Exploring the ways in which children merge education, play and connection in their digital device use, this article critiques the established definitions of the Internet of Things and the Internet of Toys and suggests an alternative. Using evidence emerging from The Internet of Toys: Benefits and Risks of Connected Toys for Children, we deconstruct these traditional terms, and advocate for a revised terminology. Such a reconsideration helps frame children’s use of digital devices and the important roles these play in children’s everyday lives.
The Internet of Things is defined by Mascheroni and Holloway as “physical objects that are embedded with electronics, sensors, software and connectivity that support the exchange of data”. These objects have become omnipresent in Western society, resulting in different subsets of the Internet of Things, such as the Internet of Toys. Such connected toys are physical toys that are (just as the Internet of Things is) connected to the Internet through Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi (Mascheroni and Holloway). The features of such toys include network connectivity, sensors and voice/image recognition software, and controllability and programmability via apps on smartphones or tablets (Holloway and Green). CogniToys Dino, Fisher-Price Smart Toy Bear, Skylanders, Hello Barbie, Cloudpets, and Wiggy Piggy Bank are just a few examples of these connected playthings (Ihamäki and Heljakka; Mascheroni and Holloway; Shasha et al.). The ‘Internet of Toys’ category can thus be understood as physical toys with digital features (Ihamäki and Heljakka). However, Ling et al. argue that, “if the item is to be included in the IoT[hings] devices and … if the object is also used for play, then despite its designed purpose, this internet connected item becomes a member of the subset of the IoToys” (Ling et al.). Therefore, the conceptualisation of toys should not be limited to products designed for play. This raises questions about the concept of the Internet of Toys, and whether the distinction between the Internet of Things and the Internet of Toys is (still) relevant.
We argue that there is no longer a meaningful distinction to be made between the Internet of Toys and the Internet of Things: instead, all such phrases indicate fragmentary attention to the Internet of Life. The Internet of Life can be defined as: devices which encompass all facets of online connectivity and technological management, and the interpolation of the digital with the everyday.
The Research Project
In 2018, the Australian Research Council funded a Discovery grant investigating The Internet of Toys: Benefits and Risks of Connected Toys for Children. Initially the project gave each household involved in the case study a Cozmo robot, to see how the toy was used and integrated into the household. The project foundered somewhat as the robot was initially played with but after a short while the children stopped engaging with Cozmo. Researchers believed this was due to novelty, Internet connectivity issues and the overly complicated nature of the toy. Parents had hoped their children would learn to code through using the robot but were not always willing to or capable of helping the child to navigate this aspect of the toy. In this regard Cozmo failed their expectations. After a short hiatus on the project, it was stripped back to its original purpose, to explore how households define Internet-connected toys, and the risks and benefits of playing with them. The qualitative data forming the basis of this article come from the second iteration of the project and interviews conducted in 2021 and 2022.
The academics working on this research are increasingly questioning the relevance of these terms in today’s world. Ethnographic (Rinaldo and Guhin) one-on-one interviews with Australian children aged 6–12 have revealed just how diverse the digital technologies they play with have become. Those conversations and technology tours (Plowman) demonstrate the extent to which these digital devices are seamlessly integrated into children’s daily lives. Referring to many digital devices (such as the iPad and other tablets) as “toys”, children appear unaware of the distinction made by adults. Indeed, children mobilise elements of education, communication, self-actualisation, curiosity, and play within all their digital engagements.
While parents may still be encouraged to distinguish between the educational use of digital devices and children’s use of such technology for entertainment, the boundary between the two is becoming more and more blurred. The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies that have been implemented within many Australian, English, and American schools expose children to digital devices within multiple contexts, frameworks, and environments, encouraging ubiquity of use. Laptops and tablets originally provided for school and educational purposes are also used for play. Seiter suggested that parents believe that a computer should be used by their children for serious matters such as learning or “purposeful” play, but children’s use patterns convert the tool into the toy. This elision of purpose may be referred to as “edutainment”, or the “toyification of education”, which suggests that education is increasingly reinforced by, and benefits from, “toyish” elements or dimensions (Ihamäki and Heljakka).
