Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children:
Digital technology, play and child well-being
New research from UNICEF Innocenti and Western Sydney University explores the question: what does well-being mean to children in a digital age? This first-phase report prioritises the voices of children, collected through workshops with over 300 children from 13 countries along with analysis of existing survey data from 34,000 children aged 9-17 across 30 countries.
As digital technology plays an increasingly important role in children’s development, the Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children (RITEC) project, co-founded with the LEGO Group and funded by the LEGO Foundation, aims to create practical tools for businesses and governments that will empower them to put the well-being of children at the centre of digital design.
This report reveals a newly developed well-being framework for children. Made up of eight child-centric well-being outcomes, the framework is a first step towards helping tech developers and policymakers develop a common understanding of how digital experiences can positively influence aspects of child well-being. The report aims to inform the design of digital products and services used by children, as well as the laws that govern them.
Children are spending more time in digital spaces than ever before, using a range of mobile apps, social media platforms, connected devices and online games from ever earlier ages. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this shift, rapidly moving additional aspects of children’s daily lives online. The growing presence of digital technology in children’s lives requires that we think deeply about its impact. It also demands we consider how we shape that impact best to equip and empower children for success well into their adult years.
Digital experiences can have significant negative impact on children, exposing them to risks or failing to nurture them adequately. Nevertheless, digital experiences also potentially yield enormous benefits for children, enabling them to learn, to create, to develop friendships, and to build worlds. While global efforts to deepen our understanding of the prevalence and impact of digital risks of harm are burgeoning – a development that is both welcome and necessary – less attention has been paid to understanding and optimizing the benefits that digital technology can provide in supporting children’s rights and their well-being.
Benefits here refer not only to the absence of harm, but also to creating additional positive value. How should we recognize the opportunities and benefits of digital technology for children’s well-being? What is the relationship between the design of digital experiences – in particular, play-centred design – and the well-being of children? What guidance and measures can we use to strengthen the design of digital environments to promote positive outcomes for children? And how can we make sure that children’s insights and needs form the foundation of our work in this space? These questions matter for all those who design and promote digital experiences, to keep children safe and happy, and enable positive development and learning. These questions are particularly relevant as the world shifts its attention to emerging digital technologies and experiences, from artificial intelligence (AI) to the metaverse, and seeks to understand their impact on people and society.
To begin to tackle these questions, UNICEF and the LEGO Group initiated the Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children (RITEC) project in partnership with the Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University; the CREATE Lab at New York University; the Graduate Center, City University of New York; the University of Sheffield; the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child; and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. The research is funded by the LEGO Foundation. The partnership is an international, multi-stakeholder and cross-sectoral collaboration between organizations that believe the design and development of digital technology should support the rights and well-being of children as a primary objective – and that children should have a prominent voice in making this a reality. This project’s primary objective is to develop, with children from around the world, a framework that maps how the design of children’s digital experiences affects their well-being, and to provide guidance as to how informed design choices can promote positive well-being outcomes.
For children, well-being is physical health and safety but also mental stability and positive emotion. Most importantly, well-being is social, linked to loving others, and being loved by family and friends.
Diversity, equity and inclusion matter:
Children experience a range of barriers to digital engagement, ranging from limited internet access to app costs and culturally inappropriate content. Insights from our consultation with children, many from low- or middle-income countries, signal issues yet to be addressed adequately either by research or by industry.
Social connection is key:
Exploratory analysis of survey data showed that for children in some countries, engaging in social activities online – with friends, parents and teachers – was positively associated with many aspects of well-being. Using social media was associated with a sense of belonging, stronger peer relationships, and confidence. Parents, caregivers and teachers who engaged positively and supportively with their children’s digital technology use were found to have, overall, a better relationship with their children, though the causal direction is unclear. When asked specifically about play, many children said they have more fun when they are playing with friends. Many games designed by children in the workshops had a prosocial element where they collaborated or helped others. Some children felt safer when playing together.
Safety is a priority:
Children want digital content to be appropriate for their age, and for the digital spaces in which they interact not to expose them to violence, inappropriate language and sexual content. Children expressed that they did not appreciate coming across such content unexpectedly, and they want to be able to predict that the content they encounter will not be shocking to them. Children want safeguards in place to ensure they can: manage advertizing, chatting and trolling; socialize with peers of a similar age; and be supported to manage their time. Children’s safety concerns were echoed by parents and flagged by stakeholders as an ongoing challenge.
