Your baby can watch movies for science

Webcams capture kids’ screentime to explore how they see the world

A new project called Lookit allows parents and children to participate in studies with only a webcam. 

Vivienne Wang 

Smartphones, tablets and webcams have turned parents into cinematographers. Now, researchers at MIT want to harness for science that willingness to make home movies. The effort, a project called Lookit, is the latest citizen science project aimed at reaching children and parents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in scientific research.

 MIT graduate student Kim Scott hatched the idea for Lookit as she began studying how children experience the world. As a single mom who works during the day, she had trouble figuring out the logistics of bringing her own child into the lab to participate. “And I wasn’t in a particularly exotic, difficult situation,” she says. “I was just a working single mother, and working parents tend to have a hard time bringing kids in during the workweek.”

 But home videos can solve this problem by letting the home become the laboratory. Kids who live far away from a university, have caretakers who work during the day or have special needs may be able to add their data to the mix, offering researchers a more diverse slice of life.

 The process, developed over the last two years, is simple: A caretaker logs in to the Lookit website and chooses an experiment designed for their child’s age. After recording a short consent statement, they grab their kid and turn on the webcam. For the experiments, children watch a prerecorded sequence involving objects or people. Older children are asked to respond verbally to what they see. For children under two, researchers track eye movements from the videos; eye gaze can indicate preference and surprise.

Some of the experiments are designed to replicate earlier work. One of Scott’s favorite tests shows that two-year-olds can distinguish transitive verbs from intransitive ones. (Hint: The transitive verb takes a direct object, as in “The baby shakes the rattle.” The intransitive verb stands alone: “The baby laughs.”)

 “Given the decline of formal grammar education, plenty of adults in the U.S. don’t know what that means,” says Scott, “so they’re pretty startled that their two-year-old not only knows what that means in a sense but are using it to learn more about English.”

 Scott and her colleagues also have new experiments in the works. She’d like to use Lookit to study how kids think about time, and whether young children experience themselves moving through space in one direction. She’s working on a pilot video that shows a machine dropping balls into a container. In some cases, the video runs backwards, and the balls jump back up from the container into the machine. In these instances, would children expect to see fewer balls in the container at the end of the experiment? Scott and her colleagues hope to find out soon.

 Right now, Lookit has experiments for children from ages four months up to five years old. So if you’re a parent inclined to do a little baby experimentation, sign up and start shooting your own home movie.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine