Children as Inventors of Happiness Technologies

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Happiness is a practice. People can achieve happiness by applying specific skills to their interaction with the world. These skills include gratitude (reflecting on and expressing thankfulness for positive aspects of one’s life), mindfulness (practicing awareness and acceptance of the present moment), and problem solving (reflecting on thoughts and feelings to find alternative interpretations and solutions). About 44% of school in the U.S. include programs that teach such social and emotional skills to children (e.g., Penn Resiliency Program), and a number of investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of these approaches. However, one of the challenges faced by school-based programs is that they provide few (if any) opportunities for children to extend the practice of these skills to their lives outside of the classroom. Technology may help address this gap by providing engaging opportunities to revisit happiness practices outside of the classroom and integrate them into the everyday lives of children.

Prof. Stephen Schueller (Clinical Psychologist, Northwestern University) and I partnered to consider and design new technologies to support children in practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving skills. While Stephen has a great deal of expertise in positive psychology and I know a fair bit about designing technology for children, we also wanted to make sure that our approach represented children’s voices, priorities, and values. We collaborated with the Y.O.U. (Youth & Opportunity United) summer program to train twelve children in becoming “Happiness Inventors.” Through fourteen 90-minute sessions, we worked with the children to understand their definitions of happiness, to teach them age-appropriate gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving exercises, and to provide them with the knowledge and structure to become inventors of new technologies to help kids practice happiness skills. Through these session, children brainstormed over 400 ideas and developed many of these ideas as sketches, prototypes, and videos. The video the children made documenting a few of their outcomes is below.

By conducting a content analysis of the children’s work, we found a number of important implications for future technologies aiming to support the practice of happiness skills. First, we found that children’s interpretations of positive psychology concepts like gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving may not always match adult interpretations and perspectives of these concepts. For example, many children’s interpretations of happiness across all three concepts revolved around external influences on happiness, such as getting practical help (e.g., with homework) or avoiding unpleasant situations. These may not be typical concepts within positive psychology, but these concepts are worth considering when developing interventions for children. If a child’s mental model of happiness and how it can be achieved does not match the model forwarded by a particular intervention, the intervention’s effect may be limited for that child. Researchers should make the effort to engage with the mental models of the particular child audience and, if necessary, work on changing counterproductive belief structures before deploying positive technology intervention.

Second, the children’s designs pointed to a number of specific features and engagement approaches that may increase the appeal of positive technologies. One noteworthy example is that children often imagined technological solutions that could understand and react to various internal states, such as thoughts and emotions. Indeed, a growing number of efforts are attempting to glean psychological and emotional states from various affective computing technologies as diverse as EEG, galvanic skin response, and automated sentiment analysis on social media. Positive technologies that make use of such features may have particular appeal for children who are still learning to understand and interpret their affective states and the affective states of others. Another noteworthy aspect is in the number and diversity of approaches that the children posited for encouraging sustained engagement with interventions. While gamification and social interaction were two important approaches that have been considered in a number of previous interventions, there were also a few surprising ideas. One of these surprises was sensory engagement. Many of the children’s ideas posited that somebody could be motivated to engage with an intervention simply because it was beautiful and appealing to the senses, whether it be visual, aural, olfactory, or haptic. This is not a well-explored approach in the design of positive technologies and it would be interesting to know the smells associated with happiness (our participants suggested some, which included warm chocolate chip cookies and the smell of one’s own bed).

Finally, another design insight from this investigation emerged from observing the types of technologies that children cited in their inventions. It was clear that children were not drawn to interventions for laptops or desktops. At the very least, the implication of this is that web-based interventions for children should be designed using a mobile-first paradigm. However, we should emphasize that this is just a stop-gap solution, as even mobile-first web-based solutions struggle to achieve sustained engagement. Indeed, there may be an opportunity to increase engagement by thinking outside the box (or the computer, as the case may be here). The children in our study suggested a number of solutions that went beyond apps and websites. These instantiations included wearable accessories and apparel, toys and gadgets that may operate independently or in conjunction with a phone app, smart furniture and home infrastructure, robots and drones, and public kiosks and displays. It may be fruitful for designers to consider their positive technology interventions not as “sites” that children “visit,” but rather as tools that live alongside with them in the real physical world.

There’s a lot more in our Journal of Medical Internet Research paper, so check it out if you’re interested!

YouthTube: Youth Video Authorship on YouTube and Vine

We looked at more than 300 videos posted by children and teenagers on YouTube and Vine and discovered some interesting facts about youth video authorship.

We looked at more than 300 videos posted by children and teenagers on YouTube and Vine and discovered some interesting facts about youth video authorship.

It’s 2015, do you know what your kids are posting online? Children and teenagers use public video platforms like YouTube and Vine to share their stories. Knowing more about what and how they share could help us design tools that encourage creativity and self-expression while helping young people reflect on online safety and privacy. To find out more about what youth video authors do online, we conducted a study that looked at over 300 recently-shared youth authored videos.

