How engaging children in digital media can enhance their learning

Dr Fiona Scott, Lecturer in the School of Education, has won a UK Literacy Association (UKLA) award for her ‘highly significant work in successfully expanding the understanding of young children’s engagement with media.’

Child playing with a Playstation controller

Dr Scott's research, which was funded by the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership, was in partnership with CBeebies. We spoke to Dr Scott to find out more about her work, and why her findings on children’s engagement with the media are impactful. 

Tell me about your work and what the impact of your work is.

The award I won is for literacy research, so the work was framed through the lens of literacy, but it looked particularly at young children’s engagement with a full range of media: anything from watching television to engaging with any kind of digital device, and the range of practices that relate to those activities. The research was very holistic, so I didn’t look at literacy in isolation as it is sometimes studied. This was more of an attempt to understand how children’s digital lives are part of an integrated, everyday whole.  

I studied child and family practices ethnographically, which means I was actually in family homes and spending time participating in their daily lives rather than as a detached observer. I was interested in seeing what the children’s media passions were, what they did in relation to media and how digital devices fit in with their lives more broadly. 

One finding that has important implications relates to the role of parents, which has historically been looked at in media research in a specific way. Parents are often studied as mediators of children’s digital lives, for example, looking at how they prevent possible harm to children, but my study suggests that this focus on harm alone is quite outdated thinking. Yes, it’s important that parents do things that try to limit potential harm that their children can be exposed to through digital engagement, but they also adopt very positive and instructional practices with media, like extending their children’s media use into opportunities for further, related learning.

For example, there were two young brothers in my study who were interested in Castle Crashers, which is a video game. People might say that Castle Crashers has limited value because it’s just a quest type video game, but the grandparents of these boys knew they loved the game and went online to find 3D templates that could be printed, cut and pasted to create cardboard Castle Crashers characters. So the boys helped them in locating the templates online, printing them out, then colouring them in, cutting them out and sticking them together to create these characters. Then they would role play with the characters. 

So with the support of their parents or other family members, children’s full media engagement goes far beyond the moment when they’re playing a game or watching a TV show. Parents are extending that interest into other areas of learning and play, some of which can be considered quite traditionally educational and some of which develops a range of other important skills less likely to be valued in mainstream education, including critical media literacies. 

What is your background in children’s literacy and media?

I originally worked in market research when I left university and as part of that, I worked in audience research where I looked at theatre and museum visits. I got a job at The University of Sheffield in the Psychology department doing completely unrelated research into public attitudes to energy issues, but I really enjoyed academic research, so looked for an opportunity to do a PhD. I saw that Professor Jackie Marsh in the School of Education was promoting an opportunity in children’s media research. It seemed to tie my interests together really well, as it linked the social research I’d done in the past with my interest in media, and also focused on socio-economic difference as well. So it wasn’t a project I’d designed myself, but it tied together my experience and my interests really nicely. 

I completed my PhD in 2018 and I’m now a Lecturer in Digital Literacies in the School of Education, continuing my research into children and media. I worked on a project with LEGO recently, as they were really interested in the technology aspects of their toys, and they wanted to do a project that looked at children, technology and play. Again, I was looking at the role of parents in that and how parents engage with their children’s media use. 

The other project I’ve been working on is with a Sheffield company called Twinkl, who developed an augmented reality app called Little Red Coding Club. It was designed to teach children basic coding through augmented reality, based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. As part of this work, I’ve developed a framework for Early Coding Skills and Knowledge

How are you hoping your research will impact on children and families?

Although my PhD thesis is out and available, I’m still working on a number of papers from the thesis which I hope will help make a bigger impact. I have discussed and disseminated the implications with people through parents forums and academic conferences. I want my research to support both parents and teachers.

In terms of the parents of preschoolers, a lot of the time parents are trying to support their children in relation to their digital practices, so they do support their children’s digital abilities, but they are also doing things beyond that and I don’t think they’re always aware of how much they are doing to help their children. The mainstream media can be really unhelpful with this, because the messaging is often very negative around children having too much screen time. So the message I really want to share off the back of my research is that parents are already doing valuable things to help their children learn with technology, both in terms of mastering digital skills but also in terms of extending their learning beyond the purely digital. I mean, with the country on lockdown with Covid-19, I think that many parents are becoming aware of how much traditional school learning they can support using digital technology. They should be aware of the positive work they are already doing and some of the examples in the thesis also highlight other positive ways they can build on their children’s digital interests. 

