This post summarizes the article “A Walk on the Child Side: Investigating Parents’ and Children’s Experience and Perspective on Mobile Technology for Outdoor Child Independent Mobility” authored by me, Chiara Leonardi, Paolo Massa, Gianluca Schiavo, Amy L. Murphy, and Elisabetta Farella. I will present it at CHI 2019, a conference of Human-Computer Interaction, on Thursday 9th May 2019 at 14:00 in the session Access for Families Across Context. The article received a honourable mention at the conference! (Yey!) Doing this piece of research, and writing this article was an exciting, enriching, sometimes hard, experience of collaboration and I am very happy to have been part of it. Thanks to all my colleagues who have made this possible. It was great working with you.
Mom1: “Our mothers were less anxious than we are.”
Mom2: “It’s the perception of danger that has changed.”
Mom3: “Yes, but someone made us anxious, we weren’t born this way.”
This conversation happened in May 2018 between three mothers of primary school children discussing the complex interplay between monitoring and trusting children. Research has shown a gradual shift from unsupervised children’s play to supervised activities as a form of responsible caring. As cultural attitudes towards risk shifted to over-protection to achieve risk-free environments, children’s opportunities to experiment with autonomy gradually decreased. The availability of surveillance technology provided a straightforward solution to parents in need of reducing uncertainty. But these technologies often replace trusting relationships and hinder the benefits of independent mobility for children’s physical, social and psychological wellbeing. While research has explored the use of tracking technology for monitoring child mobility, we tried something different: we investigated with children and adults the use of proximity detection technology meant not to track child movements but to check their presence in selected contexts.
The Smart Pedibus
This work is part of a larger living lab initiative, which has been running since 2016 and aims at child independent mobility. Here, we focus on the Smart Pedibus (Italian for walking bus), which employs proximity detection technology to support the daily walking school bus, i.e. adult volunteers escorting a group of children to school. It combines a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon device given to each child and an app on the volunteer’s smartphone detecting the proximity of the devices and registering the child’s presence in the walking bus.
The field study
We involved around 60 children, their parents and the volunteers of the Smart Pedibus in two public primary schools of Trento (Italy), and conducted participant observations, semi-structured interviews and workshops to investigate interaction patterns with technology and parents’ attitudes toward monitoring and autonomy of children.
We analyzed interaction patterns with the technology and four that:
- Disappearing technology supports social interaction. The BLE devices are minimal and simple by design. They have no lights, screens or buttons, and they have long battery life. In both schools, they quickly became invisible, “disappearing” within children’s backpack. This was encouraged by parents to avoid diverting the children’s attention from the pleasure of walking together to school. Parents appreciated the simplicity of the sensor and the absence of interactive elements: “(my son) completely forgot about it… and that’s right, I like it. He never touches it, he never interacts with it”. This allows children to benefit from the social practice of the walking bus. Drawings used during the workshops reinforced this: when asked to draw “a typical morning with the walking school bus”, nor children or adults represented the BLE devices. Instead of perceiving technology as a key aspect of the walking bus, participants drew attention to the human and social aspects and their associated values.
- Semi-visible technology can still distract. On the other hand, we observed that the smartphone app attracted children, who often engaged in collaboration dynamics with volunteers using the app, especially before starting to walk. The smartphone app was designed to automatically register the presence of kids. Children wanted to see if the smartphone detected their arrival. One mother noted: “Children are attracted and want to participate actively as main characters. Those [children], who are very interested in technology, help in checking, in verifying … they ask ’where am I? Am I in there?”. As such, the volunteers must actively work to keep the phones SEMI-visible and not allow them to interfere: “…yes, he wants to start the app, […] he is very curious about it. But I don’t always let him, because in that moment he is privileged, to respect other children“. However, we observed that children’s interest in the smartphone application decreased over time as the novelty effect worn off, and was limited to the initial moment of registering children, before starting walking to school.
We then explored with adults their struggle to balance surveillance and trust, and observed that:
- Parents struggle to find balance. Parents perceived a tension between their need to protect their children and children’s right to experiment with autonomy. They observed that they need to learn autonomy, but that achieving it is a process that comprises making mistakes and learning from them. In this journey, trust is central. One mother noted: “Children need trust and self-esteem, they need to feel big and responsible, it’s important for them to have moral support and to know that we believe in them”.
- Monitoring is a lack of trust. When asked about monitoring, parents considered it a lack of trust in their children. Trust was perceived as having an educational value, which comes with a price and requires eﬀort and a certain degree of risk. Parents also agreed that when it comes to independent mobility, children’s autonomy is only possible in a protected and controlled environment, and that an unobtrusive device like the one used in the Smart Pedibus can support the journey toward autonomy because it disappears: children forget they have it and must take care of themselves without it, relying on their own skills to cope with possible risky situations. Parents also observed that the journey towards autonomy needs to consider the changing needs of family relationships: as children grow old, they need increasing degrees of autonomy, despite parents’ fear.
Designing for Surveillance or Trust?
Parents struggled to find a balance between monitoring their children to ensure their safety and trusting them to support their autonomy. These extremes may be associated with opposite approaches to technology and parenting styles. Parents were also proactive in helping us design technology in the middle between these two extremes. They were unwilling to give a smartphone to their children because they valued trust and despised surveillance but were also afraid. Our study suggests that proximity detection, rather than GPS tracking, could be the enabler of an appropriate technological compromise in the middle of the two extremes, supporting a parenting style based on trust to promote independent mobility, while accepting a certain degree of risk. Our results also stress the importance of designing technology respectful of the changing nature of family relationships in terms of trust-control balance.
For more details about our study, please read our paper or see our presentation at CHI 2019, on Thursday 9th May 2019 at 14:00 in the session Access for Families Across Context.