Department of Educational Sciences, Tallinn University
This study examines connections between two main growth environments – home and pre-school – in the formation of young children’s new media preferences in the context of the ecological techno-microsystem and peer culture. The study assembles the results of three focus group based sub-studies with pre-school teachers (N=24), parents (N=20) and children between the ages of 5 and 7 (N=61). Samples were formed in pre-school childcare institutions, which in Estonia is for children aged 1,5 to 7. Research shows that other members of the pre-school group influence children’s preferences in their use of new media. Parents consider the shaping of their children’s preferences to be less connected to the children’s relations with their peers. Teachers, on the other hand, ascribe the children’s preferences to different aspects of the influence that their peers, siblings and parents can have on them.
Keywords: pre-school children, peer culture, new media preferences, siblings, parents
The basis of this article is the ecological systems theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979), which states that the surrounding environment influences a child’s growth and development by placing the child within a system of relationships. According to Bronfenbrenner (1979; 1986), the processes in the mesosystem, i.e. different settings around the child, are not independent of one another and operate in both directions (from home to pre-school and vice versa); therefore, they affect children’s lives. In today’s society, this also means new media-related environments and connections between people.
Within the scope of this article, the term ‘new media’ is primarily used to refer to infrastructure consisting of “three components: artefacts or devices used to communicate or convey information; the activities and practices in which people engage to communicate or share information; and the social arrangements or organizational forms that develop around those devices and practices” (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006, p. 2).
The empirical study which resulted in this article was driven by the results of research conducted with pre-school teachers in autumn 2009 (Siibak & Vinter, 2010). According to the perceptions of pre-school teachers in our sample, children tend to “form their overall attitudes and interests regarding computers within groups” and values and opinions about new media usage depend on peer culture (Siibak & Vinter, 2010, p. 11), which made it necessary to study the phenomenon in pre-school groups involving other related parties, i.e. children and parents.
Based on the results of focus group interviews conducted from 2009-2011, the main goals of this article were to investigate:
- possible influences of the home and pre-school on children’s consumption and formation of new media preferences; and
- the directions of these influences between different settings around the child, based on the three sets of opinions expressed in the focus groups by children between the ages of 5 and 7, pre-school teachers and parents.
Summarising the results of a variety of studies, Eynon & Malmberg (2011) highlight the fact that in addition to the positive conditions of use of the Internet at home, parents and siblings have an impact on children’s new media use (see also Siibak & Vinter, 2010). Alongside a child’s home and family, the pre-school is another key learning environment: it is where the media culture of different families comes together and where, through social learning, children gain understandings and adopt attitudes from one another; it is also where role models are encountered and preferences take shape, not only in terms of media but in all things (Corsaro, 1997). The influence a group of peers can have on a child is thought to be the same as that of the child’s parents and other social factors (Muuss, 2006).
Hadley & Nenga (2004) underscore the fact that children today integrate media resources and content into their peer culture. However, studies of media influences have rarely focussed on their physical and social context, in which children come into contact with and are directly affected by different forms of media. This context incorporates a child’s family, pre-school and network of friendships, the socio-economic status of their neighbourhood and group norms (Oakes, 2004) – in other words, interaction with the various parts of the microsystem. Also, there are fewer studies on how children influence one another’s preferences in terms of their new media usage and on the impact the home has on pre-school culture.
The role of the home in the formation of children’s preferences
The experience of being a child has changed fundamentally because of rapid changes in the growth environment and access to technology. Bronfenbrenner’s theory emerged in the era of television, before the Internet revolution. Therefore, Johnson and Puplampu (2008) modernised Bronfenbrenner’s theory by adding the ecological techno-subsystem (quoted from Johnson, 2010a).
The ecological techno-subsystem includes child interaction with both living (e.g., peers) and nonliving (e.g., hardware) elements of communication, information, and recreation technologies in immediate or direct environments (Johnson, 2010b, p. 176).
Johnson (2010a) notes that the techno-subsystem has, among other things, the capacity to “coordinate children’s learning experiences across home, school, and childcare environments” (p. 35). Though researchers (Downes, 2002; Johnson, 2010a; Barron et al., 2009) usually describe emerging differences in terms of access and available resources (e.g. hardware) when creating computing experiences for children, Buckingham (2006) emphasises that physical access to technology and levels of use are not necessarily connected.