Creativity is integral:
For children, creativity was interlinked with other processes and benefits, from learning to self-confidence. Creativity is not so much a distinct goal or play style, but occurs during an experience or as a by-product of digital play, alongside other outcomes.
Play is diverse:
From competition to collaboration, children told us they play in many different ways, and that different play experiences contribute in distinct ways to their well-being. Parents and stakeholders recognize this and aim to support a wide variety of play, including quieter and reflective play.
Digital play has limits:
Children mentioned downsides to digital play experiences, from isolation to boredom and negative affect. In contrast, physical games were generally seen as more adaptable, more social and more physically engaging, points also echoed by parents. There are clear opportunities for industry to innovate and improve digital play.
This first phase of research brings together four research activities conducted in 2020–2021. The research activities represent a comprehensive approach to framework development and include both qualitative and quantitative approaches, as well as primary and secondary data.
The methodology for phase I of RITEC research in brief:
Review of the literature Relevant literature on children’s well-being and digital play was reviewed. This included journal articles, NGO/civil society organization reports, existing frameworks, and case studies of digital platforms. This was used to refine the methodology for the child consultations and the analysis plan for secondary analysis of survey data.
Secondary analysis of survey dataSecondary analysis of Global Kids Online and Disrupting Harm survey data from over 34,000 children from 30 countries around the world explored if and how a range of activities in the digital environment impact aspects of children’s well-being. The results informed the interpretation of the child consultation results and the finalization of the well-being framework.
Participatory research with children Young and Resilient Research Centre (Y&R) led consultations with over 300 children aged 7–18 years in 13 countries: Albania, Brazil, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan Province of China, Tanzania, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. Workshops deployed Young and Resilient’s Distributed Data Generation methodology and involved qualitative, creative and participatory research aiming to capture children’s perceptions and experiences of well-being and play. Children participated either in two face-to-face workshops (each 3.5 hours, equalling 7 hours in total) or three digital workshops (each 2 hours, or 6 hours in total). The Young and Resilient Research Centre designed these workshops, trained and supported facilitators, and then collected and analysed the data.
Scoping interviews with parent and game designers to guide thinking about application Y&R conducted a small number of informal, semi-structured interviews with seven parents, in Indonesia (3), Taiwan Province of China (2) and New Zealand (2), lasting an average of 35 minutes. The team also conducted interviews with seven stakeholders (creative directors, developers and designers), in Denmark (5), New Zealand (1) and the United States of America (1), each lasting between 45 and 60 minutes. The purpose of these interviews was to provide light-touch context for the ways that the framework might be taken up in diverse settings. The interviews did not directly shape the framework.
In practical terms, research that pays attention to children’s feelings and experiences is useful to understand how digital experiences can be designed in ways that are more likely to have positive impacts.
Play’s critical role in children’s lives and development is enshrined
in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a fundamental right
of children. It is less clear, however, which forms of play (and especially, of
digital play) influence which aspects of children’s well-being, and how these
forms of play can be enabled through particular design choices.
International research institutions and the LEGO Foundation
have conducted several studies on Learning through Play over the last decade.
From this research, five characteristics of Learning through Play experiences
have been identified: joyful, engaging, meaningful, iterative and socially interactive
(Marsh et al., 2020). This research suggests that learning and playing are
deeply intertwined – indeed, that playing is an essential strategy for learning
This research has also linked play to key aspects of
well-being, from nurturing empathy to boosting resilience and contributing to
family happiness (Hoicka et al., 2018). More recent research has identified the
characteristics of Learning through Play across numerous forms of digital play
and suggested there are strong synergies between these characteristics as
embedded in digital and non-digital play (Marsh et al., 2020).
While literature on child well-being abounds, few studies ask children directly what well-being means for them – and how it might manifest in digital spaces and experiences.
Our workshops began by asking children their thoughts.
Children were asked three interrelated questions to understand how they viewed
well-being: “What does it mean to be well?”; “What does it mean to be happy and
healthy?”; and “What does it mean to feel good?” Across different cultural
contexts, children understood well-being holistically and were remarkably
concrete about what well-being is and how they experience it.
