Ten ethical principles for producers of digital apps and toys for children

9 February 2018

By Emilios Lemoniatis, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Children now have many different ways to play, express themselves and access information. We need to address new risks including age-inappropriate content and violations of children’s data privacy.  We also need to consider how new digital products and time spent in front of a screen influence children’s development both in terms of their body, mind and their mental well-being.

I recently attended a Talkoot (a Finnish expression for a gathering of friends and neighbours to accomplish a task) in Helsinki, joining with more than 70 designers, educators and psychologists to help create an open and free digital guide for integrating children’s rights into any design process.

The guide we created is based on five ‘pillars’ developed by Unicef. These pillars were a great start but were not necessarily user-friendly, so Unicef wanted to refine their guidance to make it easy for producers to use them.

Helsinki talkoot - room of designers

We worked together for the whole weekend to create ten principles that should be front-of-mind for designers at every stage of their process. You can find our first version, a ‘Minimum Lovable Guide’, online.

The principles

  1. Everyone can play
  2. Give me control and offer support
  3. I have purpose so make my influence matter
  4. Offer me something safe
  5. Create space for play (including a choice to chill)
  6. Encourage me to be active and play with others
  7. Give me room to explore and experiment
  8. Use communication I can relate to
  9. Make it flexible for me
  10. You don’t know me, so make sure you include me

My aim was to ensure that the principles would guide designers to think of children’s developmental needs in a rapidly evolving digital world where the evidence about the impact on children’s wellbeing is also evolving.  I wanted designers to think of the child not as simply a consumer of their product, but as a developing human that could be positively influenced by the products they come into contact with. Also in my mind was the importance of developing products that enable interaction between children and their grown-ups as a way of enhancing reciprocity and relationships instead of making games that hive children off into separate worlds.

I was fortunate enough to share these ideas with designers and play specialists from all over the world who are creating the products that influence millions of children. Designers from Lego and Toca-Boca shared their insights into designing products that children love and keep coming back to. It was inspiring to hear how they include diversity and difference within the toys and apps they create as well as designing for ‘play’, which enables exploration and learning as opposed to having a ‘game’ where there is a fixed set of outcomes. Play and creativity are very akin to the therapeutic process in the way it aids our understanding and processing. As humans, being able to play with ideas about the situations we live in allows us to enter a space where we can begin to think differently; where we can challenge ourselves without becoming either rigid or frightened; where we can think of new ways of being new selves.

These principles can be used in many contexts – a natural next step is for us to use them to help co-design child and adolescent mental health services with the users of those services.  Perhaps they may also begin to influence how we think about adult services as well and how adults can be enabled to ‘play’ as a pathway to being helped.

Read more on the Children’s Design Guide website.

Watch videos from the talkoot.

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