We used human computation (see paper for details) to identify 336 youth-authored videos out of 4000 videos recently publicly shared on YouTube and Vine. We found interesting differences between YouTube and Vine and interesting contrasts between what youths and adults share:

  • YouTube vs. Vine. We found that the YouTube creators were on average younger (14 years old) than Vine creators (17 years old). YouTube creators more likely to collaborate with adults on the videos, and much less likely to include content that was violent, sexual, or obscene in nature. It seems that YouTube is a family space, while Vine is a playground for older teens. However, we should not be alarmist about Vine or try to keep teenagers away from it. We know that it’s important for teenagers to take risks and experiment with their identities as a way of developing resilience. Perhaps, a better focus would be creating tools to help them reflect on their online persona and better understand how their videos are viewed and shared by others.
  • Youths vs. Adults. A previous study of online video authorship identified the most common types of videos posted by adults. Adults reported being most likely to post videos of friends and family doing everyday things, videos of themselves or others doing funny things, videos of an event they attended, and videos of pets or animals. In a nutshell, it can be said that they treat video as an archive to collect and keep precious memories of everyday life with their family, friends, and pets, humorous moments, and special events. In contrast, we found that the most common types of videos posted by children and teenagers were intentionally staged, scripted, or choreographed videos, videos of friends and family doing everyday things, videos of themselves or others doing funny things, and video selfies and opinions. In short, children and teenagers are more likely to treat video as a stage to tell their stories and show their talents. Knowing this, we can design systems that support young authors not in capturing and archiving, but in planning, performing, and editing compelling narratives and performances.

If you want more details about our methods, findings, and examples of videos we found, check out our paper that has been accepted to appear in the Proceedings of CSCW 2016: Svetlana Yarosh, Elizabeth Bonsignore, Sarah McRoberts, and Tamara Peyton. 2016. YouthTube: Youth Video Authorship on YouTube and Vine. Proceedings of the 2016 conference on Computer supported cooperative work, ACM.

Six Strategies for Including Children as Stakeholders

Adults are not good proxies for understanding the needs and experiences of children. And yet, I see the “proxy” approach surprisingly frequently in studies of home and family, health informatics, education and other HCI domains. I’ve recently written a case study on this topic for a new edition of an HCI textbook (Baxter, K., Courage, C. & Caine, K. 2015. Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research. Methods, Tools and Techniques. Morgan Kaufmann) and I want to share some of the ideas here.

When seeking to understand families and children, it is critically important to include children in the research activity. While it may be tempting to use parents as proxies for gauging the family’s needs, this is insufficient for understanding the complexities of the family dynamic. In my own work, I’ve seen many examples of non-consensus and many instances where parents’ perceptions of their child’s experience diverged from the child’s. I provide several examples in the case study, but here I instead want to focus on six specific strategies to help researchers include children in user studies:

  • Working with children requires special considerations while preparing the protocol and assent documents. Children are not able to give informed consent, which will have to be obtained through their parents, but the assent procedure gives them the opportunity to understand their rights and what will happen in the study. It is important to emphasize to the child that they can withdraw from the study, decline to answer any question, or take a break at any time. In designing both the assent document and interview protocol, keep specific developmental milestones in mind. In my experience, I have been able to interview children as young as 6, however I always check the comprehension level of the protocol by piloting with friendly participants in the target age group.
If you interview in a lab and you wear a lab coat, you're gonna have a bad time talking to kids.

If you interview in a lab and you wear a lab coat, you’re gonna have a bad time talking to kids.

  • To encourage children to be open and honest, the researcher should actively work to equalize power between the child and the researcher. Children spend their lives in situations where adults expect the “right” answer from them. To encourage the child to share honest opinions and stories, the researcher needs to break through this power differential. There are a number of details to consider here: choose an interview setting where the child has power (e.g., playroom), dress like an older sibling rather than as a teacher, encourage use of first names, and let the child play with any technology that will be used (e.g., audio recorder) before starting. Above all, emphasize that you are asking these questions because you do not yet know the answers, that the child is “the best at being a kid,” and that there is no wrong way to answer any of the questions.
  • Parents make the decisions in a study that concerns their children, which introduces a unique constraint. As a researcher, you will have to respect the parents’ decisions: you may not be able to interview the child separately and you cannot promise the child that anything will be kept private from the parents. However, you can explain to the parents why it is important for the child to have a chance to state their perspective in private. In my experience, most parents are willing to provide that private space, especially when the study is being conducted in their home where they worry less about the child’s comfort.
  • Children may struggle with abstraction, so ask for stories about specific situations. For example, instead of asking, “how do you and your dad talk on the phone when he’s traveling?” ask, “what did you tell your dad last time he called you?” It may take more questions to get as all the aspects you want to discuss, but it is much easier for children to discuss things they recently did rather than provide an overall reflection. This is most important with younger children, but is a good place to start with any participant.
Children talk more during show-and-tell than just to answer questions.

Children talk more during show-and-tell than if you just ask them questions. (That’s my brother, by the way!)

  • Additional effort may be necessary to engage a shy child and one way to do so is to encourage the child to show-and-tell. For example, “Show me where you usually are when you think about your mom?” or “Show me some apps that you use with your dad on your phone?” Use the places and objects shared as stepping-stones to ask more nuanced questions about feelings, strategies, and preferences.
  • An example of a child's drawing of technology (a holograph robot for communication).

    An example of a child’s drawing of technology (a holograph robot for communication).

    Lastly, incorporating drawing and design activities may help the child get into the “open-ended” nature of the study, be willing to be a little silly, and reveal what may be most important to them. For example, I asked children, “What might future kids have to help them stay in touch with their parents?” These drawing are not meant to produce actionable designs, but will reveal important issues through their presentation. Listen for key words (e.g., “secret” = importance of privacy), look for underlying concepts (e.g., “trampoline” or “swimming pool” = importance of physical activity), and attend to common themes such as who would be interacting with their future device, where, and how often.

I hope that these six strategies demystify some of the processes of including children in a study. Please, let me know if you have any additional advice or any experiences in working with kids that you’re willing to share.