1/25/24 · Education

"We must educate children to get the most out of technology, while warning them about the risks"

Lucrezia Crescenzi-Lanna, principal investigator, Child Tech Lab
UOC researcher Lucrezia Crescenzi

Lucrezia Crescenzi-Lanna and the Child Tech Lab team analyze the impact of ICT on early childhood. (Author: Ambra Airaghi. Photo provided by L. Crescenzi)

Children come into direct contact with technology from the moment a parent lets their baby play with a mobile phone. Children are now interacting with a greater number of technological devices at an increasingly early age. Concerns about their potential impact have also grown.

Is it right to offer mobile apps to our children? Do all technologies have the same effects? How do they differ according to age? How do they influence gender biases?

Child Tech Lab, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences' new research group, has answered some of these questions. Through research in nurseries in the United Kingdom, Brazil and Spain, they have analysed the impact of tech in early childhood on activities such as play, learning and peer relationships.

The multidisciplinary team is now delving deeper into the study of children's interaction with technologies such as artificial intelligence, to find out what children need and how best to use technology. It is an internationally pioneering project.

The Lab's principal investigator, Dr Lucrezia Crescenzi-Lanna, a member of the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, answered some questions about the group's discoveries and its next challenges.

Crescenzi-Lanna, who trained in developmental psychology and wrote her doctoral thesis on the quality of children's television programmes, is aware of the growing concern among educators and families: "There is confusion, if not fear, about whether we are exposing children to new risks."


What risks are we exposing children to by allowing them to interact with technology?

The risks we face are many and varied. For children under the age of six to eight, the main risk is exposure to violent, stereotyped and sexualized content that contributes to representing a distorted reality at this early age. This is in addition to the possible development of unhealthy habits in the use of technology.

From the age of six to eight, with the construction of one's own digital identity and digital socialization, risks such as those related to privacy and data protection, grooming, sexting and cyberbullying appear.

“Children show great interest in digital content and, if used properly, technology can be a very effective tool for collaborative learning”

What can we do to prevent them?

We live in a digital society where everyone, both young and old, uses technology every day to communicate, work and find information and entertainment. The news that appears in some media amplifies the state of alarm and does not always help us to focus on solutions.

Educating children may be the only way to prevent these risks.


What can tech offer young children in different settings (school, family, etc.)?

Children show great interest in digital content and, if used properly, technology can be a very effective tool for collaborative learning. Early childhood teachers are already using apps in their classes to create, explore the environment and train their students to improve their problem-solving skills.

Quality content (video games, short films, interactive stories, apps) can provide a source of entertainment and shared learning and can be an additional resource for family activities with children, siblings, grandparents, etc.


How will the use of artificial intelligence affect children's development and education?

It's hard to predict what will happen in five or ten years' time because technology is evolving so quickly. For example, the number of teenagers and young people undergoing lip augmentation procedures has increased because they are used to using filters in their photos and no longer fully recognize themselves in non-digital images. This would have been hard to predict.

There are also many positive applications in education that are beginning to be appreciated, such as the personalization of learning, where tasks are not the same for the whole class but specific to each student, taking into account their difficulties, attitudes and even personal preferences.

With the rapid proliferation of augmented reality and artificial intelligence tools, which we will soon gradually incorporate, we need to ensure that future citizens have transferable skills and knowledge to face a society in constant change.


In the App2five project, you researched apps for children under six. What should we consider when choosing an app for a child of this age?

We found that the educational apps most preferred by children were those that were adapted to their level of knowledge and user experience, had a simple look and good design, and also avoided reiterating negative emotions, for example by providing only neutral feedback (simply pointing out the error) or positive feedback (motivating).

Other factors to consider include the absence of external links and advertising that interrupt children's interaction and increase the risk of unwanted purchases, and non-explicit harmful content. For example, in the project we analysed the content of many educational apps and although we did not find any explicit sexual or violent content, we did find some content that presented and reinforced gender or ethnic stereotypes.


What would you recommend regarding the use of television? Child Tech Lab has also analysed television series aimed at young children.

Children watch less and less television. From the age of four, they spend just over three and a half hours a week doing so. However, the use of video-on-demand services and sharing platforms for viewing a variety of content (such as YouTube or TikTok) is increasing.

The recommendations to promote healthy habits for television use, as well as for the other screens we all use at home, have not changed much in recent decades. The most important ones in my opinion are: developing critical thinking in children, acting as a role model when it comes to screen use, agreeing on both the times and places of use (e.g. in the living room, not in the bedroom), and selecting quality content that is age appropriate and in line with the values you want to convey.

However, there is a problem here: age ratings are based solely on the absence of explicit and inappropriate content. If a television series or video game doesn't feature any scenes with sex, drugs or violence, it is rated "for children" or "for all audiences", without taking into account the differences between a four-year-old and a six-year-old. It is necessary to start changing this age rating system to take into account the characteristics of children's development at each stage.


Social or digital media perpetuate many gender stereotypes. How are these stereotypes reproduced and what can be done to prevent this?

Gender stereotypes are consolidated at very early ages, before the age of five. The socio-emotional education that schools work on from early childhood is fundamental to the construction of a person's identity and social relationships. The same applies to digital identity and online interaction with others.


How do children and young people learn to be empathetic and respectful in a digital environment?

I believe that media literacy is still an unresolved issue in current public education, although there is a lot of pressure from families to change in this direction as soon as possible.

What other topics are you researching at Child Tech Lab?

Our group is using advanced technology, such as AI, to study children's spontaneous behaviour when learning with technology. We're interested in identifying the characteristics of the highest quality content and helping to improve the age rating systems for this content based on children's cognitive and emotional development levels. This way, we can help educators select effective resources for different ages and ways of learning (individually, in pairs or in groups).

We're also looking at how some experiences with technology can help develop other skills or break down stereotypes. For example, we are investigating how gender stereotypes associated with STEAM can be reduced through an intervention with educational robotics in early childhood. In general, our research has a gender perspective.

Another line of research relates to the risks and opportunities of using digital games with elements of artificial intelligence, such as the recognition of emotional expressions, that could make it possible to personalize communication and learning for children.

One of the things we are most proud of is the fact that we use mixed-method, non-invasive research designs in natural settings with preschool children, which is not always easy. Furthermore, the ethical and data protection issues associated with research with and for children are central to our studies.


How did you become interested in the topic of young children's technology use?

In a course in the bachelor's degree in Evolutionary Psychology that I took at the Università La Sapienza, I was struck by the fact that there was no bridge between knowledge about child development and digital content designed for each age. The contents, although very entertaining, were incomprehensible to children. The pace, language and/or complexity of the story was not appropriate for children's development. At the other extreme, digital content created by educators tended to be very poorly designed and unattractive.

Furthermore, both the production and study of digital content used to be carried out from an adult-centric perspective. I believe that we have a duty to recognize children as active subjects, capable of expressing their opinions and participating in research from a very young age. It's true that doing research with young children is extremely costly in terms of time and resources. We've found that advanced technology can be helpful in this process, although its usefulness is limited by its accuracy and must be complemented by more traditional methods.

What is the profile of the people at Child Tech Lab?

Child Tech Lab is an interdisciplinary and international environment. What we all have in common is an interest in applying the results of our research to educational settings, the gender perspective and the use of technology. The group includes not only experts in design, education and engineering but also psychologists, methodologists and communicators.

We also typically collaborate with other research groups working on the psychology of language or computer vision, as well as with a network of international collaborators. We work mainly with colleagues from Italy, Portugal, the United States, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil.

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