Sometimes, as parents, we can’t help but think that digital devices swallow our children whole, consuming them and shutting us out. Online interactions can be a source of discontent, rife with virtual-world put-downs that nevertheless trigger very real-world emotions. It’s understandable, then, that experts (no doubt, many of them parents themselves) have focused on the negative aspects of digital play and how to curb it.
But researchers behind the RITEC (Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children) project have taken a different tack. They’ve approached the issue with an open mind, and went to the children themselves, asking them questions like how they define well-being and what an ideal session of screen time would look like to them.
“We know that technology can have negative impacts on children’s well-being, but we also know that it can powerfully support it. So we wanted to get a handle on how we can minimize the potential harms and maximize the well-being benefits,” says Amanda Third, a professorial research fellow at Western Sydney University in Australia and a RITEC investigator.
As the RITEC report points out, “Children’s growth and development is increasingly shaped by the digital ecosystem.” If screens are here to stay, the researchers ask, what can we cull from children’s reflections to change the digital landscape for the better? What aspects can be strengthened to enhance learning? And, in turn, what kind of support can adults provide to make digital play a safe space and a thing that inspires creativity, self-confidence, and joy, not only on-screen but in real life?
Listening to children around the world
Funded by the LEGO Foundation, and conceived and implemented by the LEGO Group in close partnership with UNICEF and other organizations, the RITEC project has two main parts: first, to understand how digital play might affect a child’s well-being and, based on these findings, to develop a framework of what to prioritize when designing digital experiences for children. And second (to be completed in 2023), to put together specific guidance and tools to help digital designers create healthier, happier virtual-play options.
As Third explains, she and her colleagues wanted to “think in a detailed and evidence-based way” about creating online experiences that help kids feel good about themselves.
The recently completed first part of the project—conducted by UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti and Western Sydney University’s Young and Resilient Research Centre, where Third is codirector—started with a review of relevant scientific literature on children’s well-being. This was followed by a secondary analysis of data from the previously conducted Global Kids Online and Disrupting Harm surveys, which—while not initially focused on digital play and well-being—offered some clues on the issue as it pertains to more than 34,000 children from 30 regions around the globe.
To understand children’s perspectives on how digital play impacts their well-being, the researchers then led workshops with more than 300 children between the ages of seven and 18 living in 13 distinct geographical regions worldwide, including Brazil, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and Tanzania. (This added valuable global insights to a body of research often focused on the United States and other wealthier nations.) The researchers then interviewed parents spanning three countries, as well as digital product designers.
It turns out the children’s ideas of happiness—and what, exactly, makes for a great digital experience—are far more nuanced than what we adults would expect. “The children spoke very eloquently about how playing online enables them to be social, to enjoy the company of others, and to develop confidence,” says Third. And it was the kids themselves who identified these things as being good for their well-being. “They definitely understand more than we give them credit for,” she says.
While objective clues to well-being, such socioeconomic data, can be helpful in understanding the impact of technology, so can a child’s viewpoint (despite the limitations of subjective responses). After all, as every parent knows, things can look stellar on paper—nice house, good school, amply stocked fridge—but they don’t necessarily add up to a content child. The RITEC report is one more piece of a very complicated puzzle.
What digital play spaces look like to kids
Despite variable access to technology, the children interviewed all noted that their well-being was tied to it, for better or for worse. “We are always struck by the enormous similarities that characterize children’s experiences around the world,” says Third. “Children’s experiences are, of course, inflected differently by different cultural contexts, but a lot of the fundamentals are the same across contexts.” In this case, she says, children consistently saw digital devices as a means for “communication, connection, and sharing,” no matter where they live. Here are a few of the project’s key findings.
Kids see their well-being as multifaceted. Some children defined physical health as part of well-being—“[Well-being] is not having diseases,” said a child in Tanzania. Others believed that emotional and mental stability are part of the equation, too. “[Well-being is about] feeling content and at ease,” said a child from the United Kingdom. It also became clear that for children, as Third explains, “well-being is fundamentally social. It’s very powerfully shaped by the people around them, and especially those that are close to them or whom they love.” As one child in Albania explained, “[Well-being is] feeling happy with other people.”
Kids enjoy collaborating with other kids. While children sometimes enjoy playing alone, part of the attraction of digital play is also the opportunity to be social. An Indonesian child described a dream game as one in which “the game can be played with family and friends together.” What’s more, when kids were asked to create an ideal game, they often created one where they were able to collaborate with friends to overcome a challenge. “Union makes power,” said a child in Albania. “Facing challenges together, we are stronger.”
Kids want to feel safe. Like their parents, children want a secure place to play. It’s no fun, they said, to stumble onto shocking or inappropriate material or find a stranger who shouldn’t be there. They want to socialize with other kids their age without fear, and they want to be able to manage the virtual space they play in. “[Safety is when] you do not need to think about the matter of safety issues,” said a Taiwanese child. When asked about a bad experience playing a digital game, scary content (for instance, age-inappropriate violence) was a consistent refrain. “[The worst games] are frightening games, which make you feel that the character is with you at home,” said a child in Tunisia.