This article focuses on the living (e.g. peers, parents and siblings) factor in the techno-subsystem, which makes the other aspects – such as parental discourse, rules, parental and sibling expertise and patterns in which the family use new media (Downes, 2002; Rideout & Hamel, 2006; Siibak & Vinter, 2010) – an important part of experience formation in interaction with people. Alongside the expertise of older siblings, researchers have also found that they often introduce activities and online content to younger siblings that are not favoured by their parents (e.g. Plowman et al., 2008), thereby providing the ingredients for the formation of unwanted preferences.
Plowman and Stephen (2007) emphasise that the interests and aptitude of pre-school teachers and family members towards ICT (information and communication technology) make them models, and point out the core aspect of guiding interaction, which leads to support learning and the formation of preferences. In addition to direct role models, parents’ own experiences of using technology also influence the opportunities that they extend to their children (Plowman, McPake, & Stephen, 2010; Livingstone, 2007a). Furthermore, the Internet is used more by those who are surrounded by people who use it more and skilfully (Eynon & Malmberg, 2011) and “parent use of the Internet at work, an element of the exosystem, may indirectly affect children’s home Internet access” (Johnson, 2010a, p. 34).
In early childhood, learning and social experiences at pre-school and home are complementary (Johnson, 2010c). Based on the paradigm of social learning, it can be claimed that the following models in real life can bring about changes in a child’s behaviour, way of thinking, and formation of habits. In this case, the models can be the child’s parents, peers or any other role models (Murray, 2008). However, children’s experiences at home influence what they bring with them to pre-school and share with their peers.
Peer-culture and the formation of preferences
Forming good preferences in early years is important for several reasons. Firstly, a number of studies have examined and highlighted the positive and negative aspects of new media usage. Positive aspects emerge with adult as well as competent peer or sibling intervention (Clements & Sarama, 2003; Plowman & Stephen, 2003; Grieshaber, 2010). Secondly, since daily Internet use among young people and children in Estonia is especially high, reaching 82% of 9-11 year olds (Livingstone, Haddon, Gorzig, & Olafsson, 2011), the formation of good, educative habits in early childhood is essential. Furthermore, researchers from the EU Kids Online network suggest that as “children are going online at ever younger ages, a new policy focus must be on awareness-raising and on developing support for much younger Internet users” (O’Neill, Livingstone, & McLaughlin, 2011, p. 17).”
Pre-school, with its peer culture, is one key learning environment in which children gain understandings, adopt attitudes and shape preferences. Peer culture, which includes “a stable set of activities or routines, artefacts, values and concerns that children produce and share in interaction with peers” (Corsaro, 1997, p. 95), offers shared knowledge about status, identity and power roles (Lofdahl, 2006; Skånfors, Lofdahl, & Hagglund, 2009).
Corsaro (2000) emphasises that one important phenomenon in sharing knowledge and experiences is sociodramatic play, which also influences young children’s peer culture. In the framework of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977), it can be assumed that sociodramatic play is based on three components that determine observational learning from models around children (e.g. parents and siblings): attention; interests or prior beliefs; and behavioural actions, as choices to look at certain things and environmental events take place. Re-playing of the scenes they see in the surrounding environment helps to maintain a particular script in their memory which makes it possible to apply it in future situations (Huessman, 1988) so that observational learning may be later expressed in the demonstrations of behaviour and expression of thoughts, emotions or attitudes.
Thus, sociodramatic play forms “part of the process of interpretive reproduction in children’s lives” where children use communicative skills, participate collectively and extend peer culture (Corsaro, 2000, p. 96), but also bring along their everyday experiences from home, understandings of the world and – through imitation of parents and siblings – introduce them to other children in the group. All of these components are likewise connected to the choices and preferences a child makes and experiences they bring with them from home to pre-school.
