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Professor Helps Launch Platform for Online Developmental Psychology Studies

When COVID-19 mitigation measures put the brakes on face-to-face cognitive development research across the country, a half-dozen developmental psychologists united to create a way to bring their work online — potentially altering their field beyond the pandemic pause.

University of Texas at Dallas psychologist Dr. Candice Mills is one of six scientists from six U.S. universities coast to coast who joined forces to launch the Children Helping Science project, which is designed to increase participation in online developmental psychology studies.

Mills, an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, described the website as a venue where families can view a large database of ongoing research projects from universities around the world to find studies about child development that they can do from home.

Dr. Candice Mills

Every study listed has been approved by a safety and ethics committee associated with the university running the study and has been designed by researchers to be fun for children.

“Some studies involve children listening to stories and answering questions. Others involve children doing things like drawing or listening to music. There are even studies for babies that involve age-appropriate activities, like playing with toys or learning new words,” Mills said. “Though these are playful, normal activities, they have been carefully constructed to measure something about child development.”

While several researchers around the country had been working independently on smaller-scale solutions of this sort, the pandemic helped their efforts coalesce into a single resource.

“Prior to the pandemic, some researchers were already conducting studies online with children. For instance, Dr. Laura Schulz and her team at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) had been working on online studies with babies to understand how they think about the physical world, like the rules for how objects can move,” Mills said. “Meanwhile, my research group had gone online to find participants for a study about Santa Claus. We were working with children between the ages of 6 and 17 whose thinking about Santa Claus had changed over time. But most teams were working separately.”

When the pandemic shut down face-to-face interactions, these psychology researchers were “motivated to go into overdrive to create a unified platform for sharing online research,” Mills said.

“Traditionally, developmental studies have happened in person at study sites like university campuses. But this has always had drawbacks,” she said. “Not everyone wants to come to a university to participate in research, for instance. So we asked ourselves: How can we create a resource that will be useful both for researchers and for families?”

Children Helping Science

The Children Helping Science website offers families an opportunity to participate in a variety of online developmental psychology studies conducted by many universities.

Frequently asked questions

Find studies for specific age groups

Previously, researchers seeking participants tended to share their studies through their own lab’s social media, which would reach families who were geographically nearby and had previously participated in lab-based research.

“By having a website that shares research opportunities from many different labs, researchers can recruit both locally and globally,” Mills said. “So a family in, say, Dallas might participate in one study from UT Dallas, one from Stanford and one from Rutgers, all from the comfort of their home.”

Online recruiting can also provide a much greater chance for a more diverse study population.

“We recognize that not everyone is able to come to labs on university campuses,” she said. “But many people have access to computers and mobile devices. Moving child development studies online can make research involvement more accessible and appealing to a broader audience.”

Mills explained that the Children Helping Science group has both short-term and long-term goals.

“In the short term, this resource can make science function more effectively,” she said. “Researchers can reach children outside of their institution’s neighborhood, while families gain an interesting way to learn about science and be part of the process without having to get exposed to germs.

“Longer term, we are exploring ways to create a large, collaborative infrastructure for online research. One significant goal of this infrastructure is to make it possible to track and understand development over time in ways that have not previously been possible.”

The resources on the website also serve to introduce families to the research process and answer initial questions they may have.

“By having a website that shares research opportunities from many different labs, researchers can recruit both locally and globally. So a family in, say, Dallas might participate in one study from UT Dallas, one from Stanford and one from Rutgers, all from the comfort of their home.”

Dr. Candice Mills, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

“Parents sometimes feel uncertain about what to expect from child-development research, especially online,” Mills said. “So we encourage parents to explore the website to find out more. There are brief descriptions about each study posted there for now, with more specific details provided by the researchers. In time, we plan on adding additional features to the website, like an overview video to help explain what it’s like to participate in online research.”

She added that study sessions can be scheduled at parents’ convenience, and that many studies take less than half an hour to complete. The motto for the project — “Fun for families, serious for science” — emphasizes the benefits on both sides of the equation.

“While children are doing enjoyable activities similar to what they might do in everyday life, they are providing important insight into children’s thinking,” Mills said. “Researchers can look at patterns of thinking between children and across studies to answer questions about developmental change and to develop effective strategies for education.

“Children are incredibly powerful learners. And in some cases, the more we understand about how children grow and learn, the more we understand about ourselves.”

In addition to Mills and Schulz, the Parent Researcher Collaborative behind Children Helping Science includes Dr. Elizabeth Bonawitz at Rutgers University – Newark, Dr. Hyowon Gweon at Stanford University, Dr. Julian Jara-Ettinger at Yale University and Dr. Mark Sheskin at Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].