On 23 November, Distinguished Professor Susan Danby (ARC Centre for Excellence for the Digital Child, University of Queensland) delivered the Academy’s 2023 Cunningham Lecture. Below is a copy of the address.

Risks and opportunities: Building social contexts for young children’s digital interactions

Thank you to the Academy for the Social Sciences for extending this invitation to present the Cunningham Lecture this year.  It is an honour to recognise Kenneth Cunningham’s contributions to Australian education. He was the founding director of the Australian Council of Educational Research, a position held for 24 years from 1929. He contributed significantly to the Australian educational context, including supporting ACER in its publication program, promoting psychology to study individual differences in children, and elevating education to the status of a social science. Perhaps most importantly, he promoted new teaching methods based on science rather than on tradition or opinion.

I am excited to talk with you about children and their digital interactions, and the associated risks and opportunities. I will also talk about the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child. The vision for the Centre is to support children to be healthy, educated and connected in a digital age. The first in the world to focus on children from birth.

Exploring the complex intersection between young children and digital technologies begins with understanding children’s participation within social contexts involving digital interactions. In investigating children’s social relationships in digital worlds, we ask how do children use digital technologies with family and peers, and how are social relationships built through interactions involving digital technologies? Children make sense of their social worlds through their talk and interaction with others. And perhaps because they happen so quickly, so fleetingly and, because they are so mundane, they can be easy to overlook.

With the rapid advancement of technology, young children are increasingly engaging with digital devices and platforms. Concerns over passive consumption often override opportunities for young children to actively participate in their digital worlds. It’s every child’s right to engage in social relationships with family and friends. Participation means different forms of involvement – this is at the heart of relationships. Sometimes, I ask parents if they remember playing Monopoly when they were growing up. Then I ask how many times they play digital games with their children. Most remember playing Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders, often as a family, but very few parents say that they play digital games with their children now. The Office of e-Safety recommend that parents play digital activities with their children rather than just ask what they are doing online. By playing these together, we can understand what the children are doing online, and parents will have opportunities to talk knowledgeably about aspects of the game. These conversation openers can lead to other conversations.

Social relationships are embedded within the larger activities of everyday life. It’s not just the talk, it is the actual participation and engagement by all. In family and classroom interactions, rather than treating technology as an ‘add on’, digital technology used as a resource can enhance children’s daily lives. “When used wisely, technology and media can support learning and relationships. Enjoyable and engaging shared experiences that optimize the potential for children’s learning and development can support children’s relationships both with adults and their peers” (NAEYC and Fred Rogers Centre Position Statement, 2012)

Creating collaborative social contexts can support children’s digital experiences, and allow them to engage in educational digital experiences, and encourage critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. While schools can use digital technologies to enrich learning opportunities, there are other digital classroom experiences limited by the inappropriate choice of digital resources for use in the classroom. Digital materials or resources cannot replace quality pedagogy and quality relationships. The OECD report (2015) points out that  “technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (OECD  2015, p. 190).

Providing young children with digital tools can enhance their social worlds, promote collaboration, and enable meaningful connections with peers, families, and others. Various strategies and best practices can create safe and supportive social contexts for children’s digital interactions. These encompass considerations of digital citizenship education, parental involvement, and data and privacy.

What does this mean for children and young people as they grow up?  What kind of digital footprints will they have? For many of us, we did not have an online history to contend with when we grew up. Services that gather information may use persuasive techniques to encourage more time online, as well as shape what we watch, including the advertisements. Given this, how can we create safe digital spaces for children to learn, explore and play?

The UK Children’s Code (or Age-Appropriate Design Code to give its formal title) points out that data sits at the heart of the digital services that children use every day. Every time a child opens an app, or searches a website, data is gathered. This code of practice addresses such concerns, not by seeking to protect children from the digital world, but by protecting children living within the digital world. Children and young people have a right to have a say about online presence and how they choose to manage their online life and data collected about them.

Recognising children as digital citizens recognises that they require knowledge and skills to successfully participate in everyday life with digital media and technologies. The internet is embedded in children’s lives from their earliest years. The internet, whether we agree or not, is going to affect how young children learn, engage in social interaction, create and construct who they are.

In unravelling the world of young children and digital technologies, we consider how we can proactively shape the social contexts in which they navigate the digital landscape. We can take the following steps: The first step is to recognise that all children do not magically know how to use digital technology. Many can, but they might not be interested, or have capacity to engage, or have access to online worlds or digital devices.

The second is to address the digital divide of Australia. Many still have no access to devices, knowledge or the Internet. The 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) shows that there remains a substantial digital divide in Australia. One in 4 people in Australia are digitally excluded (ADII, 2021). Those with the highest household income have 97% internet connection, and those with the lowest household income have only 67% income (ABS, 2018). Families with low levels of income, education and employment, those living in some regional areas, people aged over 65, and people with a disability are at particular risk of being left behind. Everyone in Australia has the right to affordable access to digital technology, and the skills and confidence to use it.

The third is to ask:  how do we reinvest in better ways to engage with learning? One way is to focus on learning communities. This can’t all be directed to the schools. We cannot just throw materials at schools. Let’s seek out ways to provide access to digital learning for communities and families (to help change community fears about the dangers of technology). Let’s embrace the sites of informal learning and engage in intergenerational learning in libraries. Of course, this requires funding to build open digital learning spaces in locally relevant ways. This is not the work of government or a select few, it requires a whole society approach across generations, demographics, and communities.

The fourth is a change of attitude – focus less on protecting children from the digital world and more on protecting children within the digital world. Rather than trying to keep children away from digital technologies, let’s consider how to support children living within a digital world.

And now I’d finish by introducing the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child (www.digitalchild.org.au). This Centre is QUT-led, and in partnership with 5 universities  – UQ, UOW, Deakin, Curtin, and ECU. We also collaborate with international universities, and national and international partners. Our Centre addresses the real risks of the digital world and explores the opportunities and potential of digital technologies for young children.  We ask, how can all Australian children be healthy, educated and connected in a rapidly changing digital age? Our goal is to actively shape positive futures for all Australians, by focusing on our very youngest. Our inspiration grew from the questions we were being asked by families, educators, health professionals, technology designers, and policy makers about the role of digital technology in children’s daily lives. As a Centre, we are working to advance children’s rights to best understand and to reduce the risk of harm for children when they are online. We are invested in children having the right to equitable and effective access to the digital environment in ways that are personally meaningful to children.

We have the potential to empower and embolden a future generation of digitally literate global citizens. There is no doubt though, as well as challenges, many wonderous opportunities exist within digital worlds.