Children’s computer use and peer influence
Internet and computer use among young children has increased in recent years (Livingstone et al. 2011; Johnson, 2010c; Findhal, 2009; Feller, 2005). Children use computers for various activities. For example, 7-year-olds perceive the computer as a tool: a source of information and fun (Hayes, 2006). However, Zevenbergen and Logan (2008) claim that the majority of children use computers to play games, and Holloway and Valentine (2003) conclude that children view ICT as a social and leisure means rather than an educational tool. Therefore, children’s experiences of computer use and the forming of their preferences may not be as educational as they could be. Historically, in comparison to girls, computer use among boys is greater (Buckingham, 2006; Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, Kraut, & Gross, 2001) and therefore may need more adult attention.
However, children spend much of the time on computers alone (Subrahmanyam et al. 2001). Plowman and Stephen (2003) note that in contrast to adult technologies, which are designed for individual users, pre-school children learn and play collaboratively with their peers, siblings and adults. In summarizing studies, Barron and co. (2009) emphasise that access to knowledgeable peers influences children’s new media usage. However, in learning to use new media, children tend to learn from their peers instead of teachers or parents (Hamlen, 2011). According to Robertson & Howells (2008), scaffolding of a more capable peer makes teacher intervention unnecessary.
According to studies, peers have another influential role alongside tutoring: children gain social status among peers through computer expertise, which enhances their self-esteem (Heim, Brandtzæg, Hertzberg Kaare, Endestad, Torgersen, 2007). Comments from peers are an important generator of enthusiasm and motivation to learn to use tools or play games (Robertson & Howells, 2008). Therefore, peers can afford emotional and motivational empowerment and in turn influence the formation of new media preferences, but they need adult assistance in this.
To conclude this theoretical overview, it can be stated that children view ICT as a social and leisure means rather than an educational tool, which influence their experiences of computer use and the forming of their preferences. Taking into account that sociodramatic play has an important role in sharing knowledge and experience, it can be assumed that new media preferences are similar within a group of children and that peers have an impact on their preferences. Parents, siblings and teachers are mainly seen as models whose interests, aptitude and experience influence a child’s preferences and attitudes towards ICT. Through imitation and interpretive reproduction in sociodramatic play and other interaction with peers, children bring along their everyday experiences from home and the surrounding environment and introduce them to other children within the group.
Method and sample
This article is based on three empirical focus group-based sub-studies with pre-school teachers (N=24), parents (N=20) and children (N=61) to describe possible influences on the formation of children’s new media preferences in the context of peer culture and home interaction and the directions of these influences between the two main growth environments. All parties to the study mapped the children’s consumption and preferences of new media at home and their manifestations in pre-school.
This study has four research questions:
- Do peers in pre-schools have an impact on children’s preferences in new media usage?
- Are these preferences the same or different within groups of children in the pre-school setting?
- What importance do parents attribute to pre-school peers in influencing the manner in which their children use new media?
- What kind of influences do pre-school teachers perceive in the formation of children’s new media consumption preferences that they attribute to the home?
Summarising the research questions and taking into account the goals of the study, triangulation of data made it possible to provide a more advanced and complex overview. All of the parties studied have their own expertise and standpoints: pre-school teachers have the most direct associations with the pre-school environment and prevailing peer culture; the influences of peer culture reach parents through their children; and the children reflect their personal viewpoints in both environments.
It is also important to note that there are two main types of pre-school childcare institutions in Estonia: day nurseries for children up to 3 years of age; and nursery schools for children up to 7 years of age (Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, 2012). The target group of this study was children between the ages of 5 and 7, as well as parents and teachers who are exposed to children in this age group.
The children and parents were not related; nor were the children and teachers from the same pre-school groups, because the data was derived from three different studies with similar blocks of themes, including children’s media favourites, preferences, new media usage habits and parental mediation. Since the aim was not to analyse phenomenon within a small community but to provide an initial and more general understanding of the topic involving the sample people from different locations, the selected approach was the most suitable.
Therefore, the analysis in this article describes general trends and gives an initial broader overview for further study, but it cannot explain micro-sociological influences within related parties and directly shared experiences.
I considered the focus-group method to be the best suited in respect of the aims of the study, because it helped to capture the opinions and experiences of pre-school teachers and parents from different backgrounds in Estonia. Furthermore, as the discussed topics were relatively new in early childhood settings, the focus group method supported in-group content creation and encouraged the participants to highlight examples of similar or even dissimilar cases in their own practice, thereby enriching the data. The interviews for all the focus groups were based on a prepared interview schedule with open-ended questions, which involved a flexible outline of the topics and similar blocks of themes among all related parties.
