Chapter 9. Digital media as a catalyst for joint attention and learning

Brigid Barron
Amber Levinson
Stanford University

In this chapter Brigid Barron and Amber Levinson argue that as digital activities become a growing part of young children’s experiences globally it is vital to consider not only what content children use, but also the social context and ways families can use technology collaboratively to support development and learning in and out of school. This chapter also emphasises equity concerns – both access to technology itself and information about how to use technology with children are unequally distributed. Insights from the learning sciences support the importance of social interaction and joint engagement between parents and children in order to get the most out of digitally mediated learning activities. The chapter closes with implications for parents, policy makers, designers and educators who want to leverage media as a resource for cognitive and social development.


Across the globe, digital technologies are transforming the ways people work, communicate, learn and play. This rapid innovation has led to great enthusiasm about the potential for networked tools to provide more children with low-cost access to learning opportunities that might help minimise existing educational inequities both between and within countries. At the same time, as devices and Internet connections become more available to a greater proportion of the world’s children, there is growing evidence that the quality of access and forms of use differ among more and less developed countries raising concerns that a “second digital divide” may widen existing differences in learning, achievement and other life outcomes (UNICEF, 2017[1]). Even within developed countries like the United States, adults are differentially prepared to use the Internet (Horrigan, 2016[2]) and consequently teachers’ and families’ understanding of how to leverage technology to support children’s learning varies widely (Livingstone et al., 2017[3]).

In this chapter we argue that as digital activities become a growing part of young children’s experiences at increasingly younger ages (Rideout, 2017[4]), it is vital to consider not only what content children use, but how families can use technology collaboratively to support development and learning in and out of school (Lauricella, Blackwell and Wartella, 2017[5]). We begin by summarising recent policy-oriented reports that foreground the need to continually track issues of equity related to access to tools, forms of use and the importance of building collaborative social networks that provide learning opportunities. We next focus in on families, and share insights from the learning sciences that point to the importance of capitalising on social interaction and joint engagement between parents and children for getting the most out of digitally mediated learning activities, providing findings from research in the United States, Europe and in developing countries. We close with implications of these findings for parents, policy makers, designers and educators who want to leverage media as a resource for cognitive and social development.

Global portraits of access to digital content and networked devices

A recent UNICEF report Children in a Digital World highlights both the opportunities and dangers presented by the rapidly shifting landscape of new technologies. Although concerns about data privacy, access to inappropriate content and increased potential for exploitation are raised, the report also highlights a different challenge; growing evidence of differential use by children and youth with more financial assets, digital skills, access to devices, or the quality and stability of their Internet connections that can help them use the technology in empowered ways (Dutta, Geiger and Lanvin, 2015[6]). Over a third of youth worldwide do not have Internet access and most of these young people are in developing countries. Those who speak minority languages are also at a disadvantage as most of the content provided through the Internet is in English (UNICEF, 2017[1]).

Reports based on US Census data also provide clear links between access and income (Ryan and Lewis, 2017[7]). Among households earning less than USD 25 000.00 a year, over half have do not have access to both the Internet and a computer. Overall, only 62% of households had high connectivity defined as having a desktop or laptop, a mobile device and a broadband Internet subscription. Moreover, access is linked to adults’ confidence in using technology. A recent Pew Research Center report focusing on adults’ readiness for using the Internet showed that adoption of technology for adult learning in both personal and job-related activities varies according to the individual’s socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, and level of access to home broadband and smartphones (Horrigan, 2016[2]).

Although lack of access is a significant concern, there are also important questions about how technology can be used to support learning and what support adults need to scaffold powerful engagement. Several studies have found that teachers in less affluent schools use technology for drill and practice rather than inquiry or creation (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2010[8]). Teachers in less affluent communities also report fewer opportunities to learn to use technology that their peers who teach in more affluent schools (Dolan, 2016[9]; Purcell et al., 2013[10]). Parents also need more learning opportunities to ensure that technology use at home becomes a resource for learning and development. Young children’s time using mobile devices more than tripled between 2013 and 2017 in the United States, moving from an average of 15 minutes to 48 minutes daily with much of this time spent playing games or watching online video. At present, parents are often learning through experimentation with practices and policies at home and by getting advice from their own social networks. Several studies suggest that parents would like more help from teachers or other professionals in finding high quality digital media. Rideout (2014[11]; 2017[4]) reports that they have downloaded apps for their children, this desire for more information is critical to respond to.

