Designing for children’s autonomy in the age of AI (Part II)

Part I

Exercises of fostering children’s data autonomy – two case studies

The conceptual analysis in our blog part I give us a good landscape of how autonomy for children is considered and what design approaches have been explored. We would like to show how several of these design patterns have been applied by us in two recent design exercises: one to help children develop a better sense of autonomy of their data, and the other to help families foster children’s data autonomy during digital parenting.

This both provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of these design patterns and important directions for future development.

Case study 1: Design for children.

Here we drew on the design patterns from Figure 1 and built a prototype to help children exercise control of their data through an app prototype. The app, CHAITok, offers an interface similar to Tiktok, but offers ample opportunities for children to control the data shared with CHAITok which would affect the video recommendations they see.

We carried out an evaluation study with 150 children aged 9-13 in summer 2023, to assess how this prototype may affect children’s development of a sense of data autonomy 13.

Specifically, we have explored the following design patterns in CHAITok:

  • Providing ‘information interactions’ to prompt critical thinking. For example, we provide ‘Seek help’ and ‘Examples’ buttons to help children connect with real-world examples of data collection and processing, and various messages in the interface to help children with critical thinking, reflecting on their choices.
  • Providing `nudges’ to encourage children to review and manage the various data types they wish to share with the prototype before they interact with it.
  • Support children’s emotional autonomy development using scaffolding mechanisms, such as ‘How you feel’ to encourage children to reflect their feelings when exercising control of their data.

While only a subset of autonomy design patterns from our review has been applied in our prototype, we observed a noticeable impact on participant children’s sense of autonomy, with them feeling a better sense of safety, empowerment, and respect. This experience indicates great potential in designing for children’s autonomy. It also shows the critical need to systematically consider how to provide support for children in a holistic manner, ensuring that children with different autonomy needs receive the most appropriate information and support.

Case study 2: Design for families.

Current support for digital parenting largely focuses on a protection or monitor-based approach. The efficacy of such approaches for keeping children out of the bound of the digital space or prolonged screen time usage is still limited.

As a result, we have developed the KOALA Hero toolkit 14, which has been co-developed with families and children over several years. The aim of KOALA is to encourage proactive family engagement. Instead of focusing on controls and monitors, KOALA aims to help families develop better awareness of the implications related to datafication on mobile devices.

We assessed the toolkit with 17 families in spring 2023, involving 23 children aged 10 to 14. We found that families developed better awareness of the implications related to datafication, in comparison to their prior understandings. The toolkit also enabled families to feel more ‘equipped’ to discuss datafication risks, they can take a more balanced, joint family conversation.

While KOALA is aimed for families, it incorporates several key design features to promote children’s autonomy development or assist parents in creating an environment supportive of children’s autonomy development. Specifically, KOALA has explored the following design patterns:

  • Supporting cognitive autonomy with various SCAFFOLDING features, such as providing ‘just-in-time’ and ‘information interactions’ prompts, aimed at encouraging critical thinking. For example, we provide an `Intro video and help button’ that children can access at any point during the app interaction, along with various visualisations presenting the data privacy information that is contextualised to their app usage.
  • Supporting behavioural autonomy, through CONTEXUALISATION and NUDGING. We provided the physical Data Cards and Worksheets to create a playground or board game-like environment, encouraging family engagement and information sharing. Additionally, we implement “Trackers control” buttons to allow children to experience real-time effects of blocking trackers, reinforcing cognitive understandings and practising self-regulation.
  • Supporting emotional autonomy, through creatively exploring a hybrid mechanism, a PLAYGROUND, that allows parents and children to adopt a co-lead/child-led approach in their interactions with KOALA. And we are encouraged by the positive impact it has led to family dynamics.

Design for children’s autonomy: 7 principles

Based on the theoretical analysis and empirical experiences, we propose a set of overarching principles for Designing for Children’s Autonomy. We hope this framework offers a starting point for advancing children’s autonomy in the digital context.

  • consider equity and diversity
  • consider including children’s voices and equal participation
  • consider age-appropriate autonomy fostering
  • consider autonomy fostering as a multifaceted process
  • consider fostering intrinsic motivations while promoting behavioural changes
  • consider respecting children’s privacy and upholding their safety
  • consider aligning with children’s rights to development and well-being

Consider Equity and Diversity

In designing for children’s autonomy development in the digital realm, ensuring equity and diversity is fundamental. This entails recognising and embracing the diverse identities and backgrounds of children, including differences in culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and socio-economic status. Creating inclusive digital environments and mechanisms to foster children’s autonomy is essential to ensure that every child feels represented, valued, and respected.

