Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

Creative Commons License

The work on this site is licensed under a CC-BY-NC. If you share or re-use any work found on the site, please credit the original author and the Digital Youth Project and link back to the Digital Youth Project.

Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.

Discovering the social context of kids’ technology use through photo elicitation

Project staff: Dan Perkel and Sarita Yardi, SIMS

Purpose and goals

The purpose of this project was to observe the technology practices of kids entering middle school, aged 10 and 11, in order to understand the social context of their technology use. We hoped to acquire a detailed picture of what technologies they are using, where they are using them, and with whom they are using them. Next, we wanted to understand how kids come to adopt or create a particular technology or media practice and create hypotheses as to why this might be the case. Furthermore, we wanted to consider ways in which to study these kids’ technology use changes over time. We think that our study could potentially be the baseline for a longitudinal study, perhaps spanning their entire middle school experience. Finally, we wanted to conduct this study as a pilot in order to evaluate and experiment with a particular methodology that we hoped would get at these research and logistical goals. The methodology we chose was a combination of a diary study and “auto-driven,” “reflexive,” photo-elicitation interviews.

Rather than going in-depth on any one technology-centered theme, this project goes deep with particular kids and describes a range of their media and technology practices.

Site and participants

This projected involved interviewing kids in their homes or their parent’s office rather than at a particular site. The kids were participants in an after school program that we conducted at their school in the Spring:

Miguel – Miguel is the oldest son of a single, working mother. He has two younger sisters. Miguel and his family live in West Berkeley in a small back apartment to a house. He shares a bedroom with one of his sisters while his mom shares a room with the other. He has very little private space at home, except when he finds time to isolate himself in his bedroom.

Toby – Toby lives with both of his parents and is an only child. We were not able to visit his home, but we did hang out with both of his parents and him at Café Roma and spent time with he and his dad at his dad’s office before and after interviews. We also have a good sense of what his bedroom is like at home, from photographs and conversation.

Iris – Iris is the oldest daughter of an immigrant, mixed-racial couple from Sweden. She has a younger sister, age 8. Iris lives in an apartment complex in West Berkeley. She does not watch TV at home as her parents only use the TV for watching DVDs.

Dionne – Dionne is the oldest daughter of a single mother. She has a younger sister and a baby brother. They live in an apartment complex in West Berkeley. Dionne spent all of her summer at home and was the most active, with respect to technology use at home, of our four participants.


One of the primary challenges in studying the social context of kids’ technology use is where to conduct these studies and how to go about collecting qualitative empirical data. In any study that tries to understand kids’ technology use in the context of their social lives, it is important to consider this use in a number of physical and social environments. Participant observation studies that focus on schools or community centers often come about through negotiation with the institution. Studies in the home are often limited to interviews rather than participant observation, as it may require a certain amount of trust to allow extensive participant observation in the home. Even if this type of access to kid’s lives in their homes or unsupervised environments (outside of schools, community centers, libraries, camps, and so forth) were easy to negotiate, it is not clear how the researcher would go about actually conducting the observation without intruding in the activity itself. While this is a concern that all ethnographers must address in the course of their research, it seems particularly problematic with studying how kids use technology.

This project explores a particular methodology in order to overcome some of these challenges –the use of digital photographs and photo-elicitation interviews. We asked these four kids to go through two rounds that each consisted of them taking pictures, uploading them to a website hosted at at UC Berkeley, and commenting on them.

In the first round, we asked participants to take pictures of people, places, and things that they found important in their lives. In the second round, we asked them to take pictures of the technologies they use. Each round was followed by a photo-elicitation interview in which the pictures were the central focus of the interview. We videotaped each interview so that we could get the pictures and the comments in sync. We also held informal conversations with the participants and their parents before and after many of the interviews.

Finally, we should note that we interviewed each kid about his or her technology use in the Spring, during the course of their participation in an after-school program. These initial interviews provided background information about these kids that helped guide this study.

We are currently writing a working paper, in which we reflect on our use of the digital photo-elicitation methodology as we adapted it for our purposes and the problems with and implications of the method. We do not try to resolve all of these problems, and our approach does not come without introducing its own set of methodological problems. Nevertheless, the pilot study here has allowed us to gain particular insights into the question of the social context of kids technology use in the home and other places. And, just as important, it has led to the formulation of new research questions and directions that were not previously considered.

Amongst other conclusions about the methods we used, one of the most important for our purposes was how the method itself --the introduction of a technology-dependent method for a study of technology use-- can itself provide valuable insight into the social context of kids’ technology use. This type of intervention could be useful in future projects.

Emergent themes and discussion

Having any insight into kids' lives at home creates a complex picture of their technology use. From four case studies, we cannot argue that we can generalize about one-to-one mappings between particular aspects of kids' home lives and what kinds of technology they use. However, our work here are led us to question whether or not it's possible to study kids' technology use as something indendent from other aspects of their lives.

A few themes in particular struck us as important, all having to do with kids’ technology use as it relates to people.

