On November 7 and 8, 2018, a cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary group of 60 experts met at the Future of Childhood Salon on Immersive Media and Child Development, a convening hosted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, Dubit, and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and School for the Future of Innovation and Society. Together, participants delved into hands-on future-oriented design thinking exercises, gave spark talks, engaged in thoughtful discussions, and reflected deeply about immersive media (i.e., augmented, virtual, mixed, and cross reality) and young children, including the opportunities and challenges as well as potential risk and benefits for kids engaging with immersive hardware, software, and content.
This convening comes at a pivotal time: currently, immersive media hardware—like Nintendo Labo’s VR Kit, Google Cardboard, and Oculus Rift—plus software and content—like Snapchat and Niantic’s Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite—are becoming more popular, affordable, and accessible for consumers, including families and children. Yet, many VR, AR, and MR developers still recommend that children under age 13 not engage with their systems and content. At this point in time, we do not fully know the effects of these media for younger children.
Therefore, our goal is to better understand how younger children might productively and safely engage with immersive media before they are in every family’s home. What might immersive media inspire and allow children to do that was impossible before? What dangers for children’s growth and learning might come with blurring reality with immersive engagement? We want to have these types of questions answered by taking into account the affordances and possible pitfalls of immersive hardware, software, and content in addition to considering children’s social-emotional, physical, and cognitive development; their diverse lives and the contexts in which they engage with technologies, like when, where, and with whom; and ethical and equity issues that might arise as immersive media become more prevalent in our lives.
With this goal in mind, the approach of the Future of Childhood salon was future-oriented. Participants looked 10 years into the future to allow themselves to share ideas without worrying about the technological details and constraints of today, or even tomorrow. Rather than getting stuck in dystopian or utopian extremes, they envisioned positive futures together, grounded in the knowledge, practice, and pragmatism of the participants and inspired by their creativity. Participants looked for opportunities where using immersive media would empower children to play, connect, and learn in new ways, while taking into consideration where engagement with these technologies may be harmful or might not make sense.
Using this framing, the salon involved small-group hands-on activities like creating first-person narratives and timelines of important world events; deep reflections on positive, negative, intended, and unintended consequences of immersive media; short presentations on the current state of research and practice; and discussions about the research, policy, practice, and fundraising that may need to occur in the near future.
While I synthesized the event activities and what came out of them in a report in more detail, here, I want to point out a few key thematic areas from the one-and-a-half day meeting: considerations for immersive media design; crafting a research agenda; and exploring priorities for policy, advocacy, and funding. Participants at the salon made clear that in both (1) designing immersive media and (2) developing a research agenda, we need to:
- focus on developmental appropriateness: What are the physical and psychological implications of engagement with these media? Is this engagement the right medium for the messages we’re trying to send to children?
- target diverse populations, particularly those who are underserved to address issues of equity; and
- consider the contexts where children, families, and other people in children’s lives (peers, librarians, teachers, etc.) play, learn, interact, and connect and how.
For policy, advocacy, and funding, we need to ensure:
- children’s safety and privacy with these media,
- that parents and other adults can make informed choices about how they use these media with their children, and
- that we raise money to conduct productive research in this domain.
We hope that by starting this conversation now, we—developers, designers, researchers, educators, pediatricians, policy experts, philanthropists, and more—individually and collectively can begin the first steps toward proactively shaping an aspirational future of childhood, where children can engage with immersive media positively, productively, and safely.
For more information, read the full report on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website.
Guest post by Kiley Sobel
Kiley Sobel is a Research Scientist at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she focuses on the responsible, inclusive, and equitable design of and standards for emerging technologies and new media for children to ensure that we positively impact the future of childhood. Prior to the Cooney Center, Kiley completed her PhD in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her dissertation research investigated the role of interactive technology during inclusive play, or play between young children with and without disabilities. While earning her doctorate, Kiley conducted research at Microsoft Research in both Redmond, Washington and Bangalore, India. She also holds a BS in Human-Computer Interaction from Harvey Mudd College.