Frequently Asked Questions

Participation

Cognitive development is the science of what kids understand and how they learn. Researchers in cognitive development are interested in questions like...

  • what knowledge and abilities infants are born with, and what they have to learn from experience
  • how abilities like mathematical reasoning are organized and how they develop over time
  • what strategies children use to learn from the wide variety of data they observe

A study is meant to answer a very specific question about how children learn or what they know: for instance, "Do three-month-olds recognize their parents' faces?"

If you have a child and would like to participate, create an account and take a look at what we have available for your child's age range. You'll need a working webcam to participate.

When you select a study, you'll be asked to read a consent form and record yourself stating that you and your child agree to participate. Then we'll guide you through what will happen during the study. Depending on your child's age, your child may answer questions directly or we may be looking for indirect signs of what she thinks is going on--like how long she looks at a surprising outcome.

Some portions of the study will be automatically recorded using your webcam and sent securely to the Lookit platform. Trained researchers will watch the video and record your child's responses--for instance, which way he pointed, or how long she looked at each image. We'll put these together with responses from lots of other children to learn more about how kids think!

Any researcher with questions about how kids learn and grow can propose a Lookit study! Each institution using Lookit has to sign a contract with MIT where they agree to the Terms of Use and certify that their studies will be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board. Studies are also subject to approval by Lookit. As of June 2020 we have agreements with 20 universities!

Rather than having the parent or legal guardian sign a form, we ask that you read aloud (or sign in ASL) a statement of consent which is recorded using your webcam. This statement holds the same weight as a signed form, but should be less hassle for you. It also lets us verify that you understand written English and that you understand you're being videotaped.

Researchers watch these consent videos on a special page of the researcher interface, and record for each one whether the video shows informed consent. They cannot view other video or download data from a session unless they have confirmed that you consented to participate! If they see a consent video that does NOT clearly demonstrate informed consent--for instance, there was a technical problem and there's no audio--they may contact you to check, depending on your email settings.

Researchers using Lookit agree to uphold a common set of standards about how data is protected and shared. For instance, they never publish children's names or birthdates, or information that could be used to calculate a birthdate.

The Lookit researcher interface is designed with participant data protection as the top priority. For instance, a special interface lets researchers confirm consent videos before they are able to download any other data from your session. Research groups can control who has access to what data in a very fine-grained way, for instance allowing an assistant to confirm consent and send gift cards, but not download study data.

All of your data, including video, is transmitted over a secure HTTPS connection to Lookit storage, and is encrypted at rest. We take security very seriously; in addition to making sure any software we use is up-to-date, cloud servers are configured securely, and unit tests cover checking that accessing data requires correct permissions, we conducted a risk assessment and detailed manual penetration testing with a security contractor prior to our 2020 launch.

See also 'Who will see our video?'

Lookit staff at MIT will have access to your video and other data in order to improve and promote the platform and help with troubleshooting. The researchers running the study you participated in will also have access to your video and other data (like responses to questions during the study, and information you fill out when registering a child) for research purposes. They will watch the video segments you send to mark down information specific to the study--for instance, what your child said, or how long he/she looked to the left versus the right of the screen. This research group may be at MIT or at another institution. All studies run on Lookit must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that ensures participants' rights and welfare are protected. All researchers using Lookit also agree to Terms of Use that govern what data they can share and what sorts of studies are okay to run on Lookit; these rules are sometimes stricter than their own institution might be.

Whether anyone else may view the video depends on the privacy settings you select at the end of the study. There are two decisions to make: whether to share your data with Databrary, and how to allow your video clips to be used by the researchers you have selected.

First, we ask if you would like to share your data (including video) with authorized users fo the secure data library Databrary. Data sharing will lead to faster progress in research on human development and behavior. Researchers who are granted access to the Databrary library must agree to treat the data with the same high standard of care they would use in their own laboratories. Learn more about Databrary's mission or the requirements for authorized users.

Next, we ask what types of uses of your video are okay with you.