Important People in the Kids’ Lives - Family and Friends

The pictures during the first round of interviewing revealed the kids’ emphasis on the importance of other people in their lives. Our interactions with each participant and his or her parents enabled us to gather a sense of their family dynamics. The most striking thing we noticed about listening to the participants talk about their friends was the variations in how kids used the word “friend.” It was often used to refer to someone their own age, but also referred to their social network of older and younger neighbors, older kids or teenagers in general and sometimes even teenagers and adults who held some position of authority. This raises interesting questions of how kids use this term in contrast to how we researchers might use this term, and cautions us not to assume that what kids mean by “friend” is what we might mean by it. It asks us to unpack what this term means to the kids themselves. Additionally, it raises questions about what “friends” might mean in various online environments that use the work to establish connections between people.

Kids’ Social Networks and Uses of Technology

The relationships between the technologies that kids use and the technologies that are used within their social networks of friends and family are complex and introduce a great deal of ambiguous, but fascinating, dynamics that we would like to assess. These dynamics depend on the type of technology, the nature of the social networks, as well as a number of other components. In the first activity the kids took many pictures of both their friends as well as their family. Their relationships with both of these groups strongly influenced their use of communication technologies. Our discussions suggest to us that kids’ interest in these technologies directly relates to what their friends are using. This relationship may extend to other technologies, but was especially prevalent with communication-centered technologies, whose use is contingent upon interactions with others, such as email, cell phones, and texting. We could summarize our thinking here by saying that although it may seem obvious that kids use what their friends’ use, it’s not clear that this is exactly what is going on.

Technology practices

The kids had developed a number of specific uses for various technologies, some of which were clearly adopted based on similar behaviors within members of their social networks and families. However, they had developed other “technology practices” that were not as transparent and could not easily be attributed to a particular source. For example, Iris had developed a practice of not reading emails that did not have subjects, even those that came from her grandfather. Dionne taught herself to use the scanner that came with her mother’s new computer. Her mother mentioned to us in a separate conversation how surprised she was to see a printed copy of a digital photograph of her baby. It is not clear what factors contributed to Dionne’s self-initiative to take on this challenge. She also liked to talk on her cell phone and SMS at the same time, with the same person at the other end of both lines. She referred to this behavior as “weird” and asked out loud “now why would I do that?” Both Dionne and Iris were familiar with junk mail and the causal relationship between signing up for offers and accounts on various websites with likelihood of receiving junk mail. Similarly, Dionne received an email from a person she had met on a discussion board that contained language she did not like. She told the sender to stop contacting her. She did not tell her mom about the incident, yet appeared to be comfortable with having handled it herself.

Perceived Rules of Technology Use in the Home

One area that family plays a role is in the formulation of rules of technology use in the home. When we working with some of these same kids in a Spring 2005 after school program, one of their friends in the group, when told that he had broken the rules of an activity, exclaimed “We’re kids! We’re supposed to break the rules!” As we embarked on this project, we were curious to see what notions of rules, if any, the kids had with respect to their technology use and whether or not they broke them.

Toby had rules about what he could not do on the Internet, including “no nasty stuff or naked people,” no “porn,” “inappropriate websites,” or “downloading anything.” Toby was also not supposed to change the desktop wallpaper on his computer because his dad had spent a lot of time making it. Though he rarely used his phone, Toby said that his rules included no talking to anyone he did not know.

Dionne and Iris, unlike Toby and Miguel, had rules about how much time they were allowed to spend on the computer while at home. Iris was allowed to spend an hour a day during the school year on school days, but said that she barely had time to use the computer during the week in the summer. Dionne had a great deal of free time during the summer. However, following one of the interviews, her mom did say that she liked to have the computer in her room so that she can see what Dionne is doing. Even though her mom told us that she was only supposed to use it for an hour a day, it was not clear when and how the rules about her computer usages were adhered to or enforced.

All of the kids had played games on the computers, although with varied levels of use. Miguel was limited in his computer access at home, but still had played games at school and at friends’ houses. Iris had been spending more of her time playing Runescape, although her parents limited her to half an hour per day at home during the week. We later learned, from an email from Iris’s mom, that Iris had been further restricted on her Runescape play during the school year, though it was not clear if this was because of grades or other reasons. Dionne appeared to have fewer rules around her computer use, as long as her homework was done. Toby seemed to have few restrictions in his game-playing.

Miguel, while explaining how he was able to remember how to delete pictures of the camera, revealed that he had taken an “inappropriate picture” by accident and wanted to delete it. He also recounted an incident when he was playing chess online and he told his anonymous opponent that he had made a stupid move. Miguel’s mom found out and told Miguel that he could not play anymore, as her email address might be made available to the anonymous recipient of Miguel’s comment.

The kids rarely, if ever, described any activities to us in which they disobeyed their parents or broke any rules. We suspect that there are two possible explanations for this. First, at ages 10 and 11, they may not have yet hit their teenage years of exploration and rebellion, although they would likely be on the cusp of such developments. Second, our research methods very likely discouraged the kids from revealing too much information to us. We interviewed them individually, with two researchers and a video camera focused entirely on them. Despite our efforts at reducing perceived power structures between researcher and participant, this dynamic was unavoidable to a certain extent. It might be easier to draw out more interesting (ie “misbehaving” type activities) if we interviewed them in groups where there were more of them than us and it was less obvious that the camera was focused directly on them. Similarly, if they were able to upload their pictures to a common anonymous album, they may have been more willing to explore and break the rules.

