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Aussie researchers in world first study of kids using tech

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A new national research centre has been established to investigate the impact of digital technology on Australian children.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan recently announced $34.9 million in funding for the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.

To be based at QUT in Brisbane, the new Centre is leading the international agenda in digital wellbeing in children – including health, education and information technology.

One of the first research programs is a world first longitudinal study into the way children use technology at home and within the family.

The study will gather data from thousands of participants from birth to the age of eight.

Knowledge gained from the research will be used to develop open access resources and professional training to help minimise digital risks and encourage positive digital experiences.

Australian universities involved in the research include QUT, Curtin, Deakin University, Edith Cowan, University of Queensland and University of Wollongong.

In total, the Centre has 33 national and international academic and industry partners.

Together they will provide the Centre with an additional $32.2 million in cash and in-kind support.

Children in the digital age must be healthy, educated and connected

Director of the new Centre QUT Professor Susan Danby said the new seven-year research program would involve 3000 families in Australia.

“No other centre considers the digital child from birth. Our vision is to ensure children growing up in the digital age are healthy, educated and connected,” said Professor Danby, from QUT’s Faculty of Education.

“The Centre will provide evidence-based research around not only the risks but also the many opportunities and innovations provided by digital technologies that can benefit children and their futures.

“A child’s digital footprint begins even before birth, through data generated by health and educational records, as well as social media and the many young children’s toys connected to the internet, with activities and preferences tracked by commercial entities.

“And so the research will involve government and non-government agencies, industry here and overseas, policy-makers, philanthropic groups, as well as children and their parents.

“There are conflicting national guidelines and advice about many digital technology issues and the Centre aims to provide authoritative information to guide families, educators, governments and other authorities.”

World leading academics

Professor Danby said the Centre would bring together academics from Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and South Korea.

Their collective expertise covers education, health, computer science, engineering, psychology, and digital technologies as well as media and communication.

The three key research areas the Centre will focus on are:

  • Health: balancing risks of using digital technology against benefits, such as access to knowledge, social interaction, sleep and physical activity, relaxation and entertainment.

  • Education: using digital technologies to optimise learning and develop engaging and thought-provoking new technologies.

  • Connectedness: balancing social and knowledge connections in the digital world against risks of surveillance, infringements of privacy and children’s rights.

“The Centre will deliver and disseminate evidence-based research to optimise children’s use of digital technology,” Professor Danby said.

It will provide recommendations for policymakers and curriculum development to enable child-directed digital learning, participation and enjoyment.

It will also help to establish guidelines and resources for parents, educators and communities about safe and effective digital practices and technological innovations that support children’s digital engagement.

“The Centre will also provide professional development programs for those working with children and build research capacity with high-quality graduates and early career researchers.

“Research results and guidelines will be released progressively throughout the life of the Centre.”

Working with startups and technology providers

Professor Danby said QUT’s new Peter Coaldrake Education Precinct would house a children’s technology space where families and children would participate in the research on their use of technologies. Another children’s technology space will be an extension of the existing Early Start Discovery Centre at the University of Wollongong.

Researchers will work with start-ups and technology providers to test prototypes and gather feedback from children at these research hubs.

Professor Julian Sefton-Green, from Deakin’s School of Education, said research carried out at the Centre had enormous potential to contribute to improving the education and wellbeing of Australian children.

“Digital technology is fundamentally changing the nature of education and this change isn’t happening just in schools but across the whole of children’s lives,” Professor Sefton-Green said.

“One of the difficult things for parents, and teachers, is that advice about the impact of screen time is so conflicting.

“Children are growing, learning and connecting with digital technology but there is scarce evidence and a lack of shared understanding about the screen time that results in positive outcomes for children and those that create risks or harm.

“Many parents also feel anxious about the amount of time their children spend on their screens.

“Fears and concerns can lead to parents restricting or limiting screen time but this can also result in children missing out on opportunities to use digital technology in ways that will help them flourish.”

Providing information for parents and teachers

Deakin researchers will participate in several major strands of the research program looking at children’s technology use at home.

This includes:

  • Video games and children’s wellbeing

  • Learning in diverse settings

  • Data analytics and children’s digital rights

  • Equity of use and access

  • Impacts on family life

  • The internet of things and

  • Commercialisation and the digital child

“This is the first time research of this size and scale has been undertaken on this topic in the world,” Professor Sefton-Green said.

“It will give us the information we need to help parents and teachers better understand the enormous potential of digital technology so that we can help children build their resilience in this space and maximise their opportunities to learn and play but at the same time use digital technology in a safe and sustainable way.”

University of Wollongong researchers will also play a leading role in the new research.

UOW's School of Education head Professor Sue Bennett has been appointed as deputy director.

Tackling the big questions about digital technology

"The aim of the centre is to make a positive difference to the lives of our youngest Australians through research that tackles big questions about digital technology," Professor Bennett said.

"These questions include: how can families best manage screen time; what can parents do to create a safer online environment for their children; how can digital technologies be used to enhance children's education?

"We need to consider health, education and connectedness together.

"The scale of this national centre will allow us to do new work that brings those different areas together in innovative ways ... it will also allow us to respond well to a rapidly changing world, one in which technology is increasingly shaping our lives."

Professor Bennett will lead one of the major strands of research into connectedness through technology, which has social and technical links with education and health.

“There is no other centre like this in the world, so this is a very significant investment in Australia's future,”Professor Bennett said.

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