Focus groups with pre-school teachers
The first sub-study, two focus group interviews with pre-school teachers (N=24), which provided primary indicators about the topic, was conducted in November 2009. To cover diverse groups (different pre-school educational establishments that vary according to region, size and form of ownership), we selected a broad range of participants from throughout Estonia’s pre-schools and compiled random sampling to make the final selection.
The sample comprised 24 female teachers whose ages ranged from 22 to 50 years; more than half were older than 35. Most had been working in pre-schools for more than six years and were therefore experienced.
The aim of the study conducted with the teachers was to explore how they perceived factors that influence the use of computers and the Internet by children aged 5 to 7 (Siibak & Vinter, 2010). Research with teachers brought about a need to study the children’s media favourites, preferences and new media usage habits within and among pre-school groups involving other related parties – children and parents.
Focus groups with pre-school children
The second sub-study, which consisted of 25 focus group interviews with children (N=61) between the ages of 5 years and 6 months and 7 years and 1 month, was carried out in autumn 2010. The sample consisted of an almost equal numbers of boys (n=31) and girls (n=30). The final sample included children from three municipal pre-schools in geographically different regions of Estonia – a large city with ca 420 000 inhabitants (N=31), a small town with ca 34 000 inhabitants (N=18) and a rural area with ca 250 inhabitants (N=12) and comprised only those children whose parents had signed a written consent form. The focus group interviews with the children lasted app. 15-30 minutes. Generally, two focus groups per day were carried out by author of this paper, who is also a former pre-school teacher.
This particular age group (5 to 7) was selected because children are quite capable of expressing themselves verbally at this age (Darbishire, MacDougall, & Schiller, 2005) and could therefore purposefully reflect on their experiences. The groups were formed on a random basis, and to lessen potential peer pressure and elicit more valid results, most of the groups comprised children from two different pre-school groups. The majority of the focus groups were mixed-gender, with three to six members (mainly five or six) in each, as the three pilot focus groups which were conducted to refine and improve the interview questions showed that the children felt more at ease in bigger groups with an unknown adult moderator. Children from different groups gave more examples than smaller groups and children who knew each other. However, despite the abundant discussion topics, the children demonstrated clearer preferences similar to their own group of children than the other.
The interview questions were listed in three blocks: the children’s favourites on screen (nine focus groups, N=42); preferences and emotional responses to the screen (nine focus groups, N=44 participants); and the children’s observations about media content and parental mediation (seven focus groups, N=35) with 30 pre-determined questions in total. Themes were explicated until data saturation began to emerge. As no significant differences emerged in the answers given by the children, fewer focus groups were conducted on the one theme of children’s observations and parental mediation.
Though the initial aim was to cover just one topic per group, analysis indicated that the children described their preferences and new media usage habits in every focus group. Therefore, material from all of the focus groups was used to compile this article.
Focus groups with parents
The third sub-study, three focus group interviews with parents of pre-school children (N=20), was conducted in January and February 2011. The final sample consisted of eight fathers and twelve mothers aged 24-52. All three focus groups were carried out in different pre-schools, two of which were urban and one rural. More than half (N=12) of the parents had at least two children, and nine of them had children older than 8 years of age in the family.
Open interview questions from the pre-school teachers’ focus groups (Siibak & Vinter, 2010) as well as questions from the children’s interviews were used to prepare the pre-determined interview questionnaire, which also covered the following themes: children’s favourites, preferences, new media usage habits and parental mediation.
All of the focus groups were mixed-gender, with six or seven members in each. The interviews lasted from 45 minutes to two hours. All of the interviews were recorded and transcribed and continued until data saturation began to emerge.
Qualitative content analysis was selected to analyse the research material. Connecting three sets of qualitative data from three sub-studies provided a large quantity of text; content analysis reduced the data to a manageable and comprehensible proportion. The NVivo programme was used to analyse the data.
