copy the linklink copied!Chapter 14. Ensuring child well-being in a digital world: The pending agenda

Empowering an active and ethical (digital) generation is a key policy goal for education ministries across the OECD. As the culmination of this volume, this chapter highlights a number of transversal themes that have emerged through work with countries. Gaps in our knowledge and areas for improvement are identified that should be filled to help countries in educating 21st century children and the opportunities and challenges they face in the modern world.

The topic of well-being in the digital age is continuously evolving, and reports such as this can become quickly outdated. The work for education systems around the world is to try to stay ahead of, or at least on top of, the curve. Policy makers, educators and researchers are encouraged to consolidate their efforts and resources to continue to provide sound evidence for future decision-making on the emotional well-being of students in a digital world.


copy the linklink copied!Introduction

This publication aimed to shed light on the nature of modern childhood, with a particular focus on the emotional well-being of children in a digital age. Various trends in childhood, the challenges experienced by systems on these topics as well as the policy options proposed have been discussed along with examples of particular country practices.

The first decades of the 21st century are the intersection of a turn of a millennium and rapid technological change. One of the challenges of looking at modern childhood is that these topics tend to lend themselves to hyperbole and sensationalised by the media, for example with the introduction of new digital technologies and fears that they will “rewire children’s brains”. While there is a need to understand what has really changed in children’s lives, it is equally important to understand what has not changed. This underlines the importance of returning to research and evidence as a starting point, in order to understand the reality of children’s lives.

Another challenge is that these themes are of central importance to the education world but many of the specific elements and expertise lie outside of the sector. This is especially acute in the case of digital technologies, where the speed of change means that is it very difficult to develop a robust evidence base when studying what is essentially a moving target (for example, recent research looks at Facebook, but children are now much more likely to be on Snapchat and TikTok). This has two major implications: 1) at times the available evidence base is not sufficiently robust, with an abundance of theoretical and descriptive research and a noticeable lack of empirical findings (e.g. impacts of the use of screen time); and 2) the education sector may not always be aware of the most recent research from other fields. As a result, in addition to calling for more empirical research on the general topic, this publication has identified specific areas in which more research is particularly needed.

The improvement of the evidence base is crucial and should in turn be used to connect research to practice and better inform policy making. Although the need to better connect policy to research and research to practice is not unique to this topic, the sensitive – and sometimes political – nature of these issues and debates makes doing so particularly complex. The difficulty in connecting research to policy and practice is also exacerbated by a lack of connection among the various research disciplines doing work in this complex intersection of domains, such as medicine, neuroscience, economics, sociology, psychology and the learning sciences, to name just a few.

This chapter looks first at a number of transversal themes that have emerged across the work with countries and discussions of this publication. Gaps in our knowledge and areas for improvement are then identified, followed by orientations for policy, research and practice on assessing and improving the status quo. These orientations are necessarily general in nature, as policy solutions to particular challenges are often very context-dependent. Devising a “one size fits all” response to an inherently multifaceted issue is thus neither possible nor desirable. The general orientations presented in this chapter will be complemented by further thematic and contextual analysis in the next stage of the 21st Century Children project.

copy the linklink copied!Emerging transversal themes

Throughout the chapters in this volume the following transversal themes have emerged:

  • Key terms such as well-being and digital literacy are broad concepts with multiple meanings. Although there are a plethora of definitions, frameworks and assessment tools available, there is a need to develop better definitions and holistic measurement frameworks for skills, competencies and risks in order to adequately develop and support evidence-informed policy and practice in education. This is particularly true given the need for internationally comparable evidence for the inherently borderless digital world.

  • There is a disconnect between the available research and the policy discourse when it comes to many of the cyber risks. There is little evidence suggesting that a significant number of children/adolescents are dependent on devices to the extent that they are at risk of significant negative health outcomes, nor has there been an explosion in rates of cyberbullying, to name just two popular arguments. These claims are often supported by the media and taken up by parents, politicising the issue and applying pressure to respond quickly. This is problematic for both practice and policy, and underlines the importance of building and maintaining rigorous research on these key issues.

  • Changing attitudes and behaviours is neither simple nor rapid. Effective solutions to common challenges in education will require supporting teachers and schools in building capacity and developing knowledge and awareness. Teacher education (both initial and continuing professional development) will need to systematically address these issues in an ongoing manner, adapting and updating along with digital tools and ecosystems.

