International Perspectives: Valuing the everyday roles played by families in children’s digital media practices at home

By Fiona Scott

Archie and Beth explore the Nina and the Neurons game

It’s a scorching summer day in a UK city and I am visiting three-year-old Archie and his mum, Beth. Archie kneels on the floor, his hands close to the tablet’s screen, while Beth sits on the sofa, the tablet resting slightly against her knee. To the left of the screen, a robot is sitting on a block floor. A wall is obstructing the robot’s path to a star. Archie’s hand appears, pointing to the star. Archie retracts his finger, then it reappears, pointing upwards, as he speaks: There! Beth’s hand extends, her finger pointing to an orange arrow button: Press this one. Archie’s finger follows his mum’s direction. See what you’ve got to do, Beth suggests. Archie taps the orange arrow and three new ‘option’ buttons appear. Archie’s finger immediately heads towards the screen to tap, but his mum’s hand gently intercepts: What’s he got to do? Has he got to open a door, or has he got to go little diddy? As Beth releases his hand, Archie’s finger hovers over the options, gravitating towards the right hand button, which depicts a shrinking robot. Beth affirms: He’s got to go little diddy, an’t he? Touching the ‘shrink’ button, Archie’s finger produces a diminished robot, who progresses past the wall, activating a series of beeping, exploding stars as it grows back to its former size.

A smile appears on Archie’s face. He leans up onto his knees, his torso twisting towards Beth, arms out. She is smiling, looking into his face. Her hand reaches behind his back as he excitedly says: He got a na-da-wun! Archie’s arms stretch behind his mum’s neck, pulling her towards him for a hug as she replies: Yeah, he got another star! The robot rolls onto a finish pad. The game’s narrator adds its own affirmation: Brilliant! 

Valuing digital media practices in family life

Despite historic changes in the digital media appetites of young children, a persistent feature of parenting advice has been caution. Radio, television, digital games and social media have all been subject to scrutiny from parenting experts. In recent years, however, several shifts appear to signal increasing mainstream enthusiasm for certain digital practices. In 2016, the American Psychological Association endorsed screen time for infants under 18 months for the first time, albeit only in the form of video chatting. A well-publicised recent study linked playing video games in childhood with an increase in intelligence.

It is tempting to be drawn into a debate balancing the perceived educational benefits and broader risks. As a parent and a scholar, it is reassuring to see increasing acknowledgement that various forms of digital media engagement hold benefits, even for young children. Playing Minecraft has been shown to enhance learning and playing with various tablet apps to support the development of digital skills. Nonetheless, it sometimes feels that the way we, as a society, value children’s digital media practices has become increasingly instrumental, that is to say, they can be celebrated only when they bring about some measurable educational benefit.

My fieldwork with Archie and Beth, alongside many other families, suggested important ways that families engage with preschool children’s digital media practices in support of educational benefits. And yet, reading (and valuing) such a compelling moment in purely educational terms misses something. Digital play supports meaningful connectionsbetween children and their peers and families. Children and their families also find comfort in digital game play, particularly in difficult times.

Family mediation of children’s digital media use

My own recently published study identified five ways that members of preschool children’s families engage with their digital media practices resulting in positive outcomes that include, but span beyond, formal learning opportunities.

1. Children’s family members actively initiate preschool children’s engagements with particular digital media texts and devices

Families were motivated by a desire to share current digital media passions, or television shows and video games from their own childhoods. Such collaborative digital engagement represents a form of closeness and intergenerational sharing, supportive of children’s well-being. Others chose apps and games they perceived to be educational, motivated by a desire to support their children’s formal skills development. Children in the study developed skills including literacy and numeracy, as a result.

2. They facilitate children’s engagements with new digital experiences in response to their requests, or support the continuation of existing passions

Past studies have framed parents’ indulgence of children’s digital passions in terms of ‘pester power’, hinting at a losing battle of wills. My study suggested that families’ motivations for facilitating children’s digital pursuits were more complicated and the outcomes more diverse. Some noticed their children’s sustained interest in a media text, such as the Doc McStuffins television show, and took pleasure in deepening their interest and diversifying their opportunities for play by providing related toys, like the Doc McStuffins doctor’s bag. Others were motivated by a sense of equity with other children, not wanting their children to ‘miss out’.

3. They scaffold their children’s digital and non-digital skills in relation to digital media

As in Archie’s case, families worked closely to support their children to develop digital and non-digital skills. Though language development and particular operational digital skills within a coding game were both supported in this example, it is also clear that scaffolding is supportive of children’s well-being, strengthening children’s sense of competence and positive family relationships.

4. They extend their existing digital media interests into other digital and non-digital activities 

In parent–child story book reading research, it is well established that parents extend children’s knowledge by giving additional information, asking questions or initiating extended conversations. My study suggested the same is true in family-child digital media engagement. When four-year-old John’s grandfather became aware that John and his brother James (7) were interested in a video game called Castle Crashers, he encouraged the boys to go online with him and find printable 3D nets of the game’s characters. They printed these off, cut, coloured and assembled them, before playing with them together. Many positive outcomes of extending practices were evident, with children developing literacy and STEM skills, amongst others.

5. They relate children’s digital media interests to other things

Families contextualised and deepened children’s understanding in relation to their digital media interests, for example, relating a storyline about the character ‘Mumble’ in the film Happy Feet to a child’s experiences of children feeling ‘different’ in kindergarten. This attention to characters’ inner emotional worlds supports young children’s social and emotional development. Others helped children to understand and contextualise the meaning of digital texts within their own lives. Three-year-old Niyat’s mother often showed her daughter films from her own baptism and other important events. In doing so, she supported Niyat’s ongoing identity construction and understanding of her life history.

The case for enjoying digital play together

In presenting these examples, my aim is not to add to the list of things contemporary families are told they must do. Rather, it is to highlight the very ordinary ways families are already engaging with children’s digital media use in positive ways, some of which they may not be aware of. It is also to encourage families to take pleasure in their children’s digital media interests, whilst also acknowledging the challenges they present. I am delighted to be involved in ongoing research on children’s digital play and their well-being, the initial findings of which I hope to share in the near future.

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