is a common misconception that adolescents neatly fall into a category of bully, victim, or not involved. But this is not the case.

In fact, three-quarters of the adolescents who reported that they had bullied others were also victims of bullying.

The study asked 3,500 14-to-15-year-old Australian teenagers – who were participants in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) – whether they had experienced any of 13 different types of bullying behaviour in the past month.

This included being hit or kicked on purpose, called names, or forced to do something they didn’t want to do.

The participants were asked if they had bullied anyone in the last month using the same bullying behaviours.

LSAC also included questions about whether teenagers had self-harmed, had suicidal thoughts, and whether they had made a plan to attempt suicide.

One-third of teenagers reported that they had either bullied, been a victim of bullying, or both (bully-victim).

On the whole, all three groups were more likely to report self-harm, suicidal thoughts and a plan for suicide than those who were not involved in bullying.

Among bullies only, one in ten had self-harmed and one in eight had thought about suicide in the past year.

Teenagers who were both the bully and the victim of bullying had the highest levels of self-harm (20%) and suicidal thoughts (20%).

Involvement in bullying was associated with two times the risk of self-harm and four times the risk of suicidal thoughts. This was the case even after taking into account other factors that might explain the findings, such as gender, single parent versus couple household, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

Girls more likely to be affected

Suicidal thoughts and self-harm were highest among girls involved in bullying.

More than one in three girls who were both the bully and the victim self-harmed (35%) and one in four had suicidal thoughts (26%).

The levels among boys who were bully-victims were 11% and 16% respectively.

However, even among teenagers not involved in bullying, self-harm or having suicidal thoughts were more common among girls than boys.

There were also gender differences in roles in bullying. Of those who were only victims 58% were girls, while 69% of those who were only a bully were male.

However, this is not the complete story. Boys represented a higher proportion of those who had a dual role as both a victim and a bully (61%).

Who bullies?

While we don’t know why teenagers bully, other research suggests that children who bully are more likely to exhibit “externalising behaviours”. These are defined as:

defiant, aggressive, disruptive and non-compliant behaviour.

They were also more likely to have:

  • negative thoughts, beliefs and attitudes about themselves and others
  • been negatively influenced by peers
  • lived in families where there were problems such as parental conflict.

What can be done?

Our research highlights the fact that bullying interventions must recognise the often complex nature of bullying, and particularly the multiple roles that individuals may adopt.

Targeting victims of bullying only may miss opportunities to have a broader impact on bullying.

Reducing bullying requires a multifaceted approach focusing on individuals involved, parents, teacher and school climate.

Based on the results of multiple studies, it is estimated that school-based interventions can reduce bullying behaviour by around 20%.

Extrapolating from our findings, this would lead to an 11% reduction in the proportion of students who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.

Some studies have shown that whole-of-school interventions that target school-wide rules and sanctions, teacher training, classroom curriculum, conflict-resolution training, and individual counselling yield better results than those that target only one component.

One of the other problems is that while school-based interventions may reduce bullying behaviour in the short term, the evidence for long-term behaviour change is limited.

This article was co-written by:

Anne Kavanagh
Anne Kavanagh – [Professor and Head, Gender and Women’s Health Unit, Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne]
Naomi Priest
Naomi Priest – [Fellow, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University] 
Tania King – [Research Fellow, University of Melbourne]

This piece was co-authored by Dr Rebecca Ford, an intern at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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