  • Private This privacy level ensures that your video clips will be viewed only by authorized scientists (Lookit staff, the research group running the study and, if you have opted to share your data with Databrary, authorized Databrary users.) They will view the videos to record information about what your child did during the study--for instance, looking for 9 seconds at one image and 7 seconds at another image.
  • Scientific and educational This privacy level gives permission to share your video clips with other researchers or students for scientific or educational purposes. For example, researchers might show a video clip in a talk at a scientific conference or an undergraduate class about cognitive development, or include an image or video in a scientific paper. In some circumstances, video or images may be available online, for instance as supplemental material in a scientific paper. Sharing videos with other researchers helps other groups trust and build on our work.
  • Publicity This privacy level is for families who would be excited to see their child featured on the Lookit website or in the news! Selecting this privacy level gives permission to use your video clips to communicate about developmental studies and the Lookit platform with the public. For instance, we might post a short video clip on the Lookit website, on our Facebook page, or in a press release. Your video will never be used for commercial purposes.

If for some reason you do not select a privacy level, we treat the data as 'Private' and do not share with Databrary. Participants also have the option to withdraw all video besides consent at the end of the study if necessary (for instance, because someone was discussing state secrets in the background), and in this case it is automatically deleted. Privacy settings for completed sessions cannot automatically be changed retroactively. If you have any questions or concerns about privacy, please contact our team at lookit@mit.edu.

For children under about two years old, we usually design our studies to let their eyes do the talking! We're interested in where on the screen your child looks and/or how long your child looks at the screen rather than looking away. Our calibration videos (example shown below) help us get an idea of what it looks like when your child is looking to the right or the left, so we can code the rest of the video.

Here's an example of a few children watching our calibration video--it's easy to see that they look to one side and then the other.

Your child's decisions about where to look can give us lots of information about what he or she understands. Here are some of the techniques labs use to learn more about how children learn.

Habituation

In a habituation study, we first show infants many examples of one type of object or event, and they lose interest over time. Infants typically look for a long time at the first pictures, but then they start to look away more quickly. Once their looking times are much less than they were initially, we show either a picture from a new category or a new picture from the familiar category. If infants now look longer to the novel example, we can tell that they understood--and got bored of--the category we showed initially.

Habituation requires waiting for each individual infant to achieve some threshold of "boredness"--for instance, looking half as long at a picture as he or she did initially. Sometimes this is impractical, and we use familiarization instead. In a familiarization study, we show all babies the same number of examples, and then see how interested they are in the familiar versus a new category. Younger infants and those who have seen few examples tend to show a familiarity preference--they look longer at images similar to what they have seen before. Older infants and those who have seen many examples tend to show a novelty preference--they look longer at images that are different from the ones they saw before. You probably notice the same phenomenon when you hear a new song on the radio: initially you don't recognize it; after it's played several times you may like it and sing along; after it's played hundreds of times you would choose to listen to anything else.

Violation of expectation

Infants and children already have rich expectations about how events work. Children (and adults for that matter) tend to look longer at things they find surprising, so in some cases, we can take their looking times as a measure of how surprised they are.

Preferential looking

Even when they seem to be passive observers, children are making lots of decisions about where to look and what to pay attention to. In this technique, we present children with a choice between two side-by-side images or videos, and see if children spend more time looking at one of them. We may additionally play audio that matches one of the videos. The video below shows a participant looking to her left when asked to "find clapping"; the display she's watching is shown at the top.

Predictive looking

Children can often make sophisticated predictions about what they expect to see or hear next. One way we can see those predictions in young children is to look at their eye movements. For example, if a child sees a ball roll behind a barrier, she may look to the other edge of the barrier, expecting the ball to emerge there. We may also set up artificial predictive relationships--for instance, the syllable "da" means a toy will appear at the left of the screen, and "ba" means a toy will appear at the right. Then we can see whether children learn these relationships, and how they generalize, by watching where they look when they hear a syllable.

Older children may simply be able to answer spoken questions about what they think is happening. For instance, in a recent study, two women called an object two different made-up names, and children were asked which is the correct name for the object.