Tablets offer children a diverse range of digital play options. Touch and swipe technology means that, from before their first birthday, “children are no longer only observants of digital technologies, but they are players and users, with tablets becoming the digital toy of choice” (Fróes 43). This is reinforced in much recent academic literature, with Brito et al., Healey et al., and Nixon and Hateley, for example, referring to tablets as “toys”. This is in line with the evolution of these devices from computer to educational tool to child-friendly toy. Fróes argues that the tablet supports “playful literacy”: “the ability to use, interact, relate, communicate, create, have fun with and challenge digital tools through playful behavior”. Having fun encourages and reassures children while they learn about, and become familiar with, these technologies. This, in turn, supports the valuable skill-building and scaffolding (Verenikina, citing Vygotsky) necessary for when a child begins using a tablet in an educational context once they start school.
The omnipresence of screens challenges parents who believe that to be a good parent is to mediate their child’s digital engagement (Page Jeffery). Although the focus on “screen time” (the amount of time that children spend on their screens) is increasingly critiqued (e.g. Livingstone and Blum-Ross), some research suggests that, on average, parents underestimate their child’s daily screen time by more than 60 minutes (Radesky et al.). This conflicts with other research that argues that parents' preferred approach to mediation is setting clear rules regarding media usage, particularly in terms of time spent in device use (Valcke et al.; Brito et al.). Ironically, even though parents voice concern regarding their children’s technology use and digital footprints (Buchanan, Southgate, and Smith), they feel a “necessary culture of care” (Leaver) that may incite them to use their own technology to monitor their children’s data and behaviour. Such strategies can lead to “intimate surveillance” becoming a normalised parenting practice (Mascheroni and Holloway), while modelling to children their caregivers’ own reliance on devices.
Hadlington et al. state that tablets may offer a barrier against the offline, “real” world. Children may become immersed in digital engagement, losing awareness of their surroundings, or they may actively use the tablet as a barrier between themselves and their environment. Parents may feel concern that their child is cutting themselves off from the family, potentially undermining family relationships and delaying the development of social skills (Radesky et al.). In contrast, Desjarlais and Willoughby’s article describes how children’s digital activities, for example chatting with friends, can be a useful starting point for social relationships. Hietajarvi et al. could not identify significant negative effects from using chat functions whilst studying, and suggest that digital engagement has a negligible effect on academic progress.
While it is possible to characterise tablets and other digital devices as “toys”, this fails to capture the full contribution of such technology in children’s daily lives. Tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy’s Tab range, function as a significant bridge that connects both children’s and adults’ everyday lives.
The Internet of Life
While the suggestion of an Internet of Life may require further investigation and refinement, this article proposes to define the term as follows: devices which encompass all facets of online connectivity and technological management, and the interpolation of the digital with the everyday. We argue that there is no longer a meaningful distinction to be made between the Internet of Toys and the Internet of Things: all such phrases indicate fragmentary attention to the Internet of Life. Digital devices cannot be bound by narrow definitions and distinctions between “things” and “toys”. Instead, these devices transcend the boundaries of “toys” and “things”, becoming relevant to all facets of people’s everyday lives. This is increasingly evident in lives of young children, as demonstrated by the one-on-one interviews with Australian child participants (aged 6–12). When asked if they could show the researcher some of their toys, every child produced their tablet, or spoke about it, if it was not within their reach at that time. Defining their tablets as toys, children nonetheless described myriad ways in which they were used: for leisure and entertainment, education, sociality, self-expression, and to satisfy their curiosity amongst others. Parents sometimes wondered at how children navigated technology without seeming to need assistance and noted that children could easily outstrip their parents’ skill level. Even so, parents described their struggle to “allow” their children screen time, finding it difficult to believe that it’s okay for their child to use a device for extended periods of time. Interestingly, when parents were asked if they were willing to model the behaviour they expected of their children—time limits on devices, going outside and playing—they struggled to imagine themselves doing so. As one parent said: “everything's there [on the device]. It's just so hard because everything I do, and need, is there”. This perspective reinforces our assertion that digital devices are inherently and instinctively interwoven within daily life: not toys, not things.
