What do we Take? What do we Keep? What do we Tell? Ethical Concerns in the Design of Inclusive Socially Connected Technology for Children

Janet C Read and Maija Fredrikson


Designing great computer systems requires attention to many things. In this paper, the focus is on the design of a mobile technology for children that was aimed at providing an inclusive approach to music making that would enable children who would perhaps be otherwise excluded, to feel more attached to the others around them and to experience feelings of self worth. The two stages of design being considered for this paper are the involvement of children during early design work, and the design of security and alert systems in the interactive product. Both of these stages raised ethical dilemmas that the project team had to find solutions for.

Including children as participants in the design of their own technologies takes its inspiration from the early work on participatory design (Schuler and Namioka 1993) as well as from more recent work on children as design informants (Read, Gregory et al. 2002), (Scaife, Rogers et al. 1997; Druin 1999). In a typical session of this kind, children are given some information about the problem being designed for and are then given activities that collectively gather ideas for features, for the look, and for the fun aspects of an eventual product (Theng, Nasir et al. 2000; Mazzone, Read et al. 2008). Several commentators have considered what the value of these design sessions is by examining the value to the children, the value to the development team and the value to the adult participants (Mazzone, Read et al. 2008). The ethical problems associated with this type of activity mainly centre around the extent to which the children understand their participation. It is highly possible that children may not fully understand what their ideas are being used for, what the overall project is about or the extent to which their work will be used at all.

As a result of carrying out these sorts of activities within the UMSIC project, where the participatory activities were carried out both in the UK and in Finland, we have developed a protocol for ‘Honest Research’ with children. This protocol demands that children are kept fully in the research loop by being given clear information at the beginning of a project that outlines why they are participating, by being given specific appropriate feedback from each individual design session that outlines what was taken from it, and by being able to see, and critique all outputs from the design sessions whether these be academic papers or interactive products. In carrying out this protocol the research team are seen to be more cautious about what they do, more attentive to detail in regards of what they say about the design sessions, and more respectful of the children’s views. In the UMSIC project, where possible, children have been shown the eventual product that was developed with their help.

Our second problem space in designing connected technologies for children is associated with the use of passwords and security systems and in making what should be easy to use systems secure as well as understandable. In many instances, users of computer technology are unaware that they are connected to other machines; they are also often unaware of what data is being taken from one place to another. It is clear in our work that children should be kept informed about whether or not they are connected to each other, about where their data may go, and about the possible dangers associated with their connectedness. It is also clear to us, however, that most children are rather unconcerned with security (Read and Beale 2009) and want it to be invisible whereas the parents and guardians of these children, in determining what technologies their children may be using, want to see security systems and want to see these at work in order to ‘trust’ the product (Gefen, Karahanna et al. 2003). The more security that is put into the product, the more unusable, and unattractive, it might become to the children. This raises an ethical dilemma as the design team want to design for both groups but clearly are most concerned with making the products usable for children.

In our work (Read and Beale 2009) we have designed a security system (Possibilities not Perils) that is in two layers with one layer being the concern of the children and the other being the concern of the adults. Children are shown icons that identify when they are connected to other children and are clearly told where their data is heading. Adults on the other hand have adult style control systems that are shown to be robust and sturdy. It could be argued that it is the duty of a team making connected software for children to ‘educate’ children about the perils of being online and being in a shared data space. The view for our project is that this is not appropriate, the system needs to deal with the perils and the children need to feel free to use the software. Security, we feel, is a system problem that needs to be shown to adults but not to children. The only use of passwords for children, in the child-facing product, is for user profiles to be loaded that will give a better user experience.


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