Aping Around: Investigating the Social and Ethical Implications of an Interactive Family DVD

Peggy Gregory, Karen Whittaker, Danielle Binns and Katie Taylor


We describe the development and evaluation of a prototype DVD designed for use by parents and adolescents together and aimed at improving communication within the family.

The prototype DVD, called APE (Adolescent & Parent Experiences), contains a cartoon-based interactive story in which a teenager comes home late. The DVD was developed by a multi-disciplinary team from three different Schools within the University – Computing, Nursing and Media – as well as participants from outside bodies – Action for Children (a charity), Central Lancashire PCT (a health body) and Lancashire Youth Offending Team (a statutory body). The purpose of working in a multi-disciplinary team was so that each team member could bring knowledge to the project from their own area of expertise. A particular feature of the project was that as it involved developing an innovative piece of software the specification was a creative process which emerged as the project progressed. The animation and software were undertaken by a group of Media students who completed the work as part of a third year module. Part of the team involved in developing the product went on to do the evaluation.

The DVD was developed so that it could be watched by the whole family on television, with both parents and adolescents able to make choices about how the story progressed by choosing responses that most closely matched their own. We used three different types of cartoon apes to play the characters – gorillas, orang utangs and chimpanzees – with a parent and adolescent character for each type. The three ape families were based on a model of three parenting styles: authoritarian (gorilla), laissez faire (orang utang) and democratic (chimpanzee). Adolescent responses to those parenting styles were based on experiences of experts in the development team. An example of different choices that could be made is that when the teenager eventually arrived home the parents could choose whether they a) felt angry and told the teenager they couldn’t go out for a month (authoritarian response), b) were unconcerned and let the teenager creep in quietly and go to bed (laissez-faire approach) or c) were relieved and told the teenager they’d discuss appropriate punishment the following day (democratic response). A combination of humour and real-life choices in the story aimed to bring a light touch to the serious process of reflection about different ways of responding.

The aim of the evaluation was to explore reactions to the DVD, to investigate how it could stimulate family communication and to evaluate the suitability of its content. We evaluated the DVD with young people in schools and with parents and parenting experts through parenting groups and at the University. We used a questionnaire to gather data from these diverse groups but also gathered data by observation, interviewing and group discussion.

The DVD was evaluated with 122 young people, 23 parents and 22 parenting practitioners. Of the questionnaire respondents 103 responded to the DVD positively, 19 responded negatively and 30 felt neutral about it. The most common response to the DVD from young people was that it made them think about their parents’ viewpoint, whereas for parents it made them think about how they communicated with their child. Over half of the participants felt that the DVD would help encourage communication with family members about coming home late. Problems were identified with the voice over, and there were mixed responses to the question of whether human or animal characters were most appropriate for the content.

A number of interesting issues arose from this work that we would like to discuss in more detail at the conference. From the social perspective our software represents a way in which computer games and interactive software can be used for the purpose of encouraging social change. We were surprised to find that despite the UK government’s agenda to improve family cohesion and outcomes for young people by improving parenting skills, there is very little interactive material of this type available. For instance much of the material already available uses film media and is primarily designed to be shown to parents. However films can be ethically contentious when the real lives of families are exposed, also they may not prompt active engagement of viewers and parents and young people may not watch them together. Our DVD was specifically developed with the aim of encouraging interaction between parents and adolescents. We designed the product so that both parents and young people could have equal input into the story and we also deliberately used cartoon characters to avoid some of the regional, ethnic and social stereotyping that is difficult to overcome when using real characters. This type of interactive software also provides a potential for personalisation that can make the product more relevant to a particular situation – for example by users being able to make selections about voice and gender.

From an ethical perspective we needed to carefully consider the consequences of the DVD causing problems within families rather than easing them. For the prototype we deliberately chose the ‘neutral’ but commonly occurring scenario ‘coming home late’. However the intention for the next version of the software is to develop several scenarios with different topics such as alcohol, drugs, sexual relationships, talking about feelings. As developers we need to consider whether this may cause more harm than good in some families and whether the product may be better used by professionals working with families rather than being accessible for use without professional support.

One common criticism of ICT is that as it becomes more widespread it can lead to isolation and lack of social skills. Our software is designed to encourage communication and family cohesion. In this sense we believe it is a ‘forwards’ change for ICT.