After transcribing the interviews, the verbatim transcripts were read to provide an overall sense of the data. Interpretation of the data was cyclical, starting with line-by-line coding. The coding only considered those remarks that concerned computer and Internet use among children and their preferences.
The data analysis was divided into three parts. At first, three sets of data from children, parents and pre-school teachers were analysed separately within cases. The analysis of the children’s focus group responses showed great differences in the children’s new media preferences among different pre-school groups. The second part of the analysis was conducted within six pre-school groups to identify peer influence on the formation of new media habits and preferences. The third part, which was cross-case analysis, allowed all of the related parties to be compared and patterns to be sought (Eisenhardt, 1989). The comparison was made against pre-defined categories seeking similarities and differences. Cross-case analysis proved useful and efficient, as it helped to compare different cases from the chosen perspectives and recurring patterns and themes across the different parties and groups.
The aims of the study were to investigate the possible influences of the home and pre-school on children’s consumption and formation of new media preferences and the directions of these influences between different settings around the child, based on the opinions of children, pre-school teachers and parents.
The following abbreviations are used in this review: ‘G’ (girl) and ‘B’ (boy), with the number after the letter representing the child’s age; ‘gr’ + number (distinguishing different pre-school groups); T (teacher), with the number after the letter distinguishing teachers; and MO (mother), FA (father) and I (interviewer).
Children’s new media preferences and pre-school impact: the viewpoints of children, teachers and parents
The focus groups with children demonstrated that in all of the studied groups (N=6) the children mentioned playing as their favourite activity on computers, while preferences in online environments, content and specific activities within groups differed considerably when compared to other groups. Differences could be seen in gaming environments as well as preferred activities. For example, one group from the city and one from the small town often mentioned watching videos on YouTube as their favourite activity, especially pop music videos. None of the children in the remaining four groups mentioned music videos in association with using a computer. YouTube was mentioned as an environment used by the children in one rural pre-school group, but they use it to watch cartoons.
G6 (gr1): I love Justin Bieber and Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’.
B5 (gr1): I like ‘Waka Waka’.
B5 (gr3): You can watch cartoons on YouTube.
G6 (gr3): The best YouTube cartoons are the ones with the bear, aren’t they?
Shooting games were very popular among boys in two of the six groups, and they said they mostly played them in the gaming environment Y8.com.
B6: I have war games. I’m alone and there’s a lot of police, but I still kill them all with a gun on the computer.
B6: I’ve been to his place. He’s got a game about crooks as well.
The girls in one pre-school group repeatedly mentioned the Y8.com gaming environment as one of their favourites. The children’s preferences of foreign-language gaming environments were rather gender-specific – boys preferred racing, adventure and, in one group, action games, while girls described games where they could furnish rooms or change the clothes and accessories of dolls.
G6: I like going to Y8 and putting clothes and hair on the women there.
All six interviewed groups of children mentioned the local gaming environment www.lastekas.ee and described no gender-specific preferences in terms of the games they played. Also, the popularity of the local gaming environment is probably based on the fact that it is in the children’s native language, and that they do not need to be able to read in order to use it (audio instructions are given in addition to text).
The other common computer activity besides game-playing described by the children in the two groups was watching re-runs of popular TV shows, which girls liked more than boys. Boys preferred to play computer games.
G6: I like watching TV3 [Estonian TV channel – www.tv3.ee/content/]
. When I watch it there, I can watch ‘Kattemaksukontor’ [Estonian TV series]
all the time.
Based on the children’s responses, it seems that even if they use the same online environments, for example YouTube or Y8.com, their content preferences within the group seem to be similar (in one case pop music videos and the other cartoons, but also different types of games) but differ between the groups, even if the focus groups were formed from mixed groups of children. The content children like most also differed between groups (e.g. shooting games in two groups, Y8.com in one pre-school setting group of girls and re-runs of popular TV shows in two groups), which allows us to assume that the children probably influence each other and, through peer culture, establish common preferences.
The similarities in preferences within groups of children were also illustrated with the answers the children gave to the question “What do you like doing most in your spare time?” The answers given by the three groups were largely connected with computer activities. In addition to games, they mentioned practising writing on the computer, watching re-runs of TV shows, using Skype, looking at family photos and listening to music. The children in the remaining three groups preferred activities that did not involve a computer even if the interview questions were previously directed at their computer use. As the groups of children that preferred computers were represented in the regional sub-group of each sample, the given sample allows us to say that there were no regional differences in this regard.
