Exploring How “Digital Families” Shape Children’s Learning

by Jason Yip
December 11, 2017

How did I become a researcher on children, families, and digital media?

Jason Yip

In September 2013, I started as a Cooney Center Research Fellow, trying to find my way in the world.

I was just completing my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park and had done a dissertation on the development of science ownership in children as they engaged in social media use for science learning. One of the insights from my doctoral work was that the families in my study didn’t know what their children were doing in our after-school science program. I assumed children would be telling their parents about new and exciting insights they got from engaging in kitchen science activities and using iPads to document all that was going on. But according to my interviews, the kids didn’t really say much to their parents. I wondered about this for a while: Why didn’t the children and their parents talk about what was going on? Soon, it occurred to me that it was because we, as design researchers, didn’t actually design for that type of engagement.

Fast forward to the fall of 2013 and my time at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (JGCC) as a bright-eyed new Research Fellow. I wanted to spend my time at the JGCC thinking more about designing learning opportunities for families. For the next year, Lori Takeuchi had me engage with the Families and Media Project (FAM). As part of my time with FAM, I spent a lot of time with scholars all around the country thinking very deeply about the role that technology plays for intentional and unintentional opportunities for learning.

My time in the FAM group taught me a lot about what it means to study families as a unit, rather than just children. There’s a popular (but false) narrative of children as “digital natives”. This view presumes that children are the experts at using technology, and that adults and children are very different in the ways they engage around technology and media. A lot of research conducted by the FAM group greatly contradicts this myth. In our new book, Children and Families in the Digital Age: Learning Together in a Media Saturated Culture, we delve right in and show that media and technology are not just ancillary parts of family life. Instead, the use of digital technologies and media are greatly intertwined with family routines, learning, values, relationships, and goals. Much of our work dispels the myth of singular positive and negative portrayals of technological interaction.

My contribution to this book was born out of my experience and research on Internet searching habits of children conducted at the University of Maryland. While doing my dissertation, I spent a couple of years working with Allison Druin and Elizabeth Foss on understanding how children search on the Internet. We conceptualized a framework of “search roles” in which children and adolescents take on practices and engagements in online searching. Such roles include visual searchers that depend on pictures and videos for their searches, rule-bound searchers that conduct online searchers with their own rules, and developing searchers who are searching with very little online experience.

As I mentioned before, I spent my time in FAM meeting amazing scholars in the field of families, children, and digital media. Two such scholars were Dr. Vikki Katz (Associate Professor at Rutgers University, Communication) and Carmen Gonzalez (postdoctoral scholar at Rutgers University, now Assistant Professor at University of Washington, Communication School).

During my time with Vikki and Carmen, we found that my prior research for Internet searching had not included the views and perspectives of English language learning families, particularly from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds. Specifically, Vikki’s research on youth as brokers of media and technology demonstrated that the Latino youth in her studies helped their parents search for information on the Internet, but very little was known at the time what that experience was like.

Based on this gap in knowledge, the three of us decided to conduct a pilot study to begin to understand if youth searching the Internet together for their ELL families was a phenomenon worth studying. Turns out, it is. We interviewed 10 middle school youth (ages 11 – 14) from a local school serving a high-needs population of Latinos. In these interviews, we also had the youth engage in online search tasks with a laptop to try to examine how they would search for their parents. We found that youth not only searched for low-priority information (e.g., directions, recipes, shopping), they also needed to help their parents with high-priority information (e.g., health, education, finances). However, youth had to develop creative strategies to navigate the very high level and complex information. Many of the youth expressed that, while they were very close with their ELL parents, online searching and brokering was often filled with tension and pressure.

Overall, my time in the FAM group proved to be very productive in helping me understand more about why families matter when it comes to studying digital technology and learning. For many families, it is about developing meaningful connectivity for learning and understanding the larger role of families when it comes to learning. Today, at the University of Washington, I am an assistant professor of “digital youth”, but I often tell people I focus on “digital families.” My research now focuses on how technology supports collaborative learning between children and their families. I haven’t forgotten my time at the Cooney Center and continue to focus on research projects that push our understanding of how families collaborate together. Both Carmen and I have a Google Faculty Research Award that helped to fund our research on search and brokering in Latino ELL families. We have just wrapped up an in-home study in which we interviewed and conducted search studies with 24 ELL Latino families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We hope to continue this work around digital media and families and that the book provides an opportunity to spur ideas, conversations, and new perspectives on why families matter when it comes to learning and digital technologies for children.

  • dlaugh

    So, Jason, have you found a way to get children to share more with their parents about what they are learning through digital media than they share with their parents about what they are learning in school in general? Everyday my kids get off the bus and tell me basically “nothing” when I ask what they learned that day. Just like I did to my mom. 🙂

    • Jason Yip

      Hi, sorry for the delay in reply. Yes, we did find in our research that children can share more with their parents through digital media. We wrote a paper last year about Pokemon Go and families.


      You can skip to the “FAMILY BONDING” section of that paper (see below, P11 reminds me about your situation). Here, we saw families finding ways to talk more through Pokemon Go. The long story short is that parents don’t need to know everything that goes on in a day at school for their child, but that there are also instances where kids do open up when engage together with their parents (digital or non-digital engagements).

      “Yet, in many instances, there was a shift in expertise: children were the experts in the game and parents were open to learning. Children taught their parents about it and/or parents made efforts to learn about the game,
      reportedly facilitating bonding. P2, a mother of a 10-year old boy, relayed how her son has taught her “a lot about the game,” which was different from when she “didn’t care” about engaging with or learning from her son while he was playing Pokémon on his Nintendo DS.

      Along the same lines, P10, a mother who just began playing with her 10-
      year-old son, said, “I’m just amazed at how much I learned about this game so I could understand what he’s talking about.” In both examples, parents were making efforts to learn about a game in which their children were interested to facilitate playing and talking about the game together.

      Some parents also explicitly mentioned that they thought this type of bonding would not have occurred without the game. S25, a 43-year-old parent who goes out every night with their 16-year-old daughter to play Pokémon GO as “basically her chauffeur and bodyguard,” said that the
      game allows them to spend quality time together, and “as an older teen that’s not always something that happens.”

      P11, a 27-year-old mother, indicated that the game gave she and her 7-year-old son “common ground to interact”. A 41- year-old mother (P9) who plays with her 8-year-old son, explained: “I think it’s just helping us find a common thing we can do together as a mom and a boy, and that’s really awesome for me. I’m excited about that. I like that he wants to share with me and talk to me about it. As a boy coming home from school, they don’t tell you what they ate, or they don’t tell you what their teacher said, but now he’s telling me this stuff so it’s a good way to be communicating. I think
      hopefully it will keep transcending into him wanting to communicate about more things.” Playing the game together has caused them to talk more, especially (as she points out) as a mother and son.

      Similarly, fathers expressed the same sentiment about their daughters. Both
      fathers P13 and P14 noted they were talking more with their daughters since playing Pokémon GO.”

      • dlaugh

        Thanks for the thorough response, Jason. As a gamer myself (53) I have had a great time playing and sharing with my sons (10 and 7). We’ve logged a lot of Minecraft time and share a lot of game talk and references to games in other conversations. It has certainly been good for bonding so far. I hope it continues as they get older. Sadly, I have not seen a transfer to the after school conversations. Not even when I went into school to help with Hour of Code before Christmas.

        On a generational note, my mother (75) still does not get it. Rather than being happy my kids and I have a common interest, she accused over Christmas of “just brainwashing them to like what you like”. So fifty years later, she still doesn’t see the value of having a shared interest with one’s kids.

        I look forward to reading the paper you linked. Keep up the good work.