  • Given the multi-dimensional nature of well-being and the speed of technological change, it is essential that strong and effective partnerships be developed with multiple actors. These include actors already well known to the education system (e.g. parents) as well as actors that have traditionally not been closely connected (e.g. private technology firms). Developing mutually beneficial collaborations with these new actors will need to be particularly supported in order to effect lasting change as well as continuously develop the skills and knowledge required at all levels of the system, from central ministries to schools.

  • Although this volume focuses primarily on national or regional examples of good practice, international and regional co-operation is central to addressing the challenges in an inherently global world. Regional and international bodies will need to continue to seek to foster communication, co-ordination and co-operation across borders.

copy the linklink copied!Knowledge gaps and policy orientations

System-wide and governance issues

It is important to better understand the nature of modern childhood so that it may be taken into account in education systems. Without clear indications of what has changed (and what has not changed), what is being measured, and how the multiple factors interact, it is difficult to target efforts addressing disparities in educational performance and well-being outcomes to where they are most needed.

To accomplish this, relevant data must be collected and examined. Comparability across systems is not just desirable: it is essential in the global digital world. Developing our understanding of digital literacy and emotional well-being for all groups will benefit research, policy and practice. More specifically, this implies the following:

We need to refine our terms and measurements in order to improve analysis and policy; for example, when we talk about “digital literacy” and “resilience”

Defining and measuring digital skill and competency is an essential pre-requisite for developing relevant policy. At the present time there is a plethora of actors working on these issues, many with their own definition and measurement of key concepts, including such basics as “digital literacy”, “emotional well-being”, “digital citizenship” and “resilience”. Without an agreed and shared definition that is nuanced and holistic, we will not be able to generate the kinds of data that are required, both to build measurements of these competencies and to build capacity of teachers and parents to help develop these skills in children.

In addition, overly broad or overly narrow definitions of key terms can lead to inaccurate assumptions and the identification of trends that do not necessarily exist and are not comparable across time and contexts. For example, terms like “Internet addiction” are generally agreed to be misleading for multiple reasons. Not only do they potentially create social stigma that is unhelpful in supporting children and young people with “problematic interactive media use”, the term obscures the growing evidence that individuals who already suffer from anxiety or depression are more prone to engage in problematic use of technology. Causality is thus difficult to distinguish, and interventions will be most effective when addressing both online and offline concerns. Incorrect or misleading definitions thus not only obscure trends; they could also lead to less effective responses from policy and practice.

We need to address policy fragmentation

Although Ministries of Education are working hard to develop responses to the challenges they face, there is still a very fragmented policy environment in most systems when it comes to well-being and digital literacy. One difficulty is the inter-sectoral nature of these issues, which makes ownership and responsibility difficult to determine, particularly in the decentralised context of education in many countries. There is a difficult and long-lasting debate on the role of education in strengthening child well-being and health, and the relative responsibilities of families, education and schools, and other professionals and ministries. National strategies for coordinated policy responses across ministries and levels of government are becoming more common, but they are still not always present. And even if they have been developed, co-ordination of actors and roles requires careful attention for their implementation to be effective: as Chapter 10 points out, in most countries between four and six ministries are involved in policies related to child protection online alone.

In addition, in a digital (and therefore often global) world, developing a local or even national policy response is necessary but not sufficient. When it comes to cyber risks, for example, responsible parties might be in another jurisdiction and enforcement options are limited or even non-existent. While there are many new regional initiatives to reinforce the ability of cross-border legal and police responses, there is still considerable work to be done. Education ministries have an important role to play in this process, but at present partnerships between education, law enforcement and experts in cyber security are not widely established in most OECD countries.

We need to acknowledge the importance of culture, tradition and priorities

Increased migration, globalisation, urbanisation and digitalisation are just some of the mega-trends shaping education. Education must evolve to continue to deliver on its mission of supporting individuals to develop as persons, citizens and professionals. It must remain relevant to continue to shape our children’s identity and integration into society. But there is resistance to change, and education policy faces strong a priori beliefs, tied both to identity and personal experience, which can anchor systems in the past.

Delivering quality education in the 21st century thus requires adaptability and flexibility while still addressing sensitive topics related to national identity and values. This is a difficult and delicate conversation, with no one right course of action. Yet without open and active discussion, the impact of modern social, political, technological and demographic changes on schools and classrooms and the pressure on teachers to address these issues is unlikely to be adequately recognised.

In order to design, develop and implement a cohesive, system-level approach to preparing teachers for 21st century schools, open discussion among the relevant actors of changing roles and subsequent development needs is necessary. This includes acknowledging the diversity of points of view (for example, the reluctance of some parents to allow their children to take part in sex education curricula or school-based vaccination schemes). Finding the balance between the goals of education systems, the health of society at large and the rights and responsibilities of parents as central decision makers in the lives of children is crucial, and becomes especially relevant in diverse societies.

