Actionable Research Insights

What are Character Strengths?

Character strengths are virtues.  Character strengths such as love, gratitude, hope, patience, generosity, joy, wisdom, and forgiveness can shape people’s understanding of who they are and their understanding of self.  

How can digital technology be used to build character strengths in adolescents?  Can adults play a role in encouraging the development of character strengths in adolescents? When and how are character strengths developed?  Is there a critical time frame to capitalize on for their development? How can we encourage the development of virtues in youth? The Technology and Character blogs posted here explore these questions.

Bridging the Second Digital Divide: Designing Opportunities for Content Creation

Teenagers Using Technology

For over two decades, talk of the “digital divide” has regularly permeated discourse around educational technology. The term--which gained popularity in the mid-1990’s--originally referred to disparities between those with consistent access to computer technologies and those without. In an era where mobile devices are nearly ubiquitous, however, the digital divide has taken a radically new form. Although digital inequity still persists, such disparities today lie less in access to technology than in how it is used. As the amount of time that young people spend in front of screens increases, a notable gap has emerged in schools and homes alike between those who use technology as passive consumers versus those as active creators. Such inequities have been described as the second digital divide.

A Changing Landscape

For many young people today, the tools needed for digital content creation are readily available to them via mobile devices and an array of websites and apps. Such strides in access, however, are a relatively new phenomena of the last decade.

Looking back 20 years, access to technology was not so universally available. In the mid-1990’s, a series of prominent governmental publications found that although more American households were connected to the nation’s information infrastructure, certain households gained access to new technologies significantly faster. Two reports by the U.S. Department of Commerce, for instance, found that “minorities, low-income persons, the less educated, and children of single-parent households” were disproportionately “information ‘have-nots’” with alarmingly less access to information resources that included telephones, computers, and the internet. They describe this digital divide as one of America’s “leading economic and civil rights issues.”

In the early 2000’s, The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)--an intergovernmental economic organization of 36 member countries--reported a rise in the digital divide in countries across the world, separating “those who live in a digital and connected world from those who are left behind on the analogous side of the divide.”

This divide, they asserted, had impeded full participation in work and had reduced political efficacy.

Research in the last decade, however, paints a picture where young people are increasingly growing up in environments where technology is readily accessible. In 2012, for instance, an average of 94% of students across OECD countries reported that they had a computer at home.  And although a 2015 Common Sense Census reported a 25 percentage-point gap in home computer access between children from lower- and higher-income households, the gap in mobile ownership had “virtually disappeared,” with 96% of lower-income families possessing a mobile device in the home. Similarly, a 2017 Common Sense Census exploring media use by kids ages zero to 8 reported that the percentage of homes with a mobile device grew from 52% in 2011 to 98% in 2017.

The Second Digital Divide

Although gaps in access to technology have virtually disappeared for many young people in the past decade, equal access by no means implies equal opportunity.The OECD has utilized data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment measuring reading, math, and science literacy of students 15 years of age, to track international shifts in how technology is used across the world.

In the analysis of the 2006 PISA results, the OECD concluded that despite increased access to technology, a second form of digital divide emerged between those with “necessary competences and skills to benefit from computer use” and those without. Similar to the divide of the decade prior, such competencies were linked to students’ economic, cultural, and social backgrounds.

Furthermore, this report emphasized that although students increasingly appear technologically ‘savvy,’ this alone does not mean that they have developed the skills and competencies that make them “responsible, critical and creative users of technology.” As children are increasingly exposed to technology at a young age, it is imperative that educators and content creators alike resist conflating digital nativism and the ease in which students navigate technology with the 21st century skills and capacities needed to leverage it as a tool in their favor.

Consuming Vs. Creating

As ownership of mobile technology grows, it has become instinctive for many young people to travel between home and school with personal devices in hand. As such, most young people interact with media regularly throughout the day: at home before and after school, while waiting for the bus, in the hallways, and even in many of their classrooms. Recent research provide a glimpse into screen time among teens and tweens.

Specifically, for the first time, the 2015 Common Sense Census  quantified time teens and tweens spent using devices for different functional purposes. Oververall, they found that mobile devices accounted for nearly half of all screen time among teens outside of school, and although devices were used to code, write, or make art and music, time dedicated to content creation paled in comparison to that spent watching videos, listening to music, or playing games. The “passive consumption” of media, according to the report, accounted for 39% of time on devices, while a mere 3% was dedicate to content creation.

Opportunities for Content Creation

With increased access to technology comes new opportunities for students to learn, collaborate and create beyond the confines of the traditional classroom. As such, a number of exemplar applications have emerged that support young people in moving beyond mere passive consumption, and instead empower young people to actively leverage their devices as content creators.

Digital Promise’s 360° Story Lab, for instance, supports young people in producing 360° media to create experiential stories that share youth perspectives. Their global campaign “Join MY World 360°” encourages youth worldwide to create immersive media related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Similarly, a number of new authoring tools provide opportunities for non-technical users to seamlessly create immersive 360° stories, including Google’s Tour Creator and IRL Lab’s SocialVR. The latter provides users a simple drag and drop platform to combine 360° photographs and video with user-generated annotations, such as audio recordings, still images, and text.

Scratch, a programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab supports even the youngest learners in programing their own interactive stories, games, and animations as well as proving a moderated online community to share digital creations with others around the world. Currently, there are over 42 million projects shared to this community.