Kids like feeling creative, confident, and empowered when they play. As the report points out, “Digital play . . . is one of the few areas in life where children are empowered to take charge and make decisions, even when playing with adults.” That empowerment nurtures their creativity, which in turn feeds further into feelings of confidence and empowerment. “It’s an upward spiral,” says Third. Or as an Albanian child puts it: “When we are creative, we do new things, we learn, and we become wiser [and this makes us] happier.” The report suggests that when a child feels successful creating something online, they also begin to believe they are creative in general—which, in turn, can lead them to creative pursuits offline
Kids enjoy a variety of play experiences. As the report suggests, children dip in and out of the various forms of digital play, and that freedom to choose enables them to fulfill their needs in the moment, whether it’s a chance to take a break from their busy lives, tackle a new challenge, or connect with friends. Whatever the case may be, digital play enables kids to carve out a space to de-stress. “[Playing games] makes me [feel] relaxed,” explains a child in Bulgaria. “It distracts me from real-life problems.” A child in Brazil reports preferring role-playing games because they produce “a comfortable environment where you can create stories.”
Kids actually don’t want screen time all the time. The digital world has its limitations—some kids noted sometimes feeling bored or isolated. They point to real-life play as being more physical and engaging. “Some children think digital play is not social enough,” says the report. “The children we spoke to have a remarkably well-calibrated sense of both the good and the bad impacts of technology on their well-being, and surprising maturity about when enough technology is enough,” says Third. “But they are looking to adults to strengthen the ways that digital environments support their well-being.”
Kids want digital access to be more available and diverse. Digital access for kids isn’t a given, as interviews with children from low- to middle-income countries have made clear. “Stressful” is how an Iraqi child described a lack of Internet connection. What’s more, they indicated, in an ideal world, not only should digital play be accessible to all, it should reflect and support all equally. When asked about what she sees as important in a video game, a child in Jordan replied, “Female characters that are smart and do things that are always done by males in games.” Another, in Iraq, said, “The designer should take care about children’s feelings and different circumstances for kids.”
How to support your kids in digital play
When RITEC researchers analyzed data from the Global Kids Online and Disrupting Harm surveys, they found that children whose parents engage positively with them in digital spaces tend to have better family relationships. While it’s unclear whether there’s a causal relationship between the two and, if so, in what direction, it makes sense to encourage play that helps your children feel good about themselves. We asked Third, as well as experts who’ve studied the impact of digital play outside the RITEC project, for strategies. Here’s what they recommend.
Get to know the games your child plays. As Mizuko Ito, director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, points out: You wouldn’t drop your child off at a new playground and drive away. You’d suss out the equipment and check out who else is in the playground. You’d play with your child or watch her play. You’d teach her about good sportsmanship, help resolve any conflicts, and ask when she’d like to go home. The same should happen for virtual play. So be curious about your child’s interests online and ask why she enjoys particular games. “Make talking about technology one of the things that you routinely talk, joke, and learn about together,” says Third. “If you can have open conversations with them, they are more likely to come to you when they experience difficulties online.”
Set clear limits—together. Ask children how they feel after experimenting with different lengths of time and activities online. “It’s not so much an issue of screen time, but the quality of the time spent on the screen,” says Ito, who is also cofounder of Connected Camps, which provides a secure moderated Minecraft server for free. “What can happen online is so diverse.” Kids may be playing a game on their phone, but they may also be simply chatting with friends or diving into, say, sports stats. “As much as is reasonable, guide them but ultimately help them draw the conclusions for themselves about what is good for their well-being,” says Third. As Ito points out, “the emphasis shouldn’t be on control, but connection.”
Explore games that may enhance your child’s well-being. Each child has his particular likes and dislikes, so ask yours what kinds of games make him feel connected, creative, in control—content. Then try options that speak to that. Brenna Hassinger-Das, assistant professor of psychology at Pace University, suggests checking out Common Sense Media, which provides age recommendations from both adults and children that often feel more relevant than the designation you see on the package. If you can learn about a game together—how to play, how to keep safe—that’s all the better. Hassinger-Das, who is the director of the university’s Science of Development Lab, says that before allowing her eight-year-old to play Roblox, the two took an online class about keeping safe in the game. “It made him feel more empowered to make choices while playing,” she says.
Encourage digital play that connects your child with family and real-life friends. Many kids are already playing games that entail socializing, such as Minecraft or Roblox. But even games that are not obviously collaborative can be made more social, says Hassinger-Das. For instance, in the case of sports games, you can encourage children to form teams, work toward a score together, and communicate with each other as they play, even if it’s via text or a chat app. “Any way you can bring about positive social interaction is great,” she says.
Keep an open mind. Parents of a certain age might remember racing home from school just to shoot the breeze with pals, flip through glossy magazines, and listen to music until dinner. That happens today, too, but often digitally. “Kids still need that space,” says Ito. Many children have overscheduled lives and don’t have the freedom to be with friends in person,” she points out. “This is one of the few places where they can just relax and hang out.”