© Zhang Haibo
Child research officers present the results of their research at a Children’s Internet Conference in Guangzhou, China.
This statement: “Children use digital technology for specific reasons and it is important to take their opinions and explanations seriously” comes straight out of UNICEF’s recently published State of the World’s Children report for 2017, Children in a Digital World. The report recommends that children are placed at the center of efforts to understand how digital technology impacts on their lives. Clearly, if we hope to understand children’s lived experiences and support their positive development, we need to include their voices in research and policy responses. However, research and policy in this area is often grounded in adult’s assumptions about how children engage with digital technology.
Is this good enough?
In my recent visit to Guangzhou together with colleagues from UNICEF China I met a man who certainly doesn’t think so. Zhang Haibo is the Deputy Director of the Children’s Palace in Guangzhou, China, a public facility where children can engage in extra-curricular activities after school, such as learning arts, languages, sports, computing skills and digital literacy. The Guangzhou Children’s Palace has conducted annual research on children’s online behaviors and digital literacy for many years, to underpin their educational efforts. One day Mr. Zhang had his research put under some scrutiny, as his 9-year old daughter flicked through a report and concluded that it was too adult-centric. She thought that children would be in a better position than adults to ask questions about children’s online behavior. The Children’s Palace changed their approach from conducting research ON children, to conducting research WITH children, strengthening children’s agency and enriching their research.
At the Children’s Palace, Mr. Zhang engages children aged 9-14 who are interested in digital technology, and divides them into groups according to their favorite topic of research. Some children have studied how students play Kings of Glory – the hugely successful mobile game developed by Tencent – or how young people use digital technology to facilitate studying and shopping. Teachers train children in basic methods of research, guides them as they develop their own small-scale questionnaires and conduct interviews in their school or community. Teachers also help them with interpreting findings and writing reports, collecting feedback from fellow researchers and refining reports, eventually leading to a conference where they present their findings and conclusions to parents and teachers.
But can children really conduct research? Some parents initially expressed skepticism, but witnessing the unexpected growth and development of their own children forced them re-examine their beliefs about children’s capabilities.
Mr. Zhang emphasizes that child-led research brings new and different perspectives compared to adults’, partly because children do not carry as many prejudices and assumptions about other children as adults do. Adult-led research found that they believe children spend too much time playing games on their mobile phones. Child led research revealed that many children feel that whenever they pick up the phone – even if it is to do homework – parents wrongly assume that they’re playing games and they start complaining. Based on the results research carried out by young people at the Children’s Palace, creative recommendations are reaching industry. One research group suggested that since the private sector already creates many products for children they ought to be able to develop a children’s version of QQ and WeChat (popular Chinese social media platforms). Child-centered design is also being suggested by UNICEF as a way towards a more beneficial online environment for children.
Mr. Zhang emphasizes the concrete outcomes of research is less important than the process. The purpose is not to cultivate young scholars writing papers, but to allow children the chance to take initiative, to let them identify a problem they care about and give them the space to explore it and express their own ideas. The philosophy underpinning their participatory research is a belief that education must do more than just provide children with answers; rather, it should teach them to ask more and better questions. This method of engaging children in research about online behaviors has successfully created a space for inter-generational dialogue around digital technology, which can strengthen the knowledge of young people about the online world, while simultaneously addressing parental concerns. As some initial research suggests, positioning young people as experts and equals might be more effective for online safety education, as it provides adults with a window into what young people do online and how they feel about their experiences. The process can also lead to concrete learning outcomes for children, as showcased in participatory research conducted by our colleagues in UNICEF Montenegro.
What is truly exciting about the approach of the Children’s Palace’s digital literacy education programme is that their goal is not only to teach children about digital technology. Rather, the goal is to foster children’s agency and harness their curiosity about things digital to impart valuable life skills.
Like asking questions adults haven’t even thought of.