What do children want/need from human-computer interaction and communication (HCIC)? What are the long-term effects on them of mobile/computing devices? How early can and should we expose them to the latest technology?
ACM/SIGCHI organized the first CHIkids programs at CHI 1996 to explore some of these issues . One Web search today returns about 90,000 entries around the topic of children and user-interface (UI) design, like the 1995 CHI design briefing on UI design for children [6, 8].
The world of media is quite different from when I grew up. In 1958, I used to rush home to listen to my AM radio play the top-40 rock-and-roll tunes, talk with friends on the shared family phone, and watch a new television show with dancing teenagers from Philadelphia called "American Bandstand" hosted by Dick Clark. Thirty years later in 1988, I saved to a hard drive my son Joshua’s first email communication, when he was about 15. About 20 years after that, my 18-month-old step-granddaughter Ava had already mastered the DVD player’s remote control. At three years of age in 2006, she sends emails to her grandparents and is an avid digital-camera user, snapping surprisingly sophisticated photos.
Just how early are children becoming "masters" of instant messaging, video games, and animation? What is the appropriate age for introducing each technology? What are young minds and bodies capable of achieving? Alan Kay, a researcher at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, used to joke in the 1980s that all children were born knowing how to use the Macintosh computer, but some forgot that skill in the years after infancy. Today blogs, Web sites, publications, movies, video, and radio debate these issues.
These debates are not new. An Egyptian papyrus from about 3,000 years ago laments that younger people seem not to respect their elders. Upon closer analysis, it might even have disparagements of "new media" and their toxic effects on the skills and behavior of the next generation. Because of my own life timeline, I missed the commotion in the early 20th century concerning the dangers of movie-watching, but I grew up with 1950s parents and organizations condemning comic books and television, fearful that teenagers would be turned into mindless zombies. National Public Radio (USA) announced in May 2006 that a government conference had concluded that playing video games and using computer technology were such recent phenomena that long-term effects could not be determined; others disagree.
Many sources of analysis exist for the impact of media and technology on children and the family [4, 5, 7]. Unfortunately, these general studies do not focus on enough detailed issues of interest to the CHI community. Today, critical reviews appear with many attitudes. In March 2006, the theme of Consumer Electronics Lifestyles magazine was "Kids & Technology: What’s Best & When." Featured articles included how devices should be introduced to toddlers, grade-schoolers, tweens, and beyond. Presumably more is better from their viewpoint. Taking the opposite approach, in the cover story for Time on March 27, 2006, Claudia Wallis asked, "Are Kids Too Wired for Their Own Good?" . She emphasized the mixed blessings of multitasking and multiprocessing, noting that 82 percent of American children are online by about the age of 12, according to a Pew study . Presumably studies in China, India, Japan, or Korea might show similar pros and cons regarding the early introduction of mobile communication and computers to children.
User-interface design for younger users seems to be fertile ground for many studies, much product/service innovation, and socio-technological change. Perhaps since many CHI professionals have children and grandchildren, these issues will loom larger in our collective consciousness. Many researchers worldwide already have engaged in specific studies, as citations in the HCI bibliography and other digital library resources indicate, but much more could be and should be done. Now is a perfect time to dive again into issues that could become a major theme of a future CHI conference or publication.
Among other topics, one might consider the following:
- How early can children grasp mobile devices physically, cognitively, and emotionally? For what purposes would they and should they be used and/or enjoyed? Safety? Learning? Communication? "Networking" with their peers as well as their parents? What are the developmental as well as the cultural, gender, and age-cohort challenges?
- Are there entirely new metaphors, mental models, navigation schema, interaction techniques, and appearance characteristics that would be preferable for young children even if not very usable, useful, or appealing for adults? What is the developmental path from younger to older ages?
- How can very young children appropriately be "user-tested?" How do the techniques for adults, with whom most user testers are familiar, need to be adjusted?
- How can children worldwide be incorporated efficiently and effectively into a participatory design process, as now happens with game- and Web search/portal-development teams? Will this process evolve naturally as very young users form user communities and communicate among their peers, separate from adults?
- How does multitasking affect cognitive, emotional, and social development? Some children cite the need for music and video in the background in order study better. Is it a matter of individual preferences and capabilities?
- What are the larger social, ethical, cultural, and aesthetic implications of the long-term use at increasingly early ages of devices such as camera phones, headsets, instant messaging, etc.?
- Will children increasingly abandon the natural world for the virtual social world? For whom would this trend be desirable, or not?
- How will family, education, work, and play change for our youngest users? Are we in fact simply encouraging them to join their addicted elders, determined to show them what is "best" and "right" for their own "good"?
The CHI community is changing its approach to children. Developers for children’s games and educational software have shown us some directions. We could do more.
About five years ago, our firm began work on the UI design for an innovative Web application at Microsoft, an instant-messaging and file-sharing product targeted for teenagers, called ThreeDegrees.com. Microsoft had sequestered a group of teenage volunteers in a facility near its headquarters to be able to study in real time their behavior, needs, and wants. We had access to resultant ethnographic studies and extremely detailed marketing studies of American teenage preferences in designing specific prototypes. This kind of user profile, use scenario, and user-experience analysis may become more mainstream than in previous decades.
More recently, we’ve worked with the developers of Leapfrog’s successful Fly pen-top computer for children as they think about other pen-top devices. The characteristics of their product suggest that solutions for children may shed light on successful approaches for older users. This argument also is promoted for universal access: Solving HCIC issues for a specialized group, like the less-abled or elderly, brings benefits to all.
In the meantime, media and user interfaces move step-by-step closer to the embryo/fetus and "prenatalCHI." Already BabyFirst TV, a new pay channel, has emerged, aimed at children six months to two years old. Consider: Can new in utero HCIC be far away? Perhaps a baby-in-waiting will signal to her mother what iTunes to play for her own listening enjoyment, or will suggest another prenatal educational program to play on bellyphones. Time will tell how quickly these products reach the marketplaceif they haven’t already.
4. Kaiser Family Foundation . "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds." Pub. No. 7251, Oakland: Kaiser Family Foundation, 9 March 2005, www.kff.org/entmedia/7251.cfm. The Foundation surveyed media use by children in the USA ages 8-18 among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 3rd through 12th graders.
6. Piernot, Philippe, Ramon M. Felciano, Roby Stancel, Jonathan Marsh, and Marc P. Yvon . "Designing the PenPal: Blending Hardware and Software in a User-Interface for Children." Proceedings. ACM SIGCHI, pp. 511-518.
7. Saveri, Andrea, Lyn Jeffery, and Alex Pang . "New Entertainment Media: Transforming the Future of Work." Menlo Park, CA: Institute for the Future, www.iftf.org. The authors have studied the likely future of new entertainment media and how it will transform work, with some implications for education and family.
About the Author
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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