Very little interest in using a computer could be seen in one of the groups of six, where the children were mostly 6 years old and the pre-school was situated in a large city. The answers given to questions about computers were laconic. The children (especially the boys) were more enthusiastic when talking about outdoor activities and construction games and had very few comments about computer activities, while all of the children said that they have different experiences with computers. Their responses to the question “Which of the following activities would you prefer to do: read books; watch TV; play outside; play inside; or use a computer?” differed the most from other groups, where using a computer was a much more popular answer. However, the children in this group admitted that everyone needs a computer.
The boys in one group spoke most about computer games compared to other groups, but they still said that playing outside was their favourite activity.
B5: I like to be outdoors, skateboarding.
B5: I like playing football and cycling.
B6: I like doing tricks on my scooter.
Thus, the intensity of new media use and interest in computers of children from different pre-school groups seems to differ between groups, but all of the children conceded the need for computers in everyday life.
The teachers who took part in the focus groups emphasised in their interviews that the groups of children were very different in terms of their preferences and intensity of computer use, with some groups considerably more interested in computers than others. On the basis of prior analysis, this was also confirmed by the results of the children’s focus groups. The teachers noted that the children’s habits and preferences at home are brought by them to pre-school.
T1: I’ve noticed that it’s different in different groups. The previous group was a lot more interested in computers and the like. But now I have a group that wants to play all the time and shows no interest in computers at all.
T2: I’d say that it probably depends on the parents.
However, the parents did point out that due to the impulses received in pre-school, children try to pressure them into buying technology (e.g. game consoles, smartphones and iPads) and letting them use the computer, rather than gaining access to certain content. This indicates that from the parents’ point of view, the influence that pre-school and peers have on their children’s preferred media use is more on the things that are used rather than on the content they peruse.
FA(B5): All the boys in pre-school have these PSP consoles, so how can you tell your son he can’t have one? Those who had them were fine and those who didn’t were crying. Some took their mobiles with them to pre-school.
It can be said that parents considered the role of their children’s peers rather modest in influencing the content their children preferred consuming when using new media. The main thing noticed by parents regarding peers was the pressure to prefer certain brands, which is often transferred to preferred activities and preferring certain content on computers – for example, playing games related to certain brands, which is used to cement brand loyalty and pressurise people into buying other products within a brand.
MO (G6): Let’s be honest, we parents make each other buy things, too – so if you buy something for your kids, then in some indirect way it might also influence my decision to buy something for my kids.
One of the reasons why parents do not believe that peers have much of an impact on the new media consumption habits of their children may be, as many of them admitted in the interviews, that they do not monitor the computer use of their pre-school age children much and that this is mainly done by older siblings.
MO (B6): I don’t really know. I can check the browsing history on Mozilla, which saves the pages. It’s mostly children’s pages; that’s what he does on there.
I: Do you stay with your son and guide him when he’s using the computer?
MO (B6): Not really.
MO (B6): We don’t either. His brother does that.
Thus, parents feel that peers in pre-school do not have a significant impact on children’s new media content preferences, but try to pressure parents into buying certain devices, preferring certain brands and allowing more time on the computer.
The influence of home on children’s preferences: the viewpoint of pre-school teachers compared to parents
The fourth research question was to determine the kind of influences pre-school teachers perceive in the formation of children’s new media consumption preferences that they attribute to the home in order to map the directions of influences within important growth environments.
It should be noted that the teachers were asked about the influences of homes for two reasons. First, teachers’ assumptions on the topic rely upon their observations and everyday conversations with parents and children, which make them an important party to this study, balancing the socially desirable responses of children and parents. Secondly, since Estonian pre-school teachers are required to carry out formal and pre-determined questionnaire-based development conversations with parents, one of the aims of which is to “explain the parents’ viewpoints and expectations with respect to the development of the child” (Koolieelse lasteasutuse riiklik õppekava, 2008), the teachers are comparatively well informed of parents’ attitudes and views.
