Batman stared at the screen, his eyes starting to glaze over. He’d been working for what felt like an eternity, but knew he had to resist the tempting trap his nemesis had left for him. A purple and green iPad, conspicuously placed next to the computer so that Batman couldn’t possibly miss it. Despite the relief and mystery promised by the device, Batman knew he couldn’t give up on his work. He only had a few more minutes before it’d all be over…
Researchers have found that, unfortunately, even Batman, or a child emulating him, can’t resist temptation for long. A study looking at the perseverance of four- to six-year-olds actually found that nobody can resist an iPad for too long, especially if it’s loaded with games. However, by getting helping kids establish different mental contexts for themselves, such as pretending to be Batman, researchers found that kids can extend the limits of their self-control.
In this experiment, 180 kids were all asked to work at an intentionally dull task for ten minutes in a room by themselves. That might be tough on its own, but to really test kids’ self-control, an iPad was left for them as well, creating a strong temptation to give up on their boring assignment. The iPad eventually grabbed the attention of every participant, but the prompts each child was given before and during the ten-minute test period made a big difference in how long kids could stay on task.
Strategies to stick with a tiresome task
While every child had been told that the boring task was important, the first group was also instructed to ask themselves if they felt they were working hard as time progressed. That question wasn’t terribly inspiring, and these kids spent more time, over six minutes, using the iPads instead of doing their work. The second group of kids was told to do the same thing, but from a third-person perspective. Instead of asking “am I working hard,” they needed to ask “is [child’s name] working hard?” This strategy is called “self-distancing,” based on the idea that if kids could mentally remove themselves from the situation, and the probably enjoyment of the iPad in particular, it would be easier to ignore that temptation.
The third group not only did some “self-distancing,” but were told to adopt a whole other person’s persona while they worked. Kids were prompted to emulate Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer, or Bob the Builder, then given a costume piece to help them really get into their role. While they worked, they were reminded to ask “Is Batman working hard?” to which the answer was often (but not always) “yes!” Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t offer a fourth round of characters that were more neutral in the kids eyes (“Is Mommy’s coworker working hard?”) so it’s hard to say how much of the increased focus was due to emulating a character’s imagined work-ethic, and how much was the self-distancing effect. However, since even speaking of one’s self in the third-person made some improvements in kids’ work-times, it’s safe to assume that getting out of one’s own shoes helped keep the iPads out of kids’ hands.
My third-grader asked: Did they do this with older kids? I would have wanted them to ask us to be Harry Potter.
The kids were between ages four and six, which was pretty significant. The six-year-olds naturally did better on the boring task, holding out for five minutes on average, versus the two-and-a-half minutes four-year-olds worked.
Also, Harry Potter? Not Hermione, the hardest working character in the Potterverse? Really?
Source: New research finds that kids aged 4-6 perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman by Jenny Anderson, World Economic Forum