This may involve incorporating diverse characters, narratives, and perspectives in the digital content and platforms, ensuring fair treatment and positive representation of all children. Additionally, it is critical to address disparities in access to technology and digital resources, working to bridge the digital divide and provide equal opportunities for all children to engage in digital experiences and access to the requisite digital skills.

Consider Including Children’s Voices and Equal Participation

A crucial aspect of promoting children’s autonomy is to include their voices and ensure their equal participation in the design process. This means actively seeking out and valuing children’s input, ideas, and feedback when developing digital products and services. It involves creating opportunities for children to co-create, co-design, and collaborate in the development of mechanisms to foster their autonomy, empowering them to shape their digital experiences according to their preferences and interests. It also requires providing accessible and age-appropriate channels for children to express their opinions, concerns, and aspirations regarding digital technologies, fostering a sense of ownership and agency over their digital lives.

Consider Age-Appropriate Autonomy Fostering

Autonomy fostering should be tailored to the developmental stage and capabilities of children. This means recognising that autonomy looks different at various ages and stages of development and adapting interventions accordingly. For younger children, autonomy may involve simple choices and decision-making opportunities within a safe and structured environment, gradually increasing in complexity as they grow older. It also entails providing appropriate guidance, support, and scaffolding to help children develop autonomy skills and intrinsic motivations at their own pace, taking into account individual differences and needs. Moreover, it may involve offering opportunities for children to practise autonomy in real-world contexts, allowing them to learn from their experiences and mistakes while ensuring their safety and well-being.

Consider Autonomy Fostering as a Multifaceted Process

Autonomy is not a singular trait but a multifaceted construct that encompasses cognitive, behavioural, and emotional dimensions. Therefore, autonomy fostering should address each of these aspects comprehensively. This involves promoting children’s critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills to enhance their cognitive autonomy. It also entails encouraging independent action, self-expression, and self-regulation to support their behavioural autonomy. Additionally, it requires nurturing emotional awareness, empathy, and resilience to foster their emotional autonomy. Recognising and addressing these multiple facets of autonomy has been largely neglected in existing approaches. To achieve this, we must ensure a holistic approach that empowers children to navigate the complexities of the digital world with confidence and competence.

Consider Fostering Intrinsic Motivations While Promoting Behavioral Changes

Effective autonomy fostering involves promoting intrinsic motivations while also encouraging positive behavioural changes. This means nurturing children’s internal drive, curiosity, and passion for learning and exploration, rather than relying solely on external rewards or incentives. It involves creating engaging and meaningful digital experiences that align with children’s interests, preferences, and developmental needs, sparking their curiosity and motivation to explore and discover.

However, for younger children, parents, carers and educators may still need to take primary responsibility of setting clear expectations, boundaries, and guidelines to promote responsible digital behaviour and ensure the safety and well-being of children in online environments. At the same time, it is critical for these guidance to recognise the transitional nature of children’s digital autonomy development. For instance, while children under 7 may not fully grasp agency and control, it’s still important to encourage their awareness of agency by involving them in decision-making an listening to their voices. Balancing intrinsic motivations with behavioural expectations can lead to a more sustainable and fulfilling approach to autonomy fostering, with lasting impact.

Consider Respecting Children’s Privacy and Upholding Their Safety

Respecting children’s privacy and upholding their safety should be given paramount considerations in autonomy fostering within the digital context. This involves implementing robust privacy protections and security measures to safeguard children’s personal information and digital identities from unauthorised access, exploitation, or misuse. It also entails providing age-appropriate guidance, education, and support to help children navigate online risks and challenges, such as cyberbullying, inappropriate content, online predators, and more importantly, the behaviour manipulations from datafication. Moreover, it requires fostering open communication and trust between children, parents, educators, and digital service providers, allowing for proactive identification and mitigation of potential safety and privacy concerns. By prioritising children’s privacy and safety, autonomy fostering becomes a foundation for building a positive and secure digital environment where children can thrive and grow.

Consider Aligning with Children’s Rights to Development and Well-being

Last but not least, autonomy fostering should align with children’s rights to development and well-being, as outlined in international conventions and agreements. This means respecting and upholding children’s rights to participate, express themselves, and access information in the digital realm. It involves prioritising children’s safety, privacy, and dignity in all digital interactions and interventions, ensuring that their rights are protected and upheld at all times. Additionally, it requires promoting children’s holistic development, including their physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being, through positive and empowering digital experiences. By aligning with children’s rights, autonomy fostering becomes not only a moral imperative but also a legal and ethical obligation.

Conclusin remark

We hope these seven princples of Designing for Children’s Agency provide a strawberry for further exploration in this crucial area. We aim to further develop these principles through both empirical and theorectial investigations in the future. We’d love to hear what you think about these principles. Please reach out to us via @oxfordccai or oxfordccai at cs dot ox dot ac dot uk.