This paper makes a contribution to our understanding of research in home environments by drawing attention to the dearth of research that gives full account of children’s perceptions and experiences in the context of technology in the home. It describes a study of 3- and 4-year-old children’s play and learning with toys and technologies in family settings and how an ecocultural approach was enlisted as a framework for understanding the home’s unique mix of inhabitants, learning opportunities and resources. Methods that are compatible with such an approach are discussed in terms of how we made decisions about the types of data that can help us to understand more about family interactions and activities and, consequently, about children’s learning. The framework also gave shape to our interpretations of the data, enabling us to illuminate the complex of practices, values and attitudes and their intersections with technology. It concludes by speculating on some of the reasons why children seem to be absent from many studies of technology in everyday life and suggesting some of the ways in which this may be remedied.
Those studies that foreground relationships between children and technologies in the home, especially involving younger children, are typically written from a developmental psychology or child health perspective and point to the potential harm that the presence of technology in the home can present to children. As it focuses on screen-based media, this media effects research tends to be narrow in its scope and the experimental designs favoured by its proponents often fail to take account of the complexities of family life or offer a child’s perspective on their environment. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, has produced a review of such research for its latest policy statement . This medicalized perspective on children’s uses of technology has gained extensive publicity as it discourages families from allowing children under the age of 2 to have any screen exposure at all and it suggests that older children’s screen time should be limited to <2 h a day. It also states that televisions and internet-connected devices should be kept out of a child’s bedroom, usage should be monitored and a family home use plan should be produced that includes a ban on screen-based media at meals and bedtimes. As this document and its earlier iterations have been enormously influential, both in the USA and in Europe, taking account of parents’ responses to such enjoinders can be an important component of building up a picture of children’s access to, and uses of, technology in the home.
While the 3- and 4-year-old children who are the focus of our research interest therefore receive considerable attention from the media effects researchers as a result of concerns over their perceived vulnerabilities, this age group does not get much attention from the interaction design community. The forerunner of the ACM Interaction Design for Children conferences was held in Eindhoven in 2002 to address the ways in which children had been overlooked by some of the mainstream conferences, with the call for papers claiming that the field of human–computer interaction had recognized the need to invent new techniques to meet the growing interest in children as users of technology.4 As the proceedings of the subsequent conferences reveal, there are plenty of examples of studies that take a more child-centred view, although they typically involve an emphasis on designing for or with children through design sessions in schools and clubs and they have not generally translated into more widespread studies of technologies in the home. But it remains the case that while the participatory approach often favoured in this field is to be welcomed, and has become the new orthodoxy over the years, the child may still remain conceptually isolated from the parents and siblings that co-construct a context of use.
We produced a broad classification of ‘high’ and ‘low’ levels of technology ownership based on a tour of the house and confirmed by interview but this is applicable only to this sample of families and does not refer to any external measures. As became clear from our analysis, these levels of ownership were shaped to some extent by socio-economic status and children’s individual preferences as well as previous experiences with technology by caregivers7 and their beliefs about its educational potential. Nevertheless, by the time they started school at age 5, all the children in the study had encountered devices such as desktop and notebook computers, mobile phones, MP3 players, televisions and games consoles and the products or outputs—such as DVDs, websites, games and interactive stories—that are viewed, read, played or created on these devices. All the children also had technological toys, including play laptops or robotic dogs.
Each visit had a common core of data collection, such as establishing any changes in family circumstances, but also had a particular focus, such as parents’ autobiographical accounts of their own childhoods (see Section 4.1), audits of toys and technologies, or shared discussions with parents and children about the transition to school. A diversity of methods enabled us to pay some attention to the visibility of children, gain some insights into children’s and parents’ perspectives, and construct multifaceted pictures of the interactions between family practices, technology and children’s everyday lives. The theoretical framework for the study is described in the next section, followed by a more detailed account of some of the methods, how they were developed from a theoretically informed position, the methodological challenges they addressed, particularly in terms of paying heed to the children’s experiences and perspectives, and some of the findings that followed.