As conversations around digital media and young children evolve from quantifying “screen time” to consider content and context, research in the learning sciences offers some valuable perspective that can inform best practices. In the next section, we discuss ways that digital media when selected and used intentionally can support social and cognitive development, drawing from basic research in the science of learning. In particular we build on what we know about social processes in learning and development to argue that joint attention focused on media can be a potent resource for learning between children and their caregivers. To illustrate these concepts, we share examples of powerful uses of technology for co-learning to align home and school to advance academic skills, to support interest development and to position children to create and critique new media.

Powerful uses of technology for joint engagement and learning

What can productive co-engagement with media look like in practice, according to the research? Research in the learning sciences emphasises joint attention as an important means of building a basis for inter-subjectivity – the shared understanding of what is happening and what will happen next. It allows parents and their caregivers to build common ground and a collective understanding through questions, observations and explanations. The quality as well as the quantity of joint attention matters for learning (Rowe, 2012[12]). Books, games, television and interactive media are designed artefacts that have the potential to become foci for joint attention and learning conversations that can support cognitive and social development. Through routine interactions the child acquires not only skills but the cultural tools that have been developed over long periods of time, such as writing systems, maps, language and numerical systems (Vygotsky, 1978[13]). Increasingly, these cultural tools include and are found on digital devices, and adult-child interactions with and around media have been termed joint media engagement (Takeuchi et al., 2011[14]).

Parent knowledge, skill and attitudes towards using technology are key in shaping children’s digital experiences, and thus parent access to relevant information and models is extremely important in order to support productive joint engagement with media. In a survey of over 6 000 European families researchers found that parent expertise with technology is a pivotal factor in children’s digital skills (Livingstone et al., 2017[3]). Parents who adopt a “restrictive” style with regard to their children’s technology use may shield children from risks of online engagement, but also undermine their ability to learn and benefit from digital activities. When parents adopt an “enabling” style, which includes monitoring and mediation for safety, as well as sharing online experiences, supporting children’s efforts when they request it, children can encounter more risks but are also able to take greater advantage of online resources and activities, developing their own digital literacy. This digital parenting divide is linked to parent’s own feelings of confidence using technology with more confident parents reporting an enabling approach with less confident parents reporting restrictive practices. Surveys in the United States have also found that parents’ use of technology for their own learning was linked to children’s use of educational media at home (Rideout, 2014[11]) and in other studies parents’ use of technology in their work has been shown to influence the ways they support their children’s technological activities (Barron et al., 2014[15]).

For young children, digital media resources can serve as a particularly powerful learning tool when adults and children use them as a catalyst for discussions that include question generation, problem-solving, explanations and the sharing of perspectives that build connections to real world experiences. Looking more deeply at specific adult practices to support learning, Barron and Levinson (2017[16]) identified four strategies for co-engagement with media, including 1) media curation, or connecting the child with specific resources based on interest or learning goals; 2) conversational anchoring, or using media to illustrate or explain concepts; 3) interest-driven searches, in which adults and children use technology as a tool for collaborative inquiry; and 4) co-play and content creation, in which adults and children are partners in play or making creative projects. Below we summarise findings from across the research literature, organised by three major roles that co-engagement with technology can play in enhancing learning for young children, relevant in both home (parent-child) and school (educator-child) settings: to support interest development, to align home and school to advance academic skills, and to position children to create and critique new media. These roles and the associated examples are not exhaustive but provide important implications for practice.

Extending and deepening children’s interests.

Parents and educators can play an active role in brokering future learning by connecting children with the specific media resources that can deepen their engagement, expertise and interests (Barron et al., 2009[17]). Studies that chart the evolution of interests prospectively or retrospectively point to the important roles of families and well as schools in sustaining engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and other academic topics (Bloom and Sosniak, 1985[18]; Crowley et al., 2015[19]). This research shows that it is typically not one experience that leads to a sustained interest but a confluence of opportunities and supports that facilitate connections to a domain. In most cases, a wide array of activities, experiences, material resources and social interactions sustain engagement in a topic (Azevedo, 2013[20]). It is the accumulation of diverse sets of variably engaging experiences over time that account for expertise development, though occasionally one powerful experience is transformative. An important implication of the distributed nature of learning is that a single experience may not have an immediately recognisable or detectable effect on knowledge or interest, despite the fact that it may contribute importantly to outcomes that show up later.

