Can Younger Children Source Monitor With Accuracy?

Life sheltered away from the cruel realities of the child protective services legal system seems wholly straightforward. You put your best foot forward, and everything should work out reasonably.

Nothing quite disillusions you from that notion like being falsely accused of abusing a child. Suddenly, you're introduced to life in child protective services’ trenches and clenches, and the lengths you must go to clear your name.

As much as you won't want to discredit a child's words (perhaps especially your own child’s words), justice dictates that you defend yourself in whatever way possible. Unfortunately, that involves veraciously attacking reports and statements that are entirely untrue even if they're from the mouth of a young boy or girl.

It's with this aggressive and defensive mentality that you'll successfully have your name removed from the Child Abuse Central Index.

One strategy that can prove your innocence is disproving a child's ability to source monitor. Let's explore this notion further:

What is Source Monitoring?

Paraphrasing the definition from sciencedirect.org:

Source monitoring is the process a brain goes through to attribute thoughts, images and feelings to a particular origin, such as an experience the person had. The origin of the thought, image or feeling is referred to as the source.

Integral to source monitoring is the principle that memories are not “found” (or lost/nonexistent), but rather that processes the brain goes through to recall feelings, thoughts and images are attributed to a specific memory.

Memory recall is an incredible fickle thing and is easily manipulated by or dependent on context, environment, mood/emotions, supporting memories, personal beliefs, goals, motivations, and so much more.

What is a Source Monitoring Error?

A source monitoring error is when the memory source has been attributed to the incorrect specific recollected experience. It happens when limited encoding/source information or a discrepancy in the individual’s judgment processes used in source-monitoring hinder one’s ability to perceive and reflect.

This error occurs when normal perceptual and reflective processes are disrupted.

In adults, this often happens when they've been told a newsworthy tidbit from a friend, and later think they originally heard it on the local news, or from a different friend.

What is a Child's Relationship With Source Monitoring?

In a paper called "The Role of Executive Function in Children's Source Monitoring with Varying Retrieval Strategies," many pertinent issues are raised. (See Becky Earhart, Kim P. Roberts, Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, Article 405, May 2014.) The article reviews studies that were performed to examine the source-monitoring capabilities of children between 4-8.

The older children, between 7-8, were found to be much more accurate than the younger ones. The 4-6-year-olds were accurate when asked to consider sources simultaneously, as opposed to one after the other.

These findings do suggest that there is a way for younger children to source-monitor with more accuracy. However, it does prove that there are ways for them to veer off course and fail to grasp where the information comes from.

Why Do Younger Children Struggle With Source Monitoring?

The research paper referenced above offers reasons why younger children stumble with source attribution.

For example, young children fall short with inhibitory control—which is responsible for preventing irrelevant stimuli from impacting one's actions. The 4-6-year-olds in the studies improved source monitoring when given compare-and-contrast strategies, versus being given a serial (one after the other) retrieval strategy.

Furthermore, the research indicates that younger children have a comparatively more difficult time monitoring sources that are similar.

Something else worth considering is that children under six are likely focused on content consumption far more than they are the source of that information. To them, building up a knowledge base takes precedent over paying attention to where the information came from.

How Do These Factors Play a Role in Forensics?

In abuse investigations, children are frequently asked about intricate details and information about alleged transgressions. This necessitates that they be able to decipher between various incidents, especially if there was more than one occasion of abuse or an act similar to the alleged abuse (such as spanking).

When children are unsure about the source of a memory, and they experienced multiple similar events that could be the source of the memory, they will often conflate what’s happened in the various events, which jumbles up the memory recall.

How Can Source Monitoring Play a Role in Your Defense Strategy?

It might seem untoward to leverage a child's lack of ability to source monitor, but being falsely accused of a heinous action is far more egregious. Your soundest strategy is to always pick apart accusations and sources, so you can continue with your life and do away with phony and damaging allegations.