Based on Karen Brennan and Mitch Resnick’s research of the Scratch platform, the active creation of content using programming has supported young people in developing computational thinking competencies including an ability to view computation as something they can use “for design and self-expression.” “Young people should feel empowered to ask questions about and with technology,” Brennan and Resnick assert. This, they state, leads young people to feel less disconnected between “the technologies that surround them and their abilities to negotiate the realities of a technological world.”

Considerations for developers:

  1. Although most young people have access to technology today, disparities exist between those who use technology to consume versus those who use it to create.

  2. When designing technology, consider integrating opportunities for users to create their own media in addition to interacting with pre-made content. This might take the form of drawing an illustration or recording an animated video.

  3. As not all young people might have experience using technology to create their own content, consider scaffolding opportunities step-by-step for greater support.

  4. Look for inspiration in existing communities of youth-created content, such as the Scratch online community.

Tyler Samstag

Tyler is the Director of the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional service provider for 42 public school districts in Western Pennsylvania. Interested in the intersection of education, technology, and design, Tyler regularly supports schools in the thoughtful integration of new technologies and teaching practices. Tyler holds a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University and graduated from the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard University, where he was an Urban Scholars Fellow. Connect with Tyler via LinkedIn and Twitter.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.

The power of human: Re-inventing technology to prompt more social connection

Reinventing Technology for social connection

In the past year, we have been asked – by startups and seasoned companies – if it might be time to build modern digital friends for young children. After all, today’s kids spend a tremendous amount of time on digital devices – anywhere from 3 to 7 to 11 hours per day. If they are going to use their digital devices solo anyway, it makes sense for them to have “someone” to play with, right?

Would children benefit from owning a compassionate and intelligent robot or an on screen “friend” app that can listen to them and respond in ways that build on products like Alexa or Siri?

As we pondered these questions, however, the literature on digital toy and app use give us pause.  Might we be reducing children’s opportunities to develop the very skills that they need to grow up to be socially-sensitive and compassionate humans – real life human-to-human social interaction. This unease is fueled a basket of recent studies describing how digital technologies seem to compromise social engagement.

Social Interaction

Social interaction is the foundation of what it means to be human. Humans are born into a social world and the very essence of learning starts with a socially primed brain. Human-to-human, back and forth – contingent – interactions support language growth, cultural practices, and even brain development.

A majority of digital apps actually disrupt opportunities for social interaction. For example, during app play, contingent caregiver-child social interaction dissipates compared to the elaborate contingent interactions observed during more traditional play. Similar results in the pre-app era revealed parents use fewer words when their toddlers played with a digital toy sorter compared to playing with a non-digital version. The non-digital toy essentially prompted greater parental language that creates the foundation for contingent interaction between caregivers and children.

Some e-book research also points to restricted interactions between caregivers and children compared to reading traditional books. When reading e-books, caregivers are less likely to ask questions or to start conversations because if they interject they interrupt the audio narration – limiting social interactions. The same pattern occurred in our lab when parents and children read either a traditional book or battery-operated, touch-sensitive console book together in the pre-e-book era. This is notable, as children still learn more when reading e-books with caregivers than when reading e-books solo.

Impact of Caregivers

There is also a growing body of data revealing that the simple presence of caregivers using digital technology is impacting toddlers. Our lab has found digital devices that distract parents from their toddler makes it tougher for toddlers to learn novel words. This complements work indicating caregivers using digital devices in front of their 7- to 24-month-olds relate to infant distress. Traditional contingent play between moms and infants was disrupted when moms were asked to use a digital device and ignored their infants for two minutes. Although moms resumed playing with their infants again, the infants exhibited distress when the social integration was disrupted by the tech. Critically, even after moms resumed playing, distress lingered for infants’ whose parents frequently use digital devices in front of them.

Though the research is still limited, the trickle of studies that do exist suggest that apps and digital devices are often designed in ways that discourage all-important contingent social interaction. But it does not have to be this way. Digital devices could support social connectedness and prompt live, human-to-human social interaction.

Video chat offers a prime example. Our lab examined how contingency with or without digital devices supports children’s word-learning. Toddlers were taught novel verbs live in a room with a researcher, live on video chat with a researcher, or while watching a prerecorded video of the researcher. Toddlers learned better from live and video chat interactions than the non-contingent video – meaning the contingent social interaction mattered for learning, not the medium. Digital technology that involves contingency may be one key for prompting social interactions that spur socially-fueled outcomes.

This brings us back to the question of modern digital friends. If we want to support social development, maybe it is not quite time for digital friends. There is something about the back and forth social contingency between live people that is a kind of human glue – a glue that bonds the foundation for social skills and for learning. How can we create more opportunities like video chat – or more apps – that support in-person joint interaction or even play?


The challenge for the industry is how to encourage live, in person social interactions from digital toys and apps. How can designers create digital toys and apps that prompt more human-to-human connections? How can we harness the power of human while still enjoying the reach and unfathomable possibilities of digital tools?

Actionable Insights

  • Start with apps like Pokemon GO to glean inspiration from, and brainstorm new apps that encourage person to person interaction, AND are engaging and meaningful, not just a replication of the hit game.

  • Think Geocache.  How could you create games that teens could use in pairs to find a “National Treasure” while learning about the history of a city or area? How could they solve a great riddle with their friends?

  • Products like Alexa and Siri are motivating the digital friend movement.  Now twist the idea. Ask how these products already encourage greater interaction with the digital device, but how could they actually prompt in-person social interaction instead?

Molly Schleisinger is a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University where she leads the Playful Learning Landscape initiative and publishes on play and technology.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is the Lefkowitz faculty fellow in psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has published 14 books, hundreds of articles and is an expert in the areas of play and learning, early childhood, language and literacy and STEM development.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.