We need to adequately support our teachers

It is clear that in the effort to modernise today’s classrooms, teachers will be on the front lines. Schools and communities depend on educators to help integrate students of different languages and backgrounds, to be sensitive to cultural, linguistic and gender-related issues, to encourage tolerance and cohesion, and to respond effectively to the needs of all students. Teachers are also expected to prepare students for the digital world – to help them learn how to use the technologies and to keep up with new and rapidly developing fields of knowledge and skill sets. They are counted on to encourage students to be self-directed learners, and they play an active role in constructing their own learning environments and being open to the community.

All of these issues require specific knowledge, competencies and skills on the part of teachers. However, there is a growing disconnect between the expectations placed on teachers to fulfil these multiple roles and what they feel they can actually deliver with the time and resources available to them. Professional development to help equip them with these skills is not always fit for purpose, and too often these topics are not addressed, or addressed through a sole module, often as an optional elective. As systems increasingly recognise the need to prepare teachers for a diverse set of modern roles, there must be a systematic effort to integrate these topics and strategies into the curriculum of initial teacher preparation. It is also important to build on this training throughout teachers’ careers, so that they gain transversal exposure to knowledge and perspectives that can have a meaningful impact on their practice. There is also need to better connect the stages of teacher education to more thoroughly align the support they can access, and plan the timing of interventions such that they are available when they are most needed.

We need to include the voices of children

Children’s voices must be present and listened to when shaping policies at all levels of the system, as recommended by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the digital realm, the voices of children and youth must also be heard. Although there are mechanisms in place in many of the well-being initiatives to empower youth and children to speak and participate, more can be done to reach out to the most disadvantaged youth and younger children.

This is important, and not only from a child’s rights perspective. There are at least two additional reasons that this is key:

  • Including child and youth voices and perspectives will help focus more attention on the positive elements of digital technologies and the opportunities they afford. Currently there is a focus on protection and risks, which, while of course important, tends to obscure potential positive elements and the importance of empowering children and youth as active agents in their own development and education.

  • Children and youth tend to be early adopters of new digital technologies and they are also the most targeted group by digital software developers and platforms. Given the speed of technological change, parents, teachers and especially policy makers will have a hard time keeping up with these developments. It is thus imperative to keep the conversation with young people going in order to understand what they are using and why.

In addition, listening to the voices of children and youth helps to better understand the nuances of behaviours and expectations. For example, in the realm of privacy, there is emerging work on children’s capacity to consent to shared data, for example, and their understanding of their own privacy and how their behaviours can affect the privacy of peers (for example when they share photos or post about other children). Although it is often assumed that children and youth do not understand or do not care about their privacy, the most recent research indicates that they have a fluid understanding of their privacy, valuing specific elements over others and choosing when and where to reveal data about themselves. They may also sometimes choose to prioritise popularity (measured by the number of likes or shares on certain apps, for example) over privacy.

In general, children and youth are becoming more critical and shrewder about what they see online. This understanding and these choices need to be included when designing policy, and teaching and building digital skill and competence in the classroom.

We need to acknowledge that education cannot do it alone

Focusing on student well-being in a digital world means that educators are increasingly expected to work in partnership with other actors. These include parents and families, but also health professionals, psychologists and law enforcement. Increasingly, they also include cybersecurity professionals and programmers. Developing, maintaining and supporting partnerships with such a diverse set of actors, some of whom (for example those from the private sector) have different aims and goals, is a complex challenge. Although historically public and private partnerships have been limited in many systems, the speed of change of digital technology makes connecting to the expertise of the sector (the majority of which is concentrated in private tech firms) more imperative.

This has a number of repercussions, including thinking through what this means for the protection of education as a public good and how to build capacity across the system, from the central ministry to the classroom, to continuously learn and evolve digital competencies along with technological change. In addition, as much of the directly measured (i.e. from user behaviour) digital use data is owned by private companies such as social media platforms and other providers, there is also a need for agreement on sharing data and measurements for policy and research purposes.

Although more difficult to manage given the different goals of public and private actors, these partnerships will need to be strengthened in order to ensure that schools and education systems more generally can keep up with the rapid speed of technological change, which makes understanding both opportunities and risks a moving target.

We need to move from reactionary to proactive planning and strategy

Education must evolve and grow with our societies, anticipating change rather than simply reacting to problems. The speed of change of the digital world makes this both more difficult and more imperative. This underlines the importance of returning to research and evidence as a starting point, in order to understand the reality of children’s lives and to devise responsible policy solutions to challenges observed.