In the words of teachers, new media consumption preferences are associated with the home environment and family culture. They highlight the following aspects: unlimited computer use by children resulting from parents’ lack of time; accessibility of ICT equipment at home; and the existence or lack of siblings and friends at or near their home.
The focus groups of parents confirmed the opinions that the teachers had on the instructions children receive about computer use.
I: I understand you don’t feel it’s necessary to instruct your children about computer use.
FA B6: No, not at the moment…
MO B6: Maybe in the future.
FA G5: She’s usually by herself when she’s on the computer, or her brother keeps an eye on her.
The pre-school teachers did not link the interest children take in computers solely to the accessibility of technology at home, but they believe that it is primarily influenced by the activities and example of their parents – what they do when they use computers and how they guide their children.
Children with no siblings are more interested in new media according to teachers.
T3: ... children who are the only child in the family spend more time using a computer. Those who have siblings or neighbours to play with are creative and find something to do.
T4: Children see their parents on the computer far too often.
Pre-school teachers see guiding parents in monitoring children’s use of new media at home as a part of their role and mention the need to inform and instruct parents. This means that in their own words, the teachers also have some influence on the preferences of children regarding the use of new media at home through suggestions to parents.
Teachers and parents point out that the existence of elder siblings in a family is linked to the formation of children’s preferences in several ways. On the one hand, teachers believe that children become interested in and enthusiastic about computers because of their elder siblings. On the other hand, they also believe that the existence of siblings restricts their access to a computer. The third important aspect is related to the formation of new media content preferences, because both children and their parents say that content is usually introduced to children by their siblings. Similar to teachers, parents also emphasise the role of elder siblings in the family in the formation of children’s preferences of new media use. However, parents often trust elder siblings to oversee use of new media and also leave the selection of content and the shaping of preferences up to them. Examples of unsuitable and age-inappropriate new media content becoming accessible to children through their siblings and older friends were given in the focus groups of both teachers and children.
T5: Having elder siblings and friends also influences Internet use, as they spend more time on it if they’re at home. My youngest doesn’t even get a chance to get on the computer.
6B: I like playing all kinds of games. My brother downloaded a cool game for me and I play it almost every day.
7B: My brother shows me songs with swearing on the computer.
MO (B6): Ummmm… he goes on there with his sister. And then he ends up playing some game she’s chosen.
Many teachers in the focus group emphasised that excessive computer use by children as a result of a lack of regulation in childhood could become a massive problem when they grow up, as parents will no longer be able to establish themselves and restrict computer use. Many teachers said that parents see pre-school as the place where their children can be weaned off computers.
T8: Some parents actually see this as a way of reducing it… that they only send their kids to pre-school because otherwise they’d spend the whole day online or on the computer. But here at least they’re with their friends…
The reason teachers perceive computer use as problematic is that the National Curriculum for Pre-school Child Care Institutions (2008) does not contain media education as a subject field and, as a result, there is a lack of information in teacher training about the topic (Siibak & Vinter, 2010).
Home, school and peers have major influences on children’s development, but methods of investigating these influences “are equally complex, diverse and often contested” (Livingstone, 2007b, p. 7). Unfortunately, very little systematic empirical research exists in this area. Prompted by previous studies, the purpose of this article was to give an initial overview of the possible influences of the home and pre-school on children’s consumption and formation of preferences of new media and to map the directions of these influences between the two environments that influence the development of children – home and pre-school (and especially peer culture) – on the basis of the responses given by three parties: children, teachers and parents.
By looking at the formation of new media preferences from different perspectives (i.e. children, parents and pre-school teachers) and in different contexts (home and pre-school), we can better understand the role of the developmental environment and influence the formation of developmental preferences. This is especially true given that the current Pre-School Child Care Institutions Act (1999) in Estonia highlights that the home and pre-school should share responsibility in supporting the growth and development of children. Therefore, well-informed adults have a good opportunity to influence children’s new media preferences in pre-school groups.
The findings of this work are in accordance with those of previous studies (Eynon & Malmberg, 2011, Siibak & Vinter 2010), confirming that the home environment as well as that of pre-school peers have an important role to play in shaping children’s preferences in new media usage.
