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It's Not Just Tv Anymore: The Promises and Perils of Children's Technological Environments

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Assistant Professor of HCI Nathan G. Freier

"Today's children are coming of age in yesterday's science fiction future," says Rensselaer assistant professor Nathan G. Freier.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Today's children are coming of age immersed in video gaming, Web browsing, and instant messaging. Many have cell phones, laptops, and hand-held video games. Others have created avatars of themselves, and some are raising robot pets in virtual worlds. What impact does this technology have on children? A new journal issue co-edited by a human-computer interaction (HCI) professor from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a developmental psychology professor from the University of Washington explores the promises and perils ahead for children in technological environments.

The journal Children, Youth and Environments (CYE) this month published a special issue titled "Children in Technological Environments." The issue examines the increasing prevalence of technology from various perspectives, including knowledge and education, social and moral development, culture and community, access and equity, relationship to nature, therapy and health, art and expression, and future scenarios.

"Today, technology is part of everyday life, and it can easily mediate or even replace other types of experiences," said Nathan G. Freier, assistant professor of HCI in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, with a joint appointment in Information Technology, at Rensselaer. "This journal issue provides us with a forum to address this ongoing dialogue regarding the impact of technology on children, and find ways to strike a balance in terms of interaction, development, and design."

Articles in this month's special CYE issue are authored by leading researchers from the United States, Britain, and Japan, and offer insight related to their projects and observations regarding interactive humanoid robots, digital libraries, virtual natural environments, video and online games, hacking, assistive technologies for children with learning disabilities, learning by doing with shareable interfaces, among other topics.

"Through past centuries, technologies have offered enormous benefits to children," Freier said. "Written language, for example, can be incredibly beautiful, and compared to spoken language, the written word — from clay tablets, to pen and paper, to digital computers — has allowed for new depths and forms of communication and expression, an unfolding of human awareness."

Freier's research interests fit within the broad area of human-computer interaction with emphasis on technologies for children, social robotics, and value sensitive design. His work explores how children develop socially and morally in the context of increased interactions with apparently intelligent, autonomous systems such as graphical avatars and social robots. His co-author, Peter H. Kahn Jr., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and adjunct professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. He also serves as director of the university's Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab.

The field of HCI holds the design and evaluation of digital technologies as central to its mission. Traditionally, the field has considered the human relationship to technology to be one of 'use'; but the field is expanding to address the many facets of human-technology interaction that include a focus on emotional, social, and moral experiences, which account for this complexity in the design and evaluation process. Thus, the special issue includes scholarly work on many aspects of children's relationships to their technological environments.

According to their research, today's technology is more sophisticated and invasive. Children play multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which allows for large numbers of players to interact by controlling and developing their fictional characters in adventurous game settings. In 2006, MMORPG revenues exceeded $1 billion. Also, video games dominate children's media entertainment. In more recent years, inexpensive robot pets and online virtual pets have become increasingly popular.

"Technology is good and it can help our lives, but let's not be fooled into thinking we can live without nature," said Kahn. "We are losing direct experiences with nature. Instead, more and more we're experiencing nature represented technologically through television and other media. Children grow up watching Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, playing with robotic pets, and taking virtual tours of the Grand Canyon on their computers. That's probably better than nothing. But as a species we need interaction with actual nature for our physical and psychological well-being."

Freier also noted that the interactions and amount of time that children are spending with technologies, particularly the Internet, communication technologies, and video games, are forcing educators to redefine what they mean by learning processes and outcomes.

"As we worked to develop ideas for the special issue of the journal, important considerations when assessing the benefits of new technologies, especially those of a digital and virtual form that act as a go-between with the physical world, are the benchmarks to rely upon when establishing the benefits and harms," Freier added. "Such benchmarks may include psychological and physiological effects experienced while using a form of technology."

The Future Impact of Yesterday’s Technology

The journal also highlights the fact that visions of the future as portrayed through media and literature (such as science fiction) are one of the powerful drivers of technological environments. In the mid-1960s, for example, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original Star Trek television series, saw the value of small, handheld mobile communication devices; thus the "flip" design of the crew's Communicators seemingly influenced the design of the common cell phone we see in use today. Also, the android character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation shows us how fragile our own self-identity is when we look into the eyes of a man-machine and see our own reflection. And perhaps, the woman-machine in the classic Metropolis reflects our deep-seated nightmares of a future gone wrong.

Freier noted that we also see this tension play out in Asimov's iRobot series of short stories in which robots are intentionally designed to benefit humanity, but all too often the robots (and humans, ironically) fall victim to their own immense complexity.

"It is obvious that today's children are coming of age in yesterday's science fiction future," Freier said. "Children today know no other way of being, no other way of existing in the world. Our faith in the benefits of those who play a significant role in shaping our technological force is often balanced with the fears of the unknown and uncontrollable sinister force embedded within the technologies, often unbeknownst to the designers themselves.

"This process of balance — which leads to children's intellectual, social, and moral development — will be, and already is, strongly shaped by the technological environments children inhabit," he added. "Thus we need to design our technological environments wisely."

According to the authors, the most important lesson to remember is that "we are not technological species, but one that came of age through deep and intimate daily contact with other humans and with an embodied, physical natural and often wild world — and we still need that world to flourish as a species."

"In the years ahead, technological nature will get more sophisticated and compelling," Kahn said. "But if it continues to replace our interaction with actual nature, it will come at a cost. To thrive as a species, we still need to interact with nature by encountering an animal in the wild, walking along the ocean's edge or sleeping under the enormity of the night sky."

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