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Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world (speed summary)

Here’s a quick summary of last week’s webinar Understanding children’s well-being in a digital world organised by CO:REMedia@LSE and the eNurture network. The webinar was hosted by Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the LSE, with four academic researchers and practitioners

*CO:RE = Children Online: Research & Evidence, an EU funded initiative (newsletter sign up here)

You can see the full one-hour webinar embedded below, but in a nutshell, my main takeout is that the conclusion of Elizabeth Pollard and Patrice Lee’s systematic review of child wellbeing research holds especially true for children’s digital wellbeing

“Inconsistent use of definitions, indicators, and measures of well-being has created a confusing and contradictory research base.”

Although research to date does not show a strong association between exposure or use of digital technology and children’s wellbeing, the panel offered four thought-provoking recommendations

  1. We need to help and educate parents so they do not impede the development of their children’s digital skills, interests or enjoyment of digital media because of unfounded fears
  2. We need to offer children better career guidance on how to develop, use and apply their digital skills
  3. We need to reduce child poverty because poverty can reduce children’s access to digital technology and its benefits
  4. We need to think about children’s wellbeing in a more relatable way that is more meaningful to children by listening to children’s own experience about their relationship with digital technology

Other interesting points included

  • Research into the effects of digital technology on children’s wellbeing is hampered by having no standardised idea of what child wellbeing actually is or how to measure it
    • WHO refers to wellbeing in terms of positive health – with psychological, physical and social dimensions
    • The Stirling Children’s Wellbeing Scale measures emotional and psychological health of 8-15 years in terms of a positive outlook and positive emotions (but doesn’t look at other dimensions and is not suited to younger children)
    • We need to build a better definition of child wellbeing with children, and that is relatable for children
    • Much research into child wellbeing focuses not on wellbeing at all, but ill-being (pathologies, dysfunction, languishing, pain and suffering in a digital world, rather than strengths, resilience, self-care, performance and flourishing)
    • Experimental and longitudinal research may be needed to look at the short term vs long term impacts of digital technology on wellbeing, and direct vs indirect effects
  • Research into the effects of digital technology on children’s wellbeing is also hampered by having no clear idea of what counts as ‘digital’
    • Digital technology vs digital media, active use vs passive exposure, online vs offline digital tools/media
    • Screen time is a crude and unhelpful measure that lumps together very different activities (education delivered digitally vs looking for harmful digital content)
    • Motivations and context matter – the effect on wellbeing will depend on the child’s motivation for accessing digitalised content, and the context (e.g. a lesson vs. play)
  • This issue of measurement is key because without measurement there is no evidence and without evidence, there is no action
    • Policymakers will pay no attention to making children’s lives better unless they have measurable evidence of what works, the size of the impact and a way to measure the outcome of their own initiatives on improving wellbeing
  • Economic factors may indirectly influence children’s wellbeing in a digital world in two important ways
    • Level of family resources shapes the level of digital access that is available to children, with the risk of digital exclusion
    • Level of family resources shapes parental investement in child’s wellbeing in digital contexts through active parental involvement, engagement and supervision that provides a structured and ‘scaffolded’ access to technology for children. On the other hand family poverty can create stress, anxiety and depression that may influence parenting styles (authoritative vs authoritarian, permissive, vs uninvolved)
    • Overall economic wellbeing may matter more than digital wellbeing (food insecurity vs digital insecurity, access to healthcare vs access to digital tools and media)
    • Whilst access to digital technology may be democratised (more people have access to a cellphone than to a toilet, those that benefit first and the most from new technology tend to be the affluent
  • From a legal perspective, it’s difficult to guarantee a child’s right to wellbeing
    • States can only promise in human rights law to do what’s achievable by them – and wellbeing is not in the gift of the state (although access to digital tools is)
      • Human rights define the lower limits of tolerable human conduct, rather than great aspirations and exalted ideals
    • If a child has a right to education, and access to education is digital, then children may have a right to digital technology
    • Children should have a right to heard when we are designing digital environments
    • Child’s rights and child’s wellbeing are two different frames
      • “Unfortunate that reference to the CRC [United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child] in discussion about wellbeing are sometimes very loose or inaccurate, seemingly deployed as an International policy backdrop or to give pseudo-legal legitimacy to existing wellbeing approaches rather than indicative of any real attempt to engage with the CRC and its reconceptualisation of the child as a holder of rights” Laura Lundy
    • Wellbeing might involve the realisation of children’s rights, but not necessarily; rights and wellbeing are two different frames
Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

  • Children in the 21st century are increasingly pushed to do more by overprotective “helicopter parents” who hover over their children to protect them from potential harm. Modern parents are also more likely to share images of their children online without their consent, potentially raising concerns around online safety and security. On an emotional level, children are reporting more stress and anxiety, including increased expectations and pressure to excel in an ever more competitive educational environment.

  • Education must evolve and grow with our societies, anticipating change rather than simply reacting to problems. This work explores the potential of education systems to proactively adapt and develop along with our communities and children. The overall goal is to identify innovative, collaborative models that bring together parents, communities and schools to strengthen children’s resilience, lower their stress levels, enhance well-being and improve learning.

  • This volume will focus specifically on two of these themes and their intersections: emotional well-being and digital technologies. Friendships and families – both how they shape and are shaped by these themes – are interwoven into the discussion throughout. Before turning to the specific focus of this volume, this chapter will provide a brief overview of each of the four themes.

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  • My daughter is allowed to play Minecraft on her iPod one day a week and she often wants to show me her “world” the homes she builds, gardens, etc. I find it hard to encourage her or engage in this but at the same time love that she wants to share her creations with me. My kids have had limited screen time their whole lives and STILL display signs of addiction and boredom and inability to play. These devices, these screens have such a powerful impact on our psyches we are not giving them nearly enough credit for their influence over our social development.

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  • In the 21st century, children are experiencing heightened expectations as a result of the influence of overprotective “helicopter parents” who closely monitor and intervene in their activities to shield them from potential harm. Additionally, contemporary parents are more inclined to share images of their children on online platforms without obtaining their consent, giving rise to potential concerns regarding online safety and security.

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.