2021
Annual
Report

Research overview

Research program overview

Our research is organised into three interconnected programs: Healthy, Educated and Connected. These programs focus our research on the major areas that digital technologies influence in children’s lives – how they develop (Healthy), how they learn and play (Educated), and how they live and socialise (Connected) in digital worlds. Within each program, we’ve identified three problem-focussed strands designed to concentrate on specific aspects of children’s health, education, and connectedness.

Our Longitudinal Family Cohort Study umbrellas our entire research program – a world-first study that investigates children’s digital engagement at a population level. The study documents and tracks patterns of digital engagement of 3000 Australian families and their children from birth to eight years of age.

Our Policy, Innovation and Practice Framework underpins and drives our research. New knowledge and findings deliver real-world solutions and practical outcomes for children, families, education and health professionals, government, technology developers, and members of the public.

Figure 1 provides an overview of the Centre’s research programs and subprograms.

Frameworks and philosophies

In the first half of 2021, our Co-Program Leaders continued the process of conceptualising and mapping frameworks, theoretical constructs, methodologies, and research priorities for their respective programs. This collaborative process harnessed the expertise and ideas of all members through workshops, meetings and surveys.

We established shared definitions and ideas, mapped resources and expertise, and re-evaluated our original research questions against the enormous impact of COVID-19 on the digital lives of children. To this end, a process for initiating projects was established to fast-track core work that would inform and guide the direction of future projects.

Recognising that the integrity of our research and outputs can be assured only with shared values and processes, the Centre established procedures and philosophies to support responsible research ethics and quality publications. The Research Publication Philosophy and Procedures and the Responsible Research and Ethics Philosophy and Procedures provide our researchers the foundations to ensure their research and outputs foster credibility, trust and respect by our colleagues, partners, participants and communities. These important documents also specify requirements of our research, such as encouraging cross-node, cross discipline and early career researcher involvement.

Equity and diversity

The Centre is committed to ensuring all voices and perspectives are heard and included in our research work. We strive for equitable, diverse, just, and inclusive practices. We are monitoring and mapping the representation of diverse populations in our multiple research projects to ensure diversity and inclusion throughout our research. We are also establishing processes to hear the voices, perspectives, concerns and aspirations of children in key areas. In 2022, an Equity, Diversity, Justice and Inclusion (EDJI) Portfolio and Children’s Reference Group will be established to drive initiatives and programs in this important area.

Research translation

A major objective of the Centre is to translate our research findings into evidence-based resources, practices and guidelines, and information that our stakeholders can use to support children’s use of digital technologies.

The translation of research into products, policy or practice requires a dedication to relationship building and an intense understanding of the context in which the research outcomes will be applied. While many research centres seek to translate their research into product development or government policy, the Centre also seeks to translate research into community attitudes and ‘family policy and practices’.

The Centre is committed to the translation of its research into various settings and is deliberately planning for this to happen. In 2022, the Research Translation Portfolio (RTP) will be formed to plan for this key outcome. The RTP will develop a plan that clearly outlines all aspects of the Centre’s intellectual property, research translation and commercialisation arrangements and practices.

The RTP, in consultation with the Skills, Mentoring, and Research Training (SMART) Portfolio, will ensure regular intellectual property, translation and commercialisation training and workshops are available for all Centre members to have a complete understanding of principles, processes and opportunities and risks available in research translation.

 

Research program overview
Figure 1: Research program overview

Chief Investigators' Retreat

In March 2021, the Centre held its inaugural retreat for Chief Investigators. Held across three days as a hybrid workshop, Chief Investigators gathered from sites at their nodes, online or at Mooloolaba in Queensland. The retreat was an opportunity for Chief Investigators to continue discussions and planning on the Centre’s projects across the Healthy, Educated and Connected programs, in addition to contributing to concept mapping for the Longitudinal Family Cohort Study. Chief Investigators pitched project ideas via Lightning Project Talks, held focussed program and project planning meetings, and participated in a Strategic Plan session led by Mark Douglas from Ethos Consulting. Most importantly, the Chief Investigators’ Retreat was an opportunity to network and build critical connections needed to lead and deliver the Centre’s program of research over the next six years.

Mapping of studies into digital childhoods begins

In 2021, Centre researchers commenced a range of literature reviews to map out and capture what is currently known about young children’s digital technology use. This includes review of studies into digital technology use by young children, family and community perspectives on young children’s digital technology use, media use by families, and the potential physical impacts of digital technology use by infants and toddlers.

Chief Investigator Dr Juliana Zabatiero, who leads two of the mapping projects, said the literature reviews are critical to informing and guiding the Centre’s own research projects on digital childhoods.

“There have been hundreds of studies conducted around the world into young children’s digital technology use,” said Dr Zabatiero.

“Most focus on earlier technologies, such as television and computers, and their sole impacts on children’s health, education or connectedness – our Centre’s goal is to provide a holistic and transdisciplinary view of contemporary digital childhoods across all these areas.”

“We’re mapping out and tapping into these existing studies to synthesise what’s already known in the areas of digital childhoods, identify where the gaps are and how the Centre can further understanding and knowledge.”

COVID-19 and the digital child

The COVID-19 pandemic created a seismic shift for the digital child. Prior to the pandemic, digital technology use was often restricted or limited by parents/carers in most households. While side effects were unknown, parents were often concerned about the effects of ‘screen time’ on their children’s development and learning.

When the pandemic sent millions of families worldwide into lockdown, children’s digital technology use became essential for many. Often, it was the only means for children and their families to connect, learn and play. Online learning seemed to become the norm, birthdays were celebrated over Zoom, and extracurricular activities normally held in person were moved online. Staying healthy, educated and connected became commonly viewed as only happening with the aid of digital technology.

The role of the Centre came sharply into focus. There was no longer a question about if digital technology should be in the lives of young children, but rather that it is now considered a necessary everyday activity. The shift during the height of the pandemic lockdowns was one of promoting the value of the digital in supporting positive futures for children. But the pandemic also brought into sharp relief questions about how to engage in digital learning, and made visible the inequities in the digital world, such as limited access to the Internet, digital resources, and knowledge of the digital world.

A Curtin University study led by PhD student and Centre member Rebecca Hood, together with Chief Investigators Professor Juliana Zabatiero and Professor Leon Straker and Curtin colleagues, revealed that digital technology became a lifeline for families in lockdown. The study of Perth parents of infants aged 9 to 15 months explored how the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 influenced family routines, relationships and use of technology such as smartphones and tablet computers, among families. The study showed that the ways in which families used their devices was important in whether this was beneficial or detrimental, rather than simply the amount of time they spent on screens.

These changes in children’s digital technology use have a profound impact on the Centre’s program of research. Our original research questions were developed during the Centre’s initial ARC Centre of Excellence applications prior to the pandemic in 2018, and in a context and environment that became markedly different when the Centre was formally established in 2020. The pandemic has led to Centre studies that ask, for example, who is the digital child now, and how do we re-imagine digital learning communities? Some core projects initiated in 2021 have been re-conceptualised and re-contextualised to reflect these shifts. Other projects, such as Pandemic Parenting, have been designed to focus specifically on the impacts of the pandemic on children’s technology use. As the pandemic eases around the world, a new lens on the digital child − the effects of COVID-19 on children’s digital technology use − will continue to be considered and analysed across the Centre’s program of research.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child acknowledges the First Australian owners of the lands on where we gather and pay our respects to the Elders, lores, customs and creation spirits of this country.