This is essential given the inclusion of an ever more diverse set of actors in education policy and practice. The media, for example, have been actively involved in highlighting the various dangers and cyber risks. Concerned parents and communities use social media to share reports of what can be inaccurate or misleading trends (e.g. recent reports of Momo, which turned out to be a hoax). This puts policy makers under serious pressure to react swiftly, and as a result policy development may be more responsive to sensationalised media reporting and high profile incidents rather than driven by reliable and representative data. Proactive planning, developing strategies for generating useable data, and having it available as and when needed for policy, are all crucial in order to allow us to proactively adapt and develop along with our communities and children.

Strategic planning and governance requires alignment between evaluation, assessment and policy planning and design

Designing and developing effective policies requires identifying what works, under which conditions and for whom. Yet monitoring and evaluation are often the weakest link in the policy cycle - they can be low quality, not suited for purpose or potentially skipped altogether. They can rely exclusively on self-report or look at the picture too broadly to assess particular impacts of ambitious policies. For political or logistical reasons (e.g. timing of elections or budget cycles) decisions on whether to fund/not fund certain projects are often taken before the evaluation is completed. And while they are often not designed to deliver causal understandings of relationships, they can be mistakenly interpreted to do so.

Many of the country examples provided for the 21st Century Children Policy Questionnaire did not clearly state whether or not they had been proven to be effective. The type of evaluation used and results were also often unclear. As one of the main goals of monitoring and evaluation is to improve the factual basis for decision making, both from a policy and a political standpoint, it is crucial that these features of programme implementation and operation be continually strengthened and reinforced in education.

We need to strengthen the use of evidence-informed policy and practice in education

Barriers to using research to inform practice can include resistance on the individual level, such as when teachers or policy makers do not believe that a suggested change is appropriate. Perhaps more importantly, it may not always be clear what research findings mean and how they might be implemented in practice. Even when stakeholders are clearly convinced of the utility of suggested changes, there may be practical barriers to implementation in terms of the time and resources required.

On a systematic level, there may be resistance among policy makers on various levels, not because of mistrust of the research but due to reluctance to change existing teacher policy in an area that may not be viewed as under their own jurisdiction. As resistance to change on individual and system levels can be reduced with strategic interventions, efforts to encourage the use of research in policy and practice should be made accordingly, especially by local actors who can examine research results and determine the significance of these results within their specific context. Many of these initiatives require targeting and specific interventions, for example, through training for research literacy for practitioners, and/or helping to interpret and disseminate research results for a non-academic audience.

Strengthening the knowledge base

We need to improve our data and refine our terms in order to improve analysis and support more effective policy action

There is significant mismatch between the public discourse and the evidence available. There is widespread concern about the impact of the increased use of smartphones and of social media on mental health. However, the underlying data in many existing studies is not sufficiently developed and many newer forms of technology have had little to no research. To improve the evidence base and better inform policies, we need to improve the way we monitor usage and a host of other digital behaviours and skills.

There are several challenges to this. As already highlighted in the previous section, consistent approaches to definitions, methodologies and indicators are lacking. Surveys appear to be a common monitoring / measuring mechanism, but as self-report measures they are prone to bias. There are also misconceptions of digital literacy that need to be addressed. For example, in many frameworks digital and technological skills have been framed as a 'hard skill', part of the suite of subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is despite the body of research that demonstrates the importance of “soft” digital skills, and that it is these skills that make a difference in terms of generating positive outcomes from technology use.

Without consistent and shared definitions, agreement on how best to measure what (including multiple methods) and an understanding of how to use the data and results generated, it will be difficult to amass a body of useful knowledge on digital skills and behaviours.

In addition, there is a challenge about access and use of the data that is available. As much of the directly measured (i.e. from user behaviour) digital use data is owned by private companies such as social media platforms and other providers, there is also a need for agreements on sharing data and measurements for research purposes. A need for a systemic approach to evidence-based policy making continues to be essential in determining policy priorities and in maximising protections that can be afforded by national policies.

We need to selectively target and fund high quality and rigorous research on child emotional well-being and digital technology use

In order to develop comprehensive and well-informed guidelines on children’s use of digital technology, there is a need for more high quality research in this field. Regional, national and international policy agendas can help fill these gaps by selectively funding research in these areas. Some examples of research priorities include:

  • work on younger children (i.e. 0-8 years old)

  • greater emphasis on how and why children use technology, and what phenomena like “screen-stacking” could mean for processes such as attention or working memory

  • understanding the changing landscape of digital technology use and what this means for skills. For example, the ubiquity of mobiles has in many cases concentrated use to smartphones and their apps, at the expense of computers or tablets. Using apps is not a generic digital skill, nor is it active content production skills. How is this related (or not) to the promise of creative self-expression and empowerment that comes with digital technology? To digital skill development more generally?

