Monday, November 10, 2008

Someone Please Think of the Children

As technology progresses and thus results in a change in social norms, it is often the case that we must adapt in order to continue our development. Such is the case of children and technology. Children today have more information at their fingertips than ever before possible, they are constantly connected, and constantly informed of their current circumstances. As designers of technology, and conduits of technology and information, we must take into account this fact of the increasing degree of exposure that the youth of the world has. In no way should it be suggested to censor material, however, that does not mean that we should ignore potential differences and implications in children accessing technology versus that of an adult.

One of the questions posed by Livingstone, poses if the Internet is a distinctive technology. This is a perfectly understandable question, as the Internet is not a physical device or really anything specific. The Internet is simply a series of protocols that allows users to connect to servers and other users, which contain data, for the purpose of exploring content and information. It may not interact with it physically, however we do tend to associate with it as if it were a tangible object, which perhaps can be attributed to the interaction involved with the modern computer. In many cases, it would seem that the computer is viewed less directly as a piece of technology itself, but more of a means to an end, functioning as an interface or point of contact for the user to interact with other pieces of technology, such as software applications or the internet. As such, it can be argued that, indeed, the internet is truly it’s own technology, which can be interacted with through the intermediary of the modern computer (and indeed many other devices as well), bringing the potential for a broad range of interactions with it to the user.

Livingstone also asks if children belong to that of a specific “group”, suggesting that some feel that they might be “accounted for” within other demographics, or by responses given by their parents. As the existence of Internet access in one’s household becomes more common, it is only natural that the everyday interaction with this technology adapt to its ever-presence. It can also be said that, in the past, children have a great potential to learn about new technology, and to interact with it in a much more natural manner than adults, as in many cases it is a technology they are “growing up with”. Learning about said newer technology at a young age, when the brain is still like that of a sponge, facilitates the intuitive and natural interaction that children often have with technology. Livingstone reports “In the UK, recent surveys show that among 7–16-year-olds, 75 percent have used the Internet, a figure which doubled the adult population figure of 38 percent”. Children are using the internet at nearly twice that of the average adult, perhaps it is then no surprise that interactions on the internet are frequently geared towards the fast comprehension and browsing habits of children.

Not only do children frequent the Internet more than the average adult, but their habits when utilizing this time are typically different as well. As we can see in Livingstone, “BMRB’s Youth TGI (2001) showed that the most common uses are studying/homework (73%), email (59%), playing games (38%), chat sites (32%) and hobbies and interests (31%).” However, for adults, we can see that “Looking for information and using email were the two most common online activities of Internet users in 2006. These were done by 85 per cent and 81 per cent of adult users respectively in the three months before interview in 2006.” (NSO). This points to a much larger amount of recreational use on the part of children users, and such interactions should be planned for accordingly. For example, a website such as, a site that is much more likely to be frequented by adults, contains a wealth of information, however is not necessarily aesthetically appealing, at it is following function over form. Whereas a recreational site that is used by a typically younger audience, such as, has much more emphasis on a cohesive, aesthetically pleasing interaction between itself and all of its different members. Not only are browsing styles and habits different in adults and children, but levels of trust as well. To many adults, the Internet is still a relatively new technology, which results in a certain sense of distrust involving it. Whereas children, as the result of their growing up with it, almost associate a certain naive expectation of trust with the Internet, which can, unfortunately, be easily exploited. As Livingstone points out, “in the UK, NOP’s survey found that 29 percent of children using the internet would give out their home address and 14 percent their email address”. This level of trust is a startling thought in this day and age, in which information such as this could be so easily used in a manner in which the user had not desired or intended, even if that means receiving more spam mail.

An idea that seems to finally be gaining some recognition in the world of computing and web design is that indeed, “children are the future”. They are the forerunners, they don’t just spot upcoming trends, and they create them. “Children themselves play a key role in establishing emerging internet-related practices” (Livingstone). Druin also suggests that children potentially have four impacts or roles in the design process: user, tester, informant, and design partner. The latter two roles, informant and design partner, are perhaps the most important of the four. While the prior two give us as designers a framework to design around, the latter give us actual feedback on the interaction and design of the technology we are attempting to implement. As an informant and design partner with children, although they may be the more difficult roles for both the adult and child to fulfill, the information and potential designs and implementations as a result of the roles can be quite rewarding.

So what can we look forward to in the future? I would wager that much more technology and software should become “child-centric”. As the current generation of children grows to a point of power in society, their norms of Internet and technology usage will become the norms, and as such, we must prepare for this. Additionally, even amongst adult users, technology that is often first introduced as children’s technology, such as UI design within video games or movies, has a way of eventually becoming commercialized to an adult audience. This transition once again, enforces the link between what may start as technology intended for children, and moves on to technology for everyone.


Druin, A. (2002). The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour and Information Technology, 21(1) 1-25.

Livingstone, S. (2003). Children’s use of the internet: Reflections on the emerging research agenda. New Media & Society, 5(2), 147-166.

“National Statistics Online (NSO)”. Usage of Internet. .

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