Maybe the concept of the Internet of Life will support parents’, educators’, policy-makers’, and academics’ richer appreciation of the multitude of ways in which children use devices. It may also recognise how device use includes the acquisition of life skills, in both digital and IRL (“in real life”) domains. A reframing of digital devices may aid recognition of the benefits and experiences they offer the young (and old). Such a perspective might assuage significant parental guilt and take the sting out of increasingly frequent debates around screen time quality versus quantity (Livingstone and Pothong). This article now addresses some parents’ and children’s comments relating to their engagement with the Internet of Life.
Seeking to explain what parents understand by the concept of play, Hayes (a father of three) suggested: “children entertaining themselves hopefully positively … . [They’re] doing something either physical or educational or it’s benefitting them in some way and having fun and relaxing”, while the mum from a different family, Farida, feels that play is “something that brings about joy, really” (a mother of two).
Parents experience challenges in assigning different regulations around digital device usage to children in the same family, reflecting their different circumstances. Thus Bethany, mother to Aiden (11, below) and older sibling Sophie (13), differentiates her approach to regulating her children’s play in digital spaces:
With him [Aiden] I don’t feel so bad when he – having a downtime because I know he’s quite active whereas [Sophie] my daughter’s not, she’s the complete opposite and she will sit on there usually, ‘cause she’s chatting to her friend Gemma who’s over east but, she’ll try and sit on there for two or three hours just doing really mundane boring stuff. (Mum, Bethany)
Interestingly, for both Sophie and Aiden, their use of digital devices is a reassuring opportunity to retreat. One of the many advantages of chatting online to a distant friend is that it’s a space separate from the everyday contexts of classroom politics.
Mum to Bryce (8, male), Farida identifies specific benefits in her son’s digital device use across a range of skills and competencies.
[He] has actually improved significantly with his communication skills and his maths skills like his problem-solving and reasoning. Like he’s trying to, for instance, work out how much money he’s got to scam off me to get the things that he wants, adds it all up, works out his amount of money that he’s got to ask for so he can buy all the stuff that he’s looking for. So that has really improved. (Farida)
Some parents might see games that teach children how to calculate what they need to achieve what they want as an annoyance due to a trivial extra expense, but Bryce has a range of learning challenges. Consequently, Farida is delighted with the progress she sees: “his trajectory has actually been quite astounding, and I do think that a lot of it is to do with the fact that he’s built up so many of these other skills from his hand eye co-ordination, his communication skills and stuff from digital play”.
Children’s own perspectives on their use of digital devices were varied but speak to the development of individual competencies and the managing of important friend- and family-based relationships. So, Aiden (11) characterised his use of such digital media as “calming. Since there’s nothing to really lose in the game or anything, it’s not like ‘oh you stuffed something up, you have to restart the whole thing’.” He adds, as if this is a significant benefit, “it’s more if you stuff something up it’s fine, you can just get it back again”. Aiden is in a children’s elite sport squad and explains “I do football for four hours. Then I have piano lesson for 30 minutes. I’m really tired”. His digital sphere is a welcoming place of safety and relaxation where there are no consequences when things go wrong.
For Lisa, also 11, her digital device is for communicating. Explaining that she has “Snapchat, Messages and TikTok and I think that’s it”, Lisa says that she and her friend from school “normally just chat to each other and we’ll chat about what we’re doing”. She adds that sometimes “we’ll roleplay”. As Lisa continues there’s an implicit acknowledgement of the risks around collaborating with others in play spaces. Speaking of her friend, she notes “she used to play this game, Brook Game, and she doesn’t really do it anymore. In Brooking Gaming you roleplay with people and you can do jobs and stuff”. Digital play and device use may be a place of relaxation, but it’s also a place of negotiation and of learning to compromise as a price of sharing experiences with friends.
