How Latino children in the U.S. engage in collaborative online information problem solving with their families

This guest post summarizes a research paper discussing how Latino children collaboratively search the internet with their adult family members to solve family needs. The research for this project began while Jason Yip was a Research Fellow at the Cooney Center in 2013-14, and has just been presented at the ACM Computer Supported Collaborative Work Conference on November 5th. Read the paper here.

Searching for online information is not equitable.

People search online to find recipes and to plan trips, but also to find answers to more important questions about health, education, and finances. A rich body of work has studied searching practices of monolingual English speakers for both children and adult. This body work has mainly focused on high income English speakers.

Lower-socioeconomic (SES) immigrant parents often rely on their children’s language skills to problem-solve family needs. Understanding this phenomenon is important because there are approximately 8 million U.S. children that have at least one English-language learner (ELL) immigrant parent. ELL immigrant parents, who are often navigating new social environments, rely on their children’s native English language skills and assistance to access online and offline information and resources related to critical contexts like health concerns, financial decisions, social service needs, and employment opportunities. A recent national survey of lower-income parents in the U.S. revealed that Latino immigrant parents with lower-SES status, limited English-language proficiency, and without a high school degree rely more on their children to use technology and make sense of information online compared to parents of other backgrounds. Thus, children in such families take on greater responsibilities that often follow them throughout adulthood.

In this blog we highlight the complex factors that impact collaborative online searching in bilingual families and second, how collaborative searching occurs in bilingual families.

Parents and children work collaboratively to address family needs using digital resources in a process we call Online Search and Brokering (OSB).

Despite previous work identifying that lower-SES families with ELL immigrant parents rely on their children to search for important information online, it is unknown: (1) how children use their language and digital literacy skills to search and make sense of information online, and (2) how children and parents work together together to find answers to questions that impact the family well-being. To answer these questions, we focused on lower-SES Latino families with ELL immigrant parents for three reasons.

First, Latinos are the fastest growing U.S. minority group. Second, they struggle to access information online. Third, they are an understudied community in our understanding of information search practices.

We observed Latino families searched for information online in their homes

One could argue that these questions could be answered by collecting search logs that describe the terms families use in their searches. But a quantitative description would not reveal how families search, how they integrate information from various resources, and how each family member’s skills and knowledge is used to enter those search terms that can be captured in logs.

To understand how collaborative Online Search and Brokering (OSB) occurs and the factors that impact OSB, we completed two home-visits with 23 Latino families in the Pacific Northwest. In the first home-visit we interviewed children (ages 10–17) and an adult family member separately about their experiences with technology and searching for information online. In the second visit we observed parent-child duos completing search tasks together using their devices and everyday processes.

Numerous factors impact the OSB process.

We learned families rely on many resources to solve their information needs. In this collaborative process, parents and children use their individual strengths, backgrounds, and skills, as well as extended friends and community members.

Despite their ability to leverage each other’s skills and pull from all these resources families still face challenges. One mother, Alicia, described how despite her daughter helping her write a job application, she was not able to post her job listing to an online neighborhood network.

Alicia (age 42, translation from Spanish): We [with help of my daughter] created an email account because it was required to sign up to a local neighborhood website where you can post and apply for jobs. Then I tried to log in… but I could not do it… I needed to be a member of the network… I am still not a member…

Alicia being an immigrant while navigating a new social environment lead to her being excluded from her community’s social network. Struggles like Alicia’s come from different interconnected factors, including parent limitations in digital literacy skills, access to resources, social connections and dealing with structural barriers.

Family members have mixed feelings about relying on each other.

We found that because each family member contributes a unique set of skills to the OSB process, this often created an environment where family members depended on each other and where tensions become evident. Teresa, mother of two, told us how she was conflicted about disclosing sensitive information to her children, but also felt she had limited options:

Teresa (age 45, translation from Spanish): I have been told that psychologists are now saying having children involved in so many adult decisions is not good for them… Who are we going to rely on when we need help?

Child participants shared with us that even when they wanted to help their parents, sometimes it was challenging to balance their parents requests while trying to do their homework:

Denise (age 14): I get frustrated because… I have my things to do, and I’m trying to hurry up…I’m helping them and … trying to do it like fast, but… I’ve got to do this fast because I have my homework.

Language translation makes OSB complex.

Sometimes, there was mistrust between parents and children because of doubt around the child’s Spanish language skills, translational abilities, and motivation to complete the task. The bilingual nature of OSB added another layer of complexity.

The level of bilingual skills needed to: navigate and find information in English, comprehend information in English, and then translate said information into Spanish is high. This complexity was heightened when parents needed their children to help them answer important questions related to banking, health, and politics. Despite the child’s desire to help, parents struggled to articulate their problem which led to children struggling to find answers to their parents’ questions. Ana, age 15, described:

Ana: Like, my dad’s shoulder pain…he’s giving me descriptions…there’s many things that it could go with…It might be pain… a nerve… there’s a lot of remedies that can help with it, but I can never tell him, it’s this specific one…

Despite facing challenges, families meaningfully engage digital tools.

It is very important to highlight how despite facing many barriers and challenges, families leveraged their available resources to search and find the information they needed. Children and parents found ways to search collaboratively (as seen in Figure 1). Elena, mother of two, described she split her phone screen with her daughter to work simultaneously on the same device:

Elena (age 40, translation from Spanish): I was with her [daughter] and I wanted to view videos. She needed to use the phone to do her homework … Then she said: ‘Wait mom, I will help you. You will see what you want on this side of the screen and I’ll be on the other half of the screen.’

Figure 1. A mother and her daughter working simultaneously on their cell-phone


A new form of searching: intergenerational, bilingual co-searching.

By examining how this community searches the internet for information we offer a new understanding of searching: co-searching that is intergenerational, bilingual, and between people with different set of digital skills and knowledge.

Our research uncovers the complexities of how children from ELL, Latino, low-SES, immigrant parents engage in collaborative online information problem-solving. Some questions that we hope to answer in future works include: How can we design software for collaborative intergenerational search to reduce the tensions that this practice implies? How does OSB manifest in communities other than the Latino immigrant community? How does OSB manifest between and elderly parent and adult child in lower-SES communities? In the future, we hope that more people study different kinds of families as they problem solve together using online information.

We thank the parents, children, and families that graciously welcomed us into their homes for this study.

Full Citation: Laura R. Pina, Carmen Gonzalez, Carolina Nieto, Wendy Roldan, Edgar Onofre, Jason C. Yip. 2018. ACM-Sheridan PACM Proceedings Sample File Title. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, CSCW, Article 140 (November 2018). ACM, New York, NY. 24X pages.


This post originally appeared on Medium and appears here with permission.

Wendy Roldan is a PhD Student in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.

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