UMD’s KidTalk Scrapbook combines family fun and research
By Julia Kyles
It’s a free activity for parents and children. It’s a way to record an important part of a child’s development. It’s an opportunity for families to become citizen scientists. It’s the KidTalk Scrapbook project (kidtalkscrapbook.org), and the principal researchers are eager for more families to participate. To sign up, an adult simply creates an account on the KidTalk app, which does not ask for personal information, and reviews and signs the consent form. Then comes the fun, interesting, citizen-science part: Parents use short recordings of their kids to create shareable language scrapbooks.
The project, which went live on June 9, is collecting information about how changes brought by the pandemic — closures, social distancing, long periods at home and more – may be affecting children’s language development.
“Language connects our thoughts with words that connect with other people,” says Yi Ting Huang, Ph.D, a University of Maryland professor and head of the university’s Language and Cognition Lab. Huang is one of the project’s principal investigators, along with Joshua Hartshorne, Ph.D, a professor who leads Boston College’s Language Learning Lab.
The app gives parents a great deal of control over how, and how much, of their recordings are shared. “They can have the data stay with the research team, or recordings can be deposited in [an] online scientific platform. You can also tag individual recordings as private,” so the researchers can’t access them at all, Hartshorne noted.
There are several ways to create and share a scrapbook, and the KidTalk website provides detailed instructions. You can make new recordings through the app or submit recordings that you already have, including recordings made before the pandemic started. You can edit recordings, write descriptions and use the app’s clipart to decorate your scrapbook. You can share the scrapbook with friends and family, just as you would using other social media apps, Hartshorne says. Another option is to “tag the different people in different conversations,” Huang says.
The website offers tips if you need ideas for making recordings. Suggestions include asking your child to talk about their favorite food or an animal they like, or to describe a picture. Huang and Hartshorne also shared some of the ways they use the app with their own children.
“What I do is put my phone on the table during dinner and record dinner conversations. It’s fun to listen to,” Hartshorne says.
“My daughter does a lot of narration of wordless picture books … they’re a lot of fun,” Huang says. Links to free ebooks are in the tips section of the website, along with ideas for how a child can use a book, based on their age.
KidTalk is designed to work like a social media platform, but there are some key differences. “If you’re using our platform, it’s like social media, only we aren’t selling … ads,” Hartshorne says.
More importantly, KidTalk does not collect personal information such as full names, addresses or birthdates – parents are asked to enter only the month and year of a child’s birth. Researchers can’t see the email addresses or other accounts (like Google or Facebook) that participants use to sign in to the app, and the electronic signature on the consent form is also hidden. “We’ve done everything we can to make sure we don’t have your information,” Hartshorne says.
One significant difference between the KidTalk app and every other social media app is that KidTalk had to be reviewed and approved by an ethics board before it could be released to the public, Harthorne noted.
Children who are one to eight are the focus of the study because that is when language changes the most, but Huang and Hartshorne stress that the study is open to all children, including children who live in multilingual households and children with speech delay, autism or other diagnoses that may impact their language development or abilities.
“We want everyone,” said Huan, who hopes more families take advantage of a free and important online activity.