Killian’s (12 years old, male) example of gaming implicates the ways he negotiates autonomy and connection with his older brother. Explaining that “I talk to my friends over Discord which is a social thing and that”, Killian explains how (older brother) “Xander helped me set up the safety settings”. The boys worked together to find a means through which their toys and games allowed them to bypass technical barriers preventing full service on their mobile devices. They had originally thought: “we could text each other” but because their devices were set so they “won’t allow us—Xander had Discord on his phone and—he did. I could text him via that”. A variety of remote communication strategies support Killian’s and Xander’s connected play in different spaces. The interviewer notes, “so you prefer playing individually like that because you just have that one screen to yourself, that solo experience, but still playing together?”, allowing Killian to add “Yes, and also Xander doesn’t hit me every time I do something that Xander doesn’t like”. Killian subsequently identifies himself as something of negotiator, working out the different rules and settings for the different areas in his life. Saying he uses his iPad “kust for stuff I’m interested in, or something that I found out is good, that I want”, he also says he has a workaround for if “the website’s blocked or then—stuff like that—or, I want to watch it at home”.
One of the implications of these examples is that parents tend to develop over-arching narratives about their children’s digital device use and compartmentalise concerns, differentiating them from positive aspects of children’s online activities. Children’s experiences, however, speak to lessons around learning skills, managing relationships and conflicts, negotiating autonomy, absence, and different rules in different spaces. In these respects, children’s multifaceted use of digital devices is indeed creating an Internet of Life.
Reimagining Children’s Digital Activity
Engagement with digital devices and online activities has become a core part of childhood development (Borisova). The reimagining of the concepts of the Internet of Things and the Internet of Toys as the Internet of Life allows children, parents, researchers, and policy-makers to broaden their understanding of what it means to grow up in a digital world. Defining an Internet of Life and conceptualising digital devices as an inherent part of the everyday, allows greater understanding and appreciation of how, what, and why children use such devices, and the potential benefits (and risks) they may afford. This perspective also empowers children’s understandings of what digital devices are, and how the digital environment relates to them, and their daily lives. This article argues for a need to widen understandings of children’s digital device use, including the role that Internet-connected toys play in fostering social and digital literacies, to explore the multifaceted and ubiquitous nature of tablets and other digital devices (Ihamäki and Heljakka).
Previous research on children’s digital engagement, along with a large portion of public reporting, has focussed on the risks and harms that children are exposed to, rather than the potential benefits of digital engagement, along with the rights of a child to digital access (CRC; Odgers and Jensen; Third et al.). The Internet of Life recognises that children’s digital engagement includes some exposure to risks, but also reflects the potential benefits that this exposure can have in terms of helping navigate these risks and problem-solving. It allows digital engagement to be reframed as a normal part of daily life and everyday routines, expanding understandings of how children engage with digital devices.
Parents and children alike spoke about their tablets and the myriad of ways in which they used them: as a toy, for leisure, entertainment, formal education, sociality, and to satisfy their own curiosities to name but a few. Not only do these devices satisfy parental expectations, in that children can navigate them without assistance, but children can also outstrip a parent’s skill level rapidly. This is pleasing to some parents who do not possess such skills to teach their child. However, parents still struggle to “allow” their children screentime and justify to themselves that it is okay for their child to be on their own device for extended periods of time.
The distinction between the overarching Internet of Things and the subset of the Internet of Toys, as well as the categorisation of these devices as “education-only” or “entertainment-only”, does not accurately represent children’s engagement with and use of digital devices. Children’s multi-faceted and multi-layered digital activities offer a complex interplay of motivations and intentions, pleasures and challenges, intrinsic and extrinsic. The Internet of Life encompasses all aspects of digital engagement, allowing a more natural and nuanced understanding of how these devices are used, and the benefits that digital engagement can afford.
This research was funded by ARC Discovery Project DP180103922 – The Internet of Toys: Benefits and Risks of Connected Toys for Children. The Chief Investigators were Dr Donell Holloway and Professor Lelia Green, working with International Partner Investigators Dr Louise Kay, and Professors Jackie Marsh, Giovanna Mascheroni, and Bieke Zaman. Drs Kelly Jaunzems, Carmen Jacques, and Silke Brandsen all worked as Research Officers on this grant.
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