Child wearing a hat is looking through binoculars.
"Binocular Trial (Round Valley Reservoir)" by stinkenroboter is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“What Are They Doing On There?”: A Look At Content On The Screens Portrayed in Children’s Literature

This post is a continuation of my exploration of the ways in which children’s literature might provide children, caregivers, and teachers some guidance, framing, and mentorship with respect to the ways we think about screens, technology, and media in our lives. In my last post I indicated that there are twelve human children portrayed with screens in the 23 titles I analyzed. Here is a quick peek at what these characters are up to on the screens we see them with in these titles. Attention to such information is important because the kinds of activities portrayed in these stories signal the presumed cultural norms and expectations for interacting with and around screens—in other words the books capture what we do with screens or technologies and the media content a child, caregiver, or teacher might expect to see on them.

For this part of analysis I coded for the device type and content on the screens, where I was able to do so. In order for the device to be attributed to the child for use the character either had to be portrayed with the device on their person or in their hands, or the text must have described the character’s interaction with the device. In instances where main characters did not interact with the device themselves, they were coded as having no device. The following are the other device codes that emerged from this sample: TV screen; tablet; desktop computer (with mouse and auxiliary keyboard); laptop computer; gaming console; handheld gaming device; mobile phone (cellular); robot (screen free); robot (requiring screen for programming). There were instances when a main character was portrayed with multiple device types. In such cases, I recorded the device type as multiple and documented the range of devices observed.

In addition, I tried to identify the content that the character may have interacted with on each device, because particular content lends itself to particular kinds of activities. Mozilla (n.d.) proposes, “knowing how to read, write, and participate online is a foundational skill next to reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Mozilla calls these activities “web literacy.” Content like Scratch lends itself well to coding, which is classified as a kind of writing on the web. Content like YouTube is often classified as a type of reading/viewing activity except in cases where folks are creating new YouTube content (which could be classified as a compose + contribute or a remix + contribute activity). Activities such as playing a video game are not included in Mozilla’s framework, but were nonetheless captured in my coding. In many cases, the illustrations were used as the source for determining the content classifications. In some instances, though, the text described what the character did, i.e., their activity, which signaled a particular kind of content (e.g., coding, texting, viewing videos on a platform similar to YouTube).

Oftentimes verbs were used to describe what the device was doing, or what the child was doing on the device. Words such as “loading” and “downloading” indicated some sort of computer program was processing, but omitted any detail about the content of the program, whereas words such as “game over” or “no signal” indicated the state of the activity as ended or held up. Other onomatopoetic words such as “beep” or “bop” or “bip” replicated some sort of nonspecific activity and content as well. Examples of more specific child activity were described with words such as “complete this level” (Rocket Says Look Up) or “destroyed Martians” (On a Magical Do-Nothing Day) or “coding” (Doll-E 1.0) allowed for more accurate inference about the content the child was engaged with on a particular device. There were three examples wherein a specific title was provided in the text: a television program named Captain Cosmos (from Hello! Hello!) and two video games titled Superhero Space Princess (from Doll-E 1.0) and Starship (from On a Magical Do-Nothing Day). In other words, the majority of the children portrayed with one or more device were engaged with generically described activities with content that was not specified.

Charlotte plays a video game titled “Superhero Space Princess.”

Eight of the human main characters were portrayed with one device and four were portrayed with multiple devices. In characters with one device in their narrative, three use desktop computers, two use phones, one uses a tablet, one a portable gaming device, and one a game console. Each of the four human main characters with multiple device types utilizes a combination of stationary and mobile devices except for Jane, who’s two devices are both mobile. Charlottte (Doll-E 1.0), Tek (TEK The Modern Cave Boy), and Lydia (Hello! Hello!) are the other main characters with multiple device types. They respectively encounter four, three, and six different devices each. For the most part, all of the devices appear to belong to the children, too. Jane (Our Great Big Backyard) uses her parent’s phone and Lydia and the child from Blackout use family televisions. Charlotte fixes her mom’s tablet and dad’s computer in addition to all she does with her own devices.

Example of multiple devices types in children’s literature: “Tek stayed alone in his cave room, glued to his phone, his tablet, and his game box, all day, all night, all the time.”

With regard to the content driving the activities on these devices, there are many portrayals of game content. Forty-two percent (n=5) of the human main characters—Charlottte, Tek, Lydia, the unnamed child from On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, and Jane—all play video games on their devices. In these, there is an emerging theme of space games because three of the children play space games—Martians, Superhero Space Princess, and Starship. Here, and with the television reruns of Captain Cosmos Lydia encounters, there is an allusion that many things on screens are futuristic.

To a much lesser extent the characters engage in construction of meaning with written words: in this sample there was no direct evidence that the human children were engaged in activities requiring them to read or write words on screen except for Jane who is texting with friends. Charlotte presumably engages in writing by way of STEM. She is portrayed coding, as the words in the text signal. We do not, however, witness any block coding or script on Charlotte’s screens, although her doodles, lists, and dialogue (especially around reprogramming her doll to say more words) imply that she has engaged in meaning making with written words on screen. Both children in Mirror and Zuri (Hair Love) engage in making meaning from informational text. We see the children in Mirror reading maps and Zuri is viewing how-to videos on her tablet with her father.

A child looks at a globe on a desktop computer in “Mirror.”

Two children are engaged in activities and content that explicitly requires social interaction and connection with other humans. The child in Tea With Grandpa, who is presumably one of the younger characters in the corpus analyzed, utilizes video chat to connect with her grandfather. Jane, who is among the older children portrayed, texts with her peers. Here we see that screens are tools we use for communicating with people who are important to us. These portrayals also demonstrate that family and friends are important.

Jane sends a message, “Yep, that’s me on Blaze, my mule. The only thing missing is you. XOXO,” and a picture of herself to her peers from her family’s vacation through the US National Parks. The text on the page reads, “As we explored I sent a selfie to my crew.”

In all of this, what strikes me most is that I don’t see what most would classify as examples of screen-mediated reading of more traditionally linear text types that historically were created first in printed form—books or newspapers or magazines—and have moved onto the screen. Such types of texts are associated with deeper levels of comprehension and are preferred for deep and analytic reading. With the switch to most of the K-12 and college world moving to emergency schooling with digital materials and classes, reading a range of text types and formats on screens has become more frequently essential, and doing so with attention to detail and a critical and empathic lens is necessary, as Maryanne Wolfe, scholar and Director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, has described. For many children (and adults, too), approaching the screen as a tool for academic work is a challenge, and requires a shift in cognitive processing and a concomitant awareness that deep reading in a digital context requires a different level of attention and purpose than those that are observed when most people approach the screen.

I also observe that there is not much example of empathic or civic action resulting from any screen-mediated activity we witness in the titles I analyzed. In addition, there are not many examples of composition on screen—writing stories, screenplays, essays, social media posts for civic action. None. Early in my academic career I had the very good fortune of hearing Nosy Crow’s CEO Kate Wilson give a talk about designing e-books. In it she said, “I firmly believe that some of screen time ought to be reading time.” She went on to say, “screens also offer children remarkable opportunity to create and share their own stories.” I tend to agree with Kate, and add that the authenticity of audience that comes with digital composition, particularly when texts are shared out, offer tremendous opportunity to support empathic and civically oriented meaning making. The examples I analyzed here do not demonstrate such possibilities to the children, caregivers, or teachers who may be actively or unknowingly looking for mentorship through these stories.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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