  • establishing causal links between technology use and child outcomes, and understand underlying mechanisms

  • understanding recovery after exposure to a cyber risk, to identify where and how children seek help, what works in which context, and to help deliver messages on what they should they do if it happens again.

  • a deeper exploration of the benefits associated with technology use such as social capital formation, enhanced cognition (i.e. spatial processing, working memory), physical activity and teaching and learning processes.

In terms of emotional well-being, while many studies have examined the trends as well as the causes and consequences of emotional well-being and ill-being among children and adolescents, there are still areas of uncertainty. In addition, the available evidence is often not translated for an educational audience, and research results too often remain in their original field without much further dissemination, making it difficult to create links between multidisciplinary research findings.

Research priorities for emotional well-being include:

  • inclusion of patient-based studies, not just healthy populations, when studying mental health issues or concerns

  • examining multiple outcomes and indicators (i.e.  the combined effects of stress, anxiety and depression rather than each independently) to better understand what works, when and in which contexts

  • understanding how to involve different actors in prevention/detection/intervention to enhance effective programme implementation and delivery.

For both digital technology and emotional well-being, there is a need for:

  • longitudinal studies

  • controlled experiments with representative samples

  • comparable international indicators, including trend data across time that is disaggregated by age or stage of childhood/adolescence

  • data on networks and peers

  • better use of existing big data (or data from apps), also in combination with other sources of information available (administrative, self-reports etc.)

  • real world implications of outcomes in this field, as effect sizes published in studies are often small even if statistically significant. What do these results mean for the day-to-day lives of children and their peers? Does a “large” effect size translate into functional differences in a child’s daily cognition, behaviour, social relationships and educational outcomes?

  • clearly outlining the practicality of implementation in terms of costs, additional burden on teachers, and the necessary support that teachers need to carry out training and programmes to strengthen emotional well-being and digital competence.

We need to create and support research networks and brokerage agencies to help foster dialogue and dissemination as well as improve the interdisciplinary nature of the knowledge base

The dissemination of research results should be a planned and systematic process to allow for an interdisciplinary knowledge base that can better inform practice and policy. This could be fostered through the establishment of networks to stimulate dialogue and build communities among researchers themselves. This could also include creating or supporting brokerage agencies designed to provide the required links between research and practice as well as building relevant capacity both in the system and among stakeholders.

copy the linklink copied!And lastly,

Much of the discussion in this volume has necessarily used averages to generalise across countries and systems. However, averages hide important distinctions within and between countries and systems that cannot be overlooked. Inequality in opportunities begins at birth, and often widens as individuals grow older. Disparities in families’ capacity to support their children (including by getting them into good schools) continue to translate into differences in children’s achievements, both in outside of the school. This is true for educational achievement (and performance on tests, including PISA), educational attainment (children from more affluent families are less likely to drop out of school without a diploma and are more likely to complete tertiary education), labour market integration and later life success.

The discussion on social mobility and the intergenerational advantages of education is long-standing in both research and policy worlds. Behind the science are serious (and difficult) societal questions about the relative responsibilities of schools and families. Education is not a magic solution for disadvantage, and it cannot replace the formative role of parents in child development. Strong partnerships and collaboration with families and communities can contribute to better learning environments, but they cannot do it all.

This volume took a comprehensive look at emotional well-being and digital technologies in modern childhood, and the intersections between them. It identified key changes that often fall outside conventional education discourse and the challenges they could pose for education. It suggested possible solutions to these challenges, with the goal of providing research and policy options that will help countries in educating 21st century children and the opportunities and challenges they face in the modern world.

Many of these trends are a continuously moving target, and reports such as this can become quickly outdated. The work for education systems across the OECD is to try to stay ahead of, or at least on top of, the curve. To do this, education, like all public sectors, must break down its silos and work across government departments and research disciplines. It must engage an increasingly broad variety of actors, including the private sector. It must also evolve and grow as our societies and citizens develop, anticipating change and finding preventative solutions rather than simply reacting to problems.

By analysing the available research and data from a broad range of disciplines and linking these findings to educational policy and practice, this volume explores the potential of education systems to proactively adapt and change along with our communities and children. We owe it to our children and youth to separate fact from fiction, and help support them to get the best start in life.

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Chapter 14. Ensuring child well-being in a digital world: The pending agenda