Another way we can learn about how older children (and adults) think is to measure their reaction times. For instance, we might ask you to help your child learn to press one key when a circle appears and another key when a square appears, and then look at factors that influence how quickly they press a key.

Traditionally, developmental studies happen in a quiet room in a university lab. Researchers call or email local parents to see if they'd like to take part and schedule an appointment for them to come visit the lab. Why complement these in-lab studies with online ones? We're hoping to...

  • Make it easier for you to take part in research, especially for families without a stay-at-home parent
  • Work with more kids when needed--right now a limiting factor in designing studies is the time it takes to recruit participants
  • Draw conclusions from a more representative population of families--not just those who live near a university and are able to visit the lab during the day.
  • Make it easier for families to continue participating in longitudinal studies, which may involve multiple testing sessions separated by months or years
  • Observe more natural behavior because children are at home rather than in an unfamiliar place
  • Create a system for learning about special populations--for instance, children with specific developmental disorders
  • Make the procedures we use in doing research more transparent, and make it easier to replicate our findings
  • Communicate with families about the research we're doing and what we can learn from it

The process of publishing a scientific study, from starting data collection to seeing the paper in a journal, can take several years. You can check the Lookit home page for updates on papers, or set your communication preferences to be notified when we have results from studies you participated in.

Certainly--thanks for your dedication! You may see a warning that you have already participated in the study when you go to try it again, but you can ignore it. You don't need to tell us that you tried the study before; we'll have a record of your previous participation.

Sure! We may not be able to use his or her data in our research directly, but if you're curious you're welcome to try the study anyway. (Sometimes big siblings really want their own turn!) If your child is just below the minimum age for a study, however, we encourage you to wait so that we'll be able to use the data.

For study eligibility, we usually use the child's chronological age (time since birth), even for premature babies. If adjusted age is important for a particular study, we will make that clear in the study eligibility criteria.

Sure! Right now, instructions for children and parents are written only in English, so some of them may be confusing to a child who does not hear English regularly. However, you're welcome to try any of the studies and translate for your child if you can. If it matters for the study whether your child speaks any languages besides English, we'll ask specifically. You can also indicate the languages your child speaks or is learning to speak on your demographic survey.

Of course! We're interested in how all children learn and grow. If you'd like, you can make a note of any developmental disorders in the comments section at the end of the study. We are excited that in the future, online studies may help more families participate in research to better understand their own children's diagnoses.

One note: most of our studies include both images and sound, and may be hard to understand if your child is blind or deaf. If you can, please feel free to help out by describing images or signing.

If possible, we ask that each child participate separately. When children participate together they generally influence each other. That's a fascinating subject in its own right but usually not the focus of our research.

We agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics advice that children learn best from people, not screens! However, our studies are not intended to educate children, but to learn from them.

As part of a child's limited screen time, we hope that our studies will foster family conversation and engagement with science that offsets the few minutes spent watching a video instead of playing. And we do "walk the walk"--our own young children provide lots of feedback on our studies!

Some research groups provide gift cards or other compensation for completing their studies, and others rely on volunteers. (This often depends on the rules of the university that's doing the research.) This information will be listed on the study description page.

For some studies, yes! Usually, developmental researchers only interpret children's abilities and developmental trends at a group level, and the individual data collected just isn't very interpretable. But for "Your baby, the physicist" and other longitudinal studies (where you come back for more than one session), we can sometimes collect enough data to give you a report of your child's responses after you complete all the sessions.

Please note that none of the measures we collect are diagnostic! For instance, while we hope you'll be interested to learn that your child looked 70% of the time at videos where things fell up versus falling down, we won't be able to tell you whether this means your child is going to be especially good at physics.

If you're interested in getting individual results right away, please see our Resources section for fun at-home activities you can try with your child.

Technical

Lookit supports recent versions of Chrome and Firefox. We are not currently able to support Internet Explorer or Safari.

Not yet! Because we're measuring kids' looking patterns, we need a reasonably stable view of their eyes and a big enough screen that we can tell whether they're looking at the left or the right side of it. We're excited about the potential for touchscreen studies that allow us to observe infants and toddlers exploring, though!