Kia ora e te whānau,
The Children’s Memory for Changing Events Project began in 2020. The overall project looks at how children remember an event that changes over time, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, and comparing the experiences of children in Canada and New Zealand. Some of the children who were interviewed a few months after the first NZ lockdown ended were interviewed a second time about a year later, to see how their memories of the first lockdown had changed. Data processing and analysis is ongoing for the overall project.
Alex’s Master’s project investigated how well children can remember and describe temporal features of an event that they have experienced. There are lots of different ways people talk about such features, such as specific dates, how long something lasted for, how often something occurred, or if something happened before or after something else.
The criminal justice system makes a lot of decisions based on information about time, and defence lawyers will often use it to cast doubt on a witness’ credibility. It is critical information to have during a criminal trial because it can reveal a timeline of what might have happened in the case, and it can allow lawyers to check the alibis of their clients. However, not much is known about how accurate children are when they’re talking about it.
So, in our study we interviewed children aged 6 to 14 about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically considered how well they recalled temporal details about the first lockdown.
Here’s what we did.
Our research assistants held two rounds of interviews around one year apart – one in 2020 and the other in 2021. During both interviews we asked the children about what they did during the 2020 lockdown in New Zealand, how life might have changed for them, and how they felt about it all. Some additional questions were asked in the second round to help us specifically consider what they could remember about temporal features of a past event.
The additional questions in round two specifically asked the children about when lockdown started and ended, how long it lasted for, and what order the different Alert Levels happened in. Other questions included asking the children to say how long ago lockdown was from the present day, what season it was during lockdown, and asking them to pick a length of time that most closely matched that of lockdown (e.g., the summer holidays vs the mid-year school holidays). The children were also asked about whether their birthday and Easter happened within, before, or after lockdown.
Because we knew the answers to all of these questions, we were able to analyse whether the children were correct or not.
Here’s what we found.
Our results showed that children were not very accurate when talking about time, with the exception of knowing when their birthday is which they did very well. We also saw that when children were asked directly about time they gave us much more information than they did in their initial (spontaneous) responses, but the accuracy of the information was very low. Finally, we found that older children generally provided more detail and were more accurate about time than younger children (but still not accurate enough that you would want to make important decisions based on that information).
An explanation for these results might be that children don’t store this type of information as part of their record of the event in memory, and are favouring the “what happened” of their experiences rather than the “when”. Another explanation might be that an adult (researcher, interviewer, police officer) has asked the child a question and they’re doing their best to answer even if they 1) don’t remember, or 2) did not experience what they’re being asked about.
This research will help us to advise professionals who question children (e.g., police officers, lawyers, health professionals) about what to expect from children when they ask them questions about time. It also highlights that just because children have answered a question, it doesn’t mean that are confident in their answer being correct.
If you’re interested to read a more in-depth description and analysis of this study, you can find Alex’s Master’s thesis here.
Our thanks for your support.
We would like to thank everyone who was involved in this research, especially the parents, caregivers and children who took part.
The Applied Developmental Psychology Lab Team
Applied Developmental Psychology Lab
School of Psychology
Victoria University of Wellington