‘It is a soft-toy. It helps you to fall asleep. There can’t be a computer in it!’ Reflecting on the research of Pekka Mertala

Last week the Deakin node of the Australian Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child welcomed Dr Pekka Mertala from University of Oulu, Finland to speak at our meeting. Pekka is a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Education, focusing on media cultures and young children’s media literacies. In the meeting he discussed his article ‘Young children’s perceptions of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things’, which was published in 2020 in the British Journal of Educational Technology. This article is of interest to the researchers in the node but has relevance to the mapping data in the home project as, in many respects, it explores how the material forms of digital technologies shape children’s understandings and beliefs about it. 

The article starts from the premise that very little is known about how young children (3-6 years) perceive ubiquitous computing and the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT), particularly in relation to connected toys. The findings from the early stages of the project highlight just how sceptical children are toward the idea that tangible objects, such as stuffed toys and other traditionally analogue materials, can be connected to the internet. This aligned with similar studies in which children’s understanding of the internet and digital technologies tend to be ‘generally narrow’ (p.56).

Pekka’s study explored educative approaches to develop these understandings in young children. This is particularly important as with this new and expanding class of technologies, it is very easy for them to sink into the background of our everyday lives with little consideration for their implications. The study sought to examine not only what children know about these technologies but also how they express their understandings, and highlighted the prominence of what he describes as ‘activity based’ explanations of digital technologies or what can be done with the technologies. This can be contrasted with ‘function-based’ (i.e. how digital technologies work) or ‘tool-based’ (i.e. what counts as digital technologies) explanations.  

In the presentation, Pekka stressed the importance of using concrete materials to help make the invisible more visible; the abstract more comprehensible. Using ‘traditional’ arts and crafts to explore the digital was also helpful for educators, as they often report feeling overwhelmed by the need to keep up-to-date with new technologies. Using analogue materials was far less intimidating for them yet helped them to initiate some useful conversations with children.  

Interestingly, even after attempting to develop the children’s understandings many could not be convinced that a teddy bear could be connected to the internet through a computer. In one of the participant’s words the teddy bear ‘is a soft-toy. It helps you to fall asleep. There can’t be a computer in it!’ (p.94). Pekka concludes that for this child soft toys and digital technologies are ‘mutually exclusive categories’ (p.94). Indeed, it is likely many children have this logic particularly if families and educators tend to develop understandings around fairly typical hardware (i.e. computers, mobile phones etc).

What we have taken from this presentation is the need to not only map the different data infrastructures in the home, but also support families to educate their young children about exactly what is connected to the internet and perhaps even how it is generating data. Pekka’s presentation, and much of his work, highlights the need to include children’s voices in discussions of digital technologies, data and privacy. A recent article by Stoilova, Nandagiri and Livingstone, highlights that much of the research into data and privacy has tended to focus on digital platforms and very little has actually included young children’s voices. Coupled with Pekka’s findings there is clearly much work to be done in this area. Identifying what is understood by family members, what needs to be understood about data and privacy and how we can best support the development of these more critical understandings will be part of our focus. While we are in the early stages of our research into data in the home, it is hoped that later stages might yield some insights into how best to address these challenges.

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