Much of the conversation around children’s use of technology focuses on the potential risks and harms of exploring the digital world. While protecting children is an essential focus, it cannot be the only one. As children’s lives become increasingly digital, we also have an obligation and an opportunity to reframe the discussion using a whole child approach, in support of children’s ability to learn, create, connect, play, and, more broadly, in support of “well-being” – a state inclusive of happiness, health, safety, and comfort.
With this goal in mind, The LEGO Group and UNICEF have brought together a global coalition and initiated a new multi-year project called RITEC – Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children – to empower business and policy leaders to protect and promote children’s well-being in a digital age.
RITEC was launched in April 2022, with a report that includes a well-being framework for children in digital spaces. The framework, created in close consultation with children, is intended to serve as a first step toward helping industry and policy stakeholders develop a common understanding of how digital experiences can positively influence aspects of child well-being. The framework and the supporting research were developed by UNICEF and the Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University. The research was multi-method and international, with participants from 13 countries represented in the qualitative data and 30 countries represented in the quantitative data, with input from children ranging in age from 7 to 18.
The first phase of this child-centric approach included workshops aimed to capture children’s perceptions of wellbeing, using questions such as “what does it mean to be well?”, “what does it mean to be happy and healthy?,” and “what does it mean to feel good?”. For example, one child from the United Kingdom explained that “[well-being is about] feeling content and at ease” while another child from Indonesia offered that “playing with friends [brings me well-being].” In combination with other data, these responses support a framework for well-being in digital play experiences. The framework encompasses the following constructs: competence, emotional regulation, empowerment, social connection, creativity, self-actualization, safety and security, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Children’s comments about these constructs reveal their hopes and desires for digital spaces. On the topic of safety, one child from Iraq stated, “[Safety means] you don’t need to be worried about any physical danger or any thoughts of danger.” On the topic of diversity and inclusion, one child from Jordan would like to see “female characters that are smart and do things that are always done by males in games.”
Critically, the upcoming second phase of the work seeks to validate the framework through more controlled studies examining how these constructs are realized in children’s actual game play experiences. Research teams from New York University, The City University of New York, the University of Sheffield, and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child will provide examples of design features that promote well-being and measures to capture the constructs in the real world.
Armed with research data on what types of digital experiences promote children’s well-being, the RITEC initiative will seek to engage, encourage, and support industry in taking up the goal of designing for digital well-being. How might developers create games and other digital experiences that lead to more positive social connection, encourage creativity, and make all children feel like they belong, while still protecting their rights to digital privacy and safety? Finding the right balance will require partnering with developers to explore these challenges collaboratively.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center has initiated one such partnership with the Fair Play Alliance, a global coalition of gaming professionals and companies that are committed to developing high-quality online games and other digital experiences. Together, we aim to identify and address the questions that developers face when designing for positive outcomes at the individual, group, and community levels; offer developers guidance and support; and ultimately establish a set of practices generated by and for this community.
The RITEC project acknowledges that we live in a world that is increasingly defined by digital experience. We all share the responsibility of ensuring that children and young people are supported by and within the products they use, first by recognizing that children are a unique audience with specific rights and developmental needs. The road ahead will be to determine how effectively the research, innovation, and policy communities can come together to improve the digital world for children.
Guest post by Medha Tare, PhD Senior Director of Research, Joan Ganz Cooney Center