In what ways do the kids push their boundaries and test limits? How do they use technology to explore and experiment? What are the technology-enabled equivalents of sneaking out at night, peeking at an illicit magazine, or kissing a boy for the first time? We suspect that the anonymity of online interactions encourages such behaviors and this may have interesting implications for how kids learn through self-exploration of the world around them.


The kids conveyed compelling perceptions of the power structures surrounding their lives. These were often defined by specific descriptors, such as teacher, counselor, teenager, parent, brother, sister, friend, or cousin. Such status indicators were often tied to a kids’ particular practice and why he or she chose to adopt it. Dionne and Miguel had older cousins with whom they talked on the cell phone and played video games, respectively. Iris, Toby, and Miguel had older camp counselors who they looked up to as teenage role models. Toby, especially, idolized his talented camp counselor who was able to teach him exciting and novel artistic techniques. Iris appreciated her French teacher at camp who sat down while teaching rather than standing, making Iris feel like the whole group was learning together. “A lot of teachers want to have control over the whole classroom. She sits down and seems more relaxed… I just like to be around young people, it’s like she’s sitting down, like she’s an upperclassman.”

We were particularly interested in understanding how the kids perceived us. As researchers, we were presented with the challenge of determining the appropriate balance of power – did we want to be seen in positions of authority or as peers? We think we fell somewhere in the middle, as one kid seemed to find us on a comparable status level of his camp counselors (which he described as fitting between the role of teacher and friend on the spectrum). However, when we asked them to tell us what they thought technology was, they seemed to occasionally interpret our question as having a right and wrong answer, rather than understanding that we were simply trying to learn about their perspective. In one case, Iris described a technology then turned to us and asked, “Am I right?”

The kids did not seem to be accustomed to being in positions of power while around adult figures, since their school and activity environments are generally not structured as such. Our photo-elicitation study may have proven to be challenging or confusing to them because we were asking them to auto-drive the session, rather than vice versa. We think that they enjoyed telling us about themselves, and might have even more so if they had been fully cognizant that there was no grading or wrong answer involved. There are significant implications for learning here. What happens when we enable kids to teach others? Do we first need to teach them how to teach others? Is a 13-year-old or a high school student more comfortable in this role? How do kids learn from one another and what is the interplay between their teaching, learning, and power structures?

Gender and technology

While we do not presume to generalize our case study findings about gender, some of our observations raise questions that would be useful starting points for future research. For example, the gender differences that we observed with respect to communication-centric technologies, including instant-messenger, email, and mobile phones, suggested compelling variations in behavior. Iris and Dionne had significantly more experience with email than Toby and Miguel. Both had developed habits and tendencies with respect to their email use, such as Iris’ reluctance to open up email without a subject, even if it were from her grandfather, or Dionne’s forwarding on of chain emails to friends. Toby, who had seemed excited when he received his email account, said that he might have checked it a couple of times a week. Miguel expressed no interest in using email. He had a similar lack of interest in using a mobile phone although we should be careful to consider whether or not he truly was disinterested or if he had instead conceded that he was not likely to get one. Toby told us how excited he was about receiving a cell (NOTE: we are interchanging between “cell” and “mobile”) phone, but we later learned that he did not know the phone number, spent the first half an hour with it trying to figure out the games, and thereafter used it infrequently. On the other hand, Dionne was a regular cell phone user. She knew details about her service and plan (MetroPCS). She had developed a practice of texting and talking to her cousin at the same time.

With respect to games, our observations with respect to gender are mixed. Dionne, Toby, and Miguel all described playing casual games on Internet sites like, CartoonNetwork, Disney, and others. One interesting question to think about is whether even the category definition “casual games” is applicable when talking about kids. Are these games “casual” in the sense of the world when it is talked about in the adult world?

Toby and Miguel both talked about playing console games. Miguel owned a PlayStation 1. Toby had several game systems. Neither Iris nor Dionne owned a game system or mentioned playing console games. On the other hand, both Iris and Dionne were involved in online games such as NeoPets and Runescape, while neither Toby nor Miguel talked about this types of games. Another boy in their fifth grade class, though, was an avid online role-playing gamer, and we know that Iris had met several boys on Runescape.

Questions going forward

We feel that there is room for future research to be conducted to better understand these dynamics. How does a technology become integrated in a kid’s social world? From whom or what are these kids learning about various practices for a given technology? Do these practices emerge from their interactions with their social worlds around them, through self-exploration, from affordances offered by the technology itself, or through some complex combination of the three? One of the key challenges is in developing methods for understanding how and why the kids might evolve as online users. Will their interest in participation increase only if their real-world friends are also participating? What types of correlations are there between how much time they spend on these sites and external factors? These outside factors might include parental involvement, friends, schools, outside activities, and access to technology.