The study, considering the research questions, has three main findings.
First, new media preferences – which generally mean the content most group members tend to like – seeming to be similar within pre-school groups and differ between groups was confirmed by the children and teachers. The sub-studies on which this article is based highlighted that the intensity of new media use and interest in computers among different pre-school groups also seems to differ between groups. This allows us to assume that children have an impact on one another and establish common preferences through peer culture. The findings of this study are in accordance with the reports of Corsaro (1997), who emphasised the influence of peer group shaping preferences. While the preferences in online environments, content and specific activities within groups differed considerably compared to other groups, playing was the favourite activity in all groups. Similar to the findings of Holloway and Valentine (2003), children in my sample preferred ICT as a social and leisure activity rather than an educational tool in all of the groups interviewed.
Secondly, from the parents’ point of view, the greatest pressure applied by their children as a result of going to pre-school is to make them buy certain technology (e.g. smartphones and iPads), to allow them to use the computer and to prefer certain brands (e.g. Hello Kitty). Parents believe that the role of peers in shaping content preferences is modest, although the focus groups with children in this and several earlier studies (Hamlen, 2011, Barron et al., 2009) suggest otherwise. However, the parents admitted that they were not particularly aware of what their children do on the computer.
Thirdly, in the opinion of teachers, the computer use preferences of children are influenced by unrestricted computer usage resulting from parents’ lack of time, how well the home is equipped with technology, and the existence or lack of siblings and friends. In comparison to the main aspects that create computer experiences for children as highlighted by several researchers (e.g. Downes, 2002; Rideout & Hamel, 2006), the focus group with teachers in this study confirmed similar observations in terms of parental discourse, rules, parental and sibling expertise and patterns in which families use new media.
Teachers expressed a similar opinion to Buckingham (2006), who emphasised that physical access to technology is not necessarily connected to levels of use, but is primarily influenced by the activities and example of parents, siblings and teachers, as outlined in Plowman and Stephen (2007), Plowman, McPake and Stephen (2010), Livingstone (2007a) and Eynon and Malmberg (2011).
The teachers in my study emphasised that children’s habits and preferences at home are brought with them to pre-school. According to Corsaro (2000), the sharing of knowledge and experience in early childhood takes place through imitation and interpretive reproduction in sociodramatic play, where children bring their everyday experiences from home and the surrounding environment and introduce them to other children within the group.
The different parties to the study believe that the existence of elder siblings in the family is linked to the formation of children’s preferences in several ways. The emergence of interest in computers and the formation of new media content preferences (incl. those which are unsuitable and age-inappropriate) are associated with elder siblings and friends. Similar to this study, Plowman et al. (2008) draws attention to the fact that older siblings have also been found to be likely to introduce activities that are not favoured by parents. Children with no siblings were considered more interested in new media according to teachers.
Based on this study, the biggest influences on the preferences of children and the popularity of computers seem to be elder siblings in the home environment or parents, which mean activities and “the social arrangements or organizational forms that develop around /…/ devices and practices” rather than the devices themselves (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006, p. 2). Thus, according to this study, influences on the formation of preferences derive from the home and are amplified in peer culture, which raises several points that should be given a greater focus in future. Further research requires mechanisms that amplify or inhibit influences coming from homes, whose backgrounds are very different. We can assume that the formation of preferences is associated with the social status of children and the preferences of leaders in children’s groups.
This research has two notable limitations. Firstly, the parties in the sample were not associated with one another, which means that the study did not allow for the mapping of the microsystem as a whole or to directly link results among different parties. The second limitation was the relatively small size of the sample, which does not allow us to clearly differentiate between social and demographic backgrounds. However, the study did not ask about causes but rather the current situation and connections from the point of view of the different parties involved. Despite these methodical limitations, the results allowed us to map the primary links of the micro-environment on a more general scale on the basis of the explanations given by the parties. The results of the study highlight the need for more research to establish more thorough and complex level connections between the associated parties, and with a larger sample.
The preparation of this article was supported by the European Social Fund (project No. 1.2.0401.09-0070) and research grant No. 8527 by Estonian Science Foundation.
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Tallinn Pedagogical College
Department of Early Childhood Pedagogy