Parents have known for a long time that it’s valuable to read books with children at home and that they can support their children that way, but they don’t yet have that perception about digital learning or even watching the television with their children. I would argue that it’s not time wasting. We know that busy parents and carers can’t afford to do that all the time, but the time they do spend with their children and technology is, to me, just as valuable as time spent reading traditional texts with them. 

The other aspect of the research is that there are implications for social class, too. While every family is different, I had some more conventionally working-class families and some more conventionally middle-class families in the study and their digital practices differed in some important ways. One of the things I found was that the way the conventionally middle-class families extended their children’s digital learning was through very traditionally ‘school’ type activities. You see a lot of middle-class parents emphasising phonics or word-learning when their children watch television or play digital games. Whereas the working-class families in the study also extended their children’s learning in valuable ways, but they tended to be in less traditionally ‘school-specific’ ways. So the working-class families did a lot of supporting their children’s operational skills, like how to use devices and because the working-class families were more likely to allow their children to be exposed to things like grown-up advertising, they had conversations with their preschoolers that helped them to develop sophisticated critical thinking skills about the nature of advertising. So because the children would watch adverts, they were then having discussions about what advertising was, whereas the middle-class parents tended to be less likely to allow their children to watch as much ‘grown-up’ TV with more adverts on. 

These differences have implications in terms of early childhood education. In many schools, children’s digital interests aren’t really welcomed if they fall outside mainstream expectations of what children should be engaging with or doing in relation to the digital. But if early years practitioners and teachers in key stage 1 are aware of the rich ways children are learning from media at home, then they will be more able to capitalise and build on those practices as opportunities for learning. Particularly around things like critical thinking skills, but also that if they perceive certain skills with certain media as being more or less valuable than others, then that could serve to increase inequalities in education. So, some of the young boys in my study watch action-oriented cartoons and engage in lots of boisterous fighting roleplay informed by those cartoons. Some of this role play shows sophisticated understanding of the cartoon genres the boys are passionate about and the boys interests encourage them to construct their own narratives. If that play comes into preschool or Key Stage 1 and is shut down as being inappropriate or lacking in value, then those educators are failing to value something important, as well as missing out on opportunities to build on those interests as an opportunity for further learning.

As preschool children grow, they will be more and more integrated with digital media. In this sense, why is learning via technology important for kids in our highly digital age?

I think, as you say, technology will continue to play an increasing role in the lives of children and adults in the future. It is, of course, important that children have the skills necessary to use digital devices and that they are equipped to adapt to changing technologies. We might call these skills ‘operational digital literacies’. But what research in the field of digital literacies really highlights is that children also need the skills to be active digital producers as well as informed consumers of texts digitally. Some examples might include the ability to code, produce short films or navigate conducting their professional lives partially online through social media. So we’re talking about a much messier and more complex range of skills, here. One example is developing sophisticated criticality in relation to the information presented online. 

We know that many adults of our own generation lack critical digital literacy skills and this contributes to the phenomenon of fake news being spread online. Thinking in terms of the future, I think it is so important that parents and very young children are beginning to have conversations about digital texts as soon as possible, what they mean, what they’re designed to do and how those aims are accomplished using different modes of communication. 

What did CBeebies gain from this research?

One important implication of the research for the children’s media industry that I have discussed with CBeebies is that we need to think about classed aspects of the children’s market in much more nuanced ways. Children’s tastes may vary across socioeconomic boundaries, but it’s equally important to look at practices - what do different families do in relation to media? 

How did it feel to win the UKLA award for 2020?

My supervisor, Professor Jackie Marsh, nominated me for the award, so that was lovely. It feels wonderful to be recognised for my work. It has been a while since I finished my thesis, so it had completely gone out of my mind that I had been nominated and, amongst so much uncertainty and bad news globally, it was a very welcome piece of good news. 

This niche will continue to be my area of research and I think it’s so important. With Covid-19, parents are relying so much on digital devices for home-learning and I suspect some attitudes will shift. The socio-economic elements of my research are probably more important than ever, in terms of differential access to devices, but also in terms understanding the ways that different parents support different children with digital engagement in different contexts and communities. 

The award really does help. As an academic, it can sometimes feel like you’re doing a lot of hard work which is very critiqued and it’s very rare you get told you’re doing a good job. So that recognition feels really valuable to me. 

To find out more about Dr Scott's work, follow @_FionaScott on Twitter. 

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