In summary, there are strong indications that identifying ways to support social connection in the digital environment and through digital play is likely to yield well-being benefits for children, provided that children are safe engaging in such social interactions.
Our creative, participatory workshops with 300 children from 13 countries, combined with the analysis of global datasets from over 35,000 children, have yielded a wealth of insights about children’s well-being, digital play and the potential relationship between them. These insights form the basis for the interim framework and accompanying indicators. The framework and indicators are designed to be intuitive and user-friendly, on the one hand, and robust and empirically informed, on the other.
The framework and accompanying indicators are primarily intended for businesses that produce digital products and services that are likely to be accessed by children, and by governments looking to promote the well-being of citizens within their digital transformation agendas. While the framework does not yet tell us precisely what play designs or mechanisms might produce particular well-being outcomes, it already provides a solid foundation for aspects to prioritize when designing digital experiences for children or considering child-centric outcomes to target through policy development, legislation and regulation.
Indicators suggest the kinds of things that companies need to be tracking, on the one hand, and designing for, on the other. Research to determine which play designs and mechanisms might produce particular well-being outcomes are currently being undertaken as part of Phase 2 of this project, which runs from 2022 to 2023, using this framework as the theoretical starting point.
The research revealed many opportunities for next steps to support children in digital play both for industry and policy makers.
Opportunities for Industry
Companies and designers should recognize and explore children’s understanding of their well-being further in their own local contexts and design play experiences (content, stories, tasks) that reflect children’s understanding.
Recommendations for industry include:
Design age-appropriate play experiences, aligning content with specific ages of children and stages in their development.
Design diverse forms of play that allow all children the freedom to pursue their preferred play style.
Explore forms of hybrid digital–physical play that require children to engage their body actively in physical and even tiring ways.
Strive to incorporate (voluntary) social connection into play experiences, making play with others easier and more accessible.
Integrate parents into the play experience, fostering parent–child play, parent education initiatives, and parent–child discussions about appropriateness.
Pay attention to cultural context, employing awareness and sensitivity around gender, religious and other norms, which may also be carefully challenged.
Build products that are accessible, especially for low- and middle-income contexts, being mindful of internet access, data costs, advertizing, in-game currency and pricing.
Invest in further cross-sectoral research in relation to the impact of digital technology on children and committing to share data, outputs and findings publicly.
Opportunities for Policy Makers
Recognize the diversity of children’s digital experiences, rather than treating their experiences as monolithic (and negative) ‘screentime’. This will enable those who work for children’s well-being in a digital age to provide more nuanced and granular guidance.
Recognize that children have unique vulnerabilities, as well as unique strengths and capabilities. Laws, regulations and codes that govern the design and deployment of digital technology and data for children should promote children’s rights and their well-being, balancing the need for protection with empowerment, and the importance of safety with the ability of children to access benefits and opportunities.
Understand children’s holistic concept of well-being, including physical, emotional and social aspects and actively promote human-centric well-being outcomes through legislation, regulation and codes relating to children and technology.
Recognize that a child is part of a broader social environment comprising family, friends and online peers, all of which influence their digital and real-world experiences.
Create campaigns and initiatives that actively integrate parents into children’s play experiences, whether through collaboration, discussion or other means.
Encourage and fund independent, high-quality research on how different digital experiences influence children’s well-being.
Explore opportunities to promote digital infrastructure that can make digital experiences more accessible and enjoyable for all children.
With the development of the interim well-being framework completed, the next phase of this research project is to continue the empirical validation of the findings from the exploratory research.
Ultimately, the framework will propose a set of empirically validated design features that support aspects of child well-being, as well as a final set of indicators and measures that companies can use to help guide their design processes and to begin to assess the impact of their digital experiences on child well-being. This work aims to be completed by 2023.
The opportunity ahead should not be underestimated. Digital technology is here to stay, its opportunities for children will continue to grow, and children will continue to engage with it throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. Collectively, we must continue to deepen our understanding of the risk of harm and commit to the adoption of measures to manage that risk. Nevertheless, this work should be complemented with a better understanding of opportunities and benefits for children, achieved through evidence-informed design choices and good corporate governance. This will help us put the rights and well-being of children first, and direct the powerful potential of digital innovation towards the realization of children’s best interests.