Digital media can provide access to resources related to myriad topics and can be used as a means of providing children with additional experiences that may spark, extend and/or deepen interest. For example, Levinson (2014[21]) documented a young girl’s use of YouTube to develop an interest in building do-it-yourself projects with her mother. Barron and Levinson (2017[16]) describe how a single mother recorded episodes of the factual television show “How It’s Made” that built on her son’s interest in building and engineering and were the basis for family conversations on these topics. Further, books and stories can be accessed in digital form via computers and mobile devices, and can increase access to relevant reading content in local languages for communities throughout the world who may not have access to the same array of books in print form (Heavner and Lowe, 2017[22]).

Aligning home and school settings

Another powerful use of technology for learning is to create stronger connections and alignment between home and school learning. Educators and researchers have pointed to the need for better understanding between family and school contexts to support learning particularly for children from underserved communities whose families’ own schooling histories and experiences may differ from those of middle or upper-SES families. Technology can play a role not only in supporting direct communication between home and school, such as messaging between parents and teachers or providing parents access to assignments and grades, it can also play a role in connecting actual learning activities that children engage in across home and school settings.

Research has indicated ways in which parent-child media activities at home can strengthen academic skills in school. In one study, parents and caregivers were given a maths app to use with children at home as a bedtime routine and found that those children’s maths scores at school increased significantly more than did those of a control group who received a reading activity (Berkowitz et al., 2015[23]). Digital libraries of books, which can be accessed at school or on devices at home, can provide opportunities for students to engage with the same texts at home and in school (Levinson, 2014[21]), and also can provide data to educators on the reading students do outside of class. In school settings, technology can also provide the means to connect academic activities with out-of-school interests; for example Walkington (2013[24]) found that computer-based word problems that were personalised to students’ out of school interests led to better performance for those students, and the effect was particularly pronounced for students who had been struggling with maths. In the literacy domain, Ready4K, a text messaging programme targeted at parents of pre-schoolers providing tips for supporting early literacy at home, has been linked to improved literacy scores in some areas as well as higher rates of home literacy activities and school engagement as reported by parents (York, Loeb and Doss, 2014[25]).

Co-creating with technology

Digital devices not only provide a means for searching for and consuming content and information – they are a tool for expression. Educators and researchers have argued that creating with media is an important skill set and area of literacy for children to develop (Barron et al., 2014[15]). Devices such as smartphones and tablets offer cameras, microphones and a wide range of creative applications that enable children and families to capture experiences and create original work in a variety of media. These capabilities can empower children to be creators and authors from a young age, and adults can play an important role in supporting this process.

Research emphasises storytelling and narrative as important building blocks for literacy development (Cassell, 2004[26]). Use of decontextualised language is an important foundation of literacy that children build through early storytelling practices, before they begin to produce or decode text. Common technologies such as smartphones and tablets offer multiple means for families to create and record stories orally, either using the camera function or specific applications that scaffold storytelling by providing images, prompts, or other structures. Likewise, as children develop and begin to read and write, digital platforms can become tools for composing original works including illustrated stories, comic books, graphic novels, poetry and more. Creating these works digitally not only allows children to create in rich and novel ways, it offers the potential to easily share works with audiences including family and friends. In the area of computational creation, research has also begun to explore building and creating with technology as a joint family learning activity that develops adults and children’s engineering capacities, while also building on intergenerational relationships (Roque, 2016[27]).

McPake, Plowman and Stephens (2013[28]) argue for the potential of digital media to support children’s communicative and creative competencies and provide examples of some ways in which this process occurs among pre-schoolers in the United Kingdom. Their case studies of 54 children document practices of young children who with the support of adult family members create and share photographs they take, search for images of favourite characters online to create puppets for imaginative play, and create original music. Barron and Levinson (2017[16]) document examples of the creative uses of technology among Latino immigrant families in the United States, including five- and eight-year-old siblings who create their own video “talk show” for their relatives in Mexico, showcasing various aspects of their lives and sharing messages. As highlighted above, adult beliefs, knowledge and attitudes regarding technology are important in shaping young children’s creative activities with technology, and some parents who are not as experienced or aware of creative affordances of digital media may not be as likely to foster these practices in their children as parents who are. Studies of children internationally have further suggested that although children may regularly use digital devices for play or entertainment, more supports are needed to ensure that children also engage in the creative and participatory opportunities that technology offers (Third, 2016[29]).

