Human computer interaction and child development

Children as creators and innovators
Stephen Chin, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Stephen Chin, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

In many households, children drive technology adoption and use. Grandparents get Skype to see their distant grandchildren. Parents get social media accounts to connect with their children as well as to monitor their usage. The siren’s call for new and more video games drives gift giving at the holiday season. And for many families, playing together, or watching content together can be some of the best “together” time. Within this context, we must ask ourselves: What are our children creating? How does this relate to their development, growth, and education?

Most of what we see kids creating can be thought of as “content,” and right now, content drives the Internet and the marketplace. Our social media content is how these platforms bring new users into the fold. Just as no one wanted to be the one person who hadn’t seen the latest Friends episode on Thursday nights two decades ago, no one wants to be the one person who hasn’t seen that new cat video making the rounds online.

Our content is also how these platforms make money. Analysis of what we post, view, like, and respond to, drives a variety of customer analytics that can be sold or adapted to drive ad revenue.

Norms around content generation are surprisingly variable

Children are both creating content and having it created for and about them. But norms around this content generation are surprisingly variable. As @coldnwindy posted on Twitter, “You can blame today’s 30-somethings when in twenty years’ time, everyone’s first Facebook profile pic is a blurry ultrasound scan.” Questions abound regarding the legal and ethical conundrum that might emerge were a child ever to want that picture destroyed or at least taken off the Internet as an adult. Do they own it? Is it medical data? Is it their medical data?

While such an image is bound to get hundreds if not thousands of likes, work from the University of Michigan tells us that mothers and fathers do try to avoid “oversharing.” But no one quite knows what this means just yet.

“The potential use of this content is vast and varied in our new big data world, and we may not know the full extent of this content creation for decades.”

Meanwhile, a huge market is emerging to get kids on social media sites directly. Some of these platforms are purely social (e.g., Togetherville, which no longer exists, or Giant Hello, which still does) and could be seen as a reaction to the age restrictions on other platforms, like Facebook, that requires users to be 13 or older. In other cases, these platforms are pitched to be educational, such as Club Penguin or Help Your Hero.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that kids are both socializing and creating a ton of content in the form of text messages, avatar customizations, in-world artifacts, and more. The potential use of this content is vast and varied in our new big data world, and we may not know the full extent of this content creation for decades.

New platforms are also enormous playgrounds and places of learning

Although estimates indicate that social media platforms have millions of data points on every user, these platforms are not just massive data harvesting engines for serving marketing, political, or surveillance purposes. They are also playgrounds and places of learning, in which children test their boundaries, experiment with socialization, and learn sophisticated computational skills. My niece has taught herself more sophisticated video editing than many of the college students I mentor, and she is 12.

Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito and colleagues describe this phenomenon as “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.” In this model, kids first go online to socialize, perhaps to find a peer group who feels more comfortable for them than the ones who are local or perhaps even to spend time with friends they see every day in the neighborhood or at school. Particularly for kids who are vulnerable, having safe spaces to spend time with people who “get” them can be essential to healthy development.

“This kind of tinkering can spur learning and open new opportunities for exploration.”

Within this safe space, then, children may start “messing around” with ideas, information, media, and new technologies. This kind of tinkering can spur learning and open new opportunities for exploration. Finally, children may begin “geeking out” on a particular platform, learning to build advanced Minecraft cities or create professional quality YouTube videos. The support of their peers through these online environments can feed yet more investment into their skill development and sharing of the content they create.

Kids as important part of the Maker Movement and as app developers

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about content, and as they say “content is King.” However, kids create a lot more than just content. Children are a growing and important part of the “Maker Movement.” This is about DIY, upcycling, and leveraging the tools and materials around you with important know-how. We had success years ago getting young Latinas to see themselves as engineers using the PicoCrickets kits.

However, not everyone can spend the kind of money it takes to work with these kinds of kits. An exciting change in making for STEM learning is the kind of work done by Garnet Hertz using broken toys to teach kids “circuit bending,” or the work done by Yvonne Rogers, Nicolai Marquardt et al. to make a programmable cube for under 1 GBP. These advances promise to democratize the maker movement, opening it up to kids from all backgrounds and enhancing their learning opportunities.

“The app stores and websites on our devices are immensely democratizing platforms for youth. The tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are still in primary school today.”

Finally, children are creators of commercially viable technologies. I wrote my first program at seven years old. It didn’t do much, and I had to handwrite it out on a yellow legal pad with my big sister’s help before I could type it into our Apple IIE.

Seeing the output of my program come across the screen is a feeling I will never forget. I can only imagine the kind of thrill that kids must feel today, not only seeing the output of their applications, but being able to place them into app stores to be sold.

“We can watch and learn from them as they use technologies in ways we may never have imagined.”

In one such success story, a boy named Ethan taught himself to code on Codecademy and parlayed that into successful software and a speaking gig at South by Southwest (SXSW), all before he was 12 years old. And then there is the Australian teenager who built an app, sold it, and moved to New York to live on his own. Fundamentally, the app stores and websites on our devices are immensely democratizing platforms for youth. Not everyone is going to be a millionaire app developer, but it’s a whole lot easier now than when a computer took up an entire floor of a building. The tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are still in primary school today.

In summary, children are creators of digital content, devices, and even commercial systems. As educators, researchers, and parents, we can leverage this to help them play, learn, and bring exciting new ideas to life. We can also watch and learn from them as they use technologies in ways we may never have imagined.

 

More:

Gillian R. Hayes’ series of posts about four areas of human-computer interaction and child development:

References:

Voida, A., & Greenberg, S. (2009). Wii all play: the console game as a computational meeting place. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1559-1568). ACM.

Alexander, A. (1994). The effect of media on family interactionMedia, children, and the family: Social scientific, psychodynamic, and clinical perspectives, 51-59.

Ammari, T., et al. (2015). Managing children’s online identities: How parents decide what to disclose about their children online. In CHI’15 (pp. 1895-1904).

Ito, M., et al. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. MIT press.

Marcu, G., et al. (2010). Design and evaluation of a computer science and engineering course for middle school girls. In ACM SIGCSE (pp. 234-238). ACM.

Hertz, G., et al. (2014). Toy Hacking: Preliminary Results in Creative Electronic Workshops for Informal Science Education. FabLearn 2014. Stanford University.