Policy implications

Although the use of digital devices continues to proliferate, information about best practices is still difficult to access. Policies and programmes are needed to support equitable learning opportunities for parents and educators in order for all children and families to be able to benefit from best practices for learning with technology. There is also an opportunity to provide resources for media content developers to support them in creating media that facilitates co-engagement and learning.

Supports for parents

Many parents across the socio-economic spectrum are uncertain about how to think about screen media and studies indicate a desire for more information about how to find and choose content for their children, particularly parents with fewer years of formal schooling (Rideout, 2014[11]). Parents need opportunities not only to discover specific titles but learn how to share media experiences with their children to support social and cognitive development. Such support could include helping families find and curate high quality content, but it also needs to go beyond this to help parents imagine ways to collaborate, co-create and use media to further their child’s and their own interests. Schools, workplaces and cultural institutions might all have roles to play in designing ongoing learning opportunities for parents that can help them keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape of devices, content and increasingly varied forms of interactivity.

Empowering educators as brokers

Increasingly, school settings are adopting tablets and other new devices. Schools are sites that are often intended to provide opportunities for more equitable access to learning resources, however data shows that there are still significant divides with respect to access to technologies although rates of use are changing rapidly and access to high quality content is not evenly distributed within the United States (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2010[8]) or internationally (UNICEF, 2017[1]). In- and out-of-school educators have an important role to play in introducing children to technologies that might support learning, not only through curricular activities but also by advising families on resources for home use.

Survey results from parents in the United States suggest that they have a strong desire for more information about how to choose media to support their children (Rideout, 2014[11]) and educators are well situated to help “bridge” home and school settings by using their understanding of in-school activities to suggest supporting resources for use at home. However, teacher education programmes and professional development experiences rarely focus on this aspect of advising students and families or where to find relevant resources to recommend.

As with media practices among parents, the use of technology in classrooms varies substantially depending on schools and context (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2010[8]). Inequities have been shown to exist regarding technology use in schools, where privileged students are more often engaged in “progressive” uses of technology that involve collaborative and inquiry-based activities, while less privileged students receive more traditional practice or drilling on devices. Educators can be better supported to lead collaborative activities that use technology as a springboard for discussions and joint inquiry. Educators need opportunities to learn what the research tells us but also to imagine and create rich curriculum that leverages technologies for school and for home. In order for teachers to serve as sources of information for students and families about productive media practices, this topic needs to be included in teacher preparation programmes and professional development. School administrators and school board members also need to be included in these conversations so that the appropriate resources and supports are provided.

Informing technology developers

The need to build on the learning sciences to guide the design of children’s apps has been nicely articulated by Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues (2015[30]). They point to four “pillars” of findings that app designers might draw on as they imagine, prototype and create interactive experiences – active, meaningful, engaged and socially interactive. In this chapter, we have emphasised that joint attention is not solely achieved through the media itself or the environment but depends a great deal on intentions, practices and strategies of those involved in the interaction. However, as Hirsch-Pasek and colleagues note – designers can build in opportunities for turn-taking, contingency and para-social relationships. Expanding content to include other languages is also critical. A large proportion of apps require English and if we hope to provide high quality content to young children and their families globally, design efforts will be needed to meet the needs of specific communities.

In closing, we have suggested that digital technologies can be an important resource for children’s learning and that they may help bridge educational divides both within and across countries globally. Achieving this goal will be a significant challenge and will require policies that attend to the distribution of devices and the quality of Internet access but they will have to go beyond these basics. To capitalise on the potential of digital technologies for human development parents and educators need opportunities to learn to curate educationally relevant content and to use it collaboratively with children for creative, critical and inquiry-based activities. The pace of innovation is not likely to slow and collective approaches to learning will need to evolve rapidly to take full advantage of the potential benefits and to avoid the exacerbating inequities that limit human creativity and well-being.


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