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Blog Theories CO:RE at LSE Published: 14 Sep 2022

Classics made modern: Revisiting foundational child development theories in the digital age

What theories do people use when thinking about children’s digital lives? We asked this question to researchers and research users as part of our Theories in circulation CO:RE consultation. Ninety people wrote to tell us about their favourite theorists and how they draw on their insights in their own work.

From Bronfenbrenner to Vygotsky, Bandura to Piaget, we found that classic theories are still in circulation and they have been “brought up to broadband speed" in interesting ways. To understand how classic theories maintain relevance today, in this blog we discuss the four prominent child development theorists most often referred to by respondents to our consultation.

Classic never goes out of style

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Lots of researchers highlighted the importance of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s work. His ecological systems theory (later revised as bioecological systems theory) has proven useful because it allows researchers to study the rich contexts of chidlren’s lives and recognise the active role that children play in acting on their environments.

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Figure 1: Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (Guy-Evans, 2020).

Ecological systems theory identifies five “nested” systems that extend around the child as spheres of influence, from the inner to outermost context: microsystem (i.e., immediate surroundings like home and school), mesosystem (i.e., interactions within the microsystem, like parent-teacher communication), exosystem (i.e., institutional factors like parent workplace), macrosystem (i.e., broader social norms and cultural beliefs), and chronosystem (i.e., change in these environments over time, including historical events and life transitions) (see Figure 1).

 Although conceptualized in 1970s, the theory can be applied to digital experiences, including children and families’ access to digital media, their families’ and peers’ attitudes, community values and societal laws and customs around using media. For more on how to add the digital to the model, you can watch out vlog with Nóirín Hayes on Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological theory.

 Bronfenbrenner’s theory has been applied to children’s digital lives by Takeuchi and Levine (2014), who conclude that to deploy digital technologies effectively, we must look beyond human productivity, entertainment and engagement to lfocus on whether the tech promotes strengthening or eroding human relationships.  Often, the theory would conclude, technologies can promote both or either – it is the caring adults in a child’s life who matter most!

 The EU Kids Online adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s model reflects the idea of nested layers of social influence; the survey questionnaire was designed to seek a deeper understanding of how children’s engagement online is dependent on individual, social level and national factors. The theoretical-analytical framework allowed researchers to map various factors that influence child wellbeing beyond just digital technology and discuss the complexity of the context in which child’s use of digital technology takes place, and the role of risks in overall wellbeing.

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Figure 2: The EU Kids Online Theoretical Model (Smahel, Machackova, Mascheroni, Dedkova, Staksrud, Ólafsson, Livingstone and Hasebrink, 2020).

For digital media scholars, Bronfenbrenner’s subsequent bioecological model (2005) usefully acknowledges the complex interdependencies between the institutions and structures that enable or constrain children’s opportunities and their agency in choosing how to act online while negotiating these possibilities and constraints. It refocuses attention on the agentic role that individuals (children and young people) play in their own development, to their interdependency, process and context, and to changes over time. This has enabled DigiGen researchers, for example, to examine how children interact and intra-act, with the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life undoing social boundaries in digital ecosystems.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory bears some similarlities with Albert Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ and Lev Vygotsky’s ‘sociocultural theory’ in that all consider the environment – now including the digital environment - a critical mechanism in child development, and pride of place is given to the contexts of children’s diverse lives.

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura’s general aggression model draws from the tradition of social cognitive and social learning theories. The main proposition is that aggression can be influenced by cognitive schemas or behavioural scripts that are learned from experience and media exposure. The model differentiates between proximal and distal processes.

  • Proximal processes refer to specific situations of incidents of aggression and are influenced by individual and contextual factors. These factors influence our internal state (cognition, affect, arousal) and evaluation of the situation and can result in different behavioural outcomes (e.g., thoughtful or impulsive action).

  • Distal processes are underlying factors related to our personality, biological, or environmental modifiers. The model proposes an interaction between these types of processes and assumes that repetitive and cumulative experience with aggressive incidents can lead to the development of aggressive behavioural schemas or to desensitization toward aggression.

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Figure 3: The General Aggression Model: Proximate and Distal Causes and Processes (Allen, J.J. & Anderson, C.A. (2017). The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, Wiley-Blackwell.

The main propositions of Bandura’s theory have also been applied in the study of prosocial behaviour (e.g., Prot et al., 2014). Their research explored relevant mediators and moderators on the effect of prosocial media and assistance. Lauricella et al. (2011) built upon Bandura’s framework to explore the function of social meaningfulness of video characters.

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of human learning describes learning as a social process and the origination of human intelligence in society or culture. Three themes are often identified with Vygotsky’s ideas of sociocultural learning: (1) human development and learning originate in social, historical, and cultural interactions; (2) use of psychological tools, particularly language, mediate development of higher mental functions; and (3) learning occurs within the zone of proximal development through interaction with others.

The theory highlights how social interactions between children and adults and between children themselves are important for co-constructing meaning and knowledge that supports child cognitive development. This happens in the “zone of proximal development” - that is, in between the things that a child can do on her own and things that are still beyond the child’s reach.

Socio-cultural theories of learning consider social interaction as central to how individuals learn and construct meaning in their cultural communities. Learning takes place when learners are participating in social practice and change or develop their participation through interacting within the particular practice.

An important term is “mediation” which can be associated with the objectification of symbolic meaning in time and space as part of socio-historic development. This term highlights the importance of studying the tools and resources used for human development in social practices. Any culture incorporates a number of different tools and artefacts in their meaning-making practices. In order to study the culture, one must grasp the knowledge and ideas built into the development of certain tools or artefacts, as the development of material resources goes hand-in-hand with the development of ideas and intellectual knowledge.

Recent research (e.g., Beaudoin-Ryan, 2020; Ito et al., 2020) uses Vygotsky’s theory as a lens, positing that reasonable exposure to media and interactive technology can be beneficial to children, both by directly and indirectly enhancing cognitive development as well as traditional learning experiences.

Jean Piaget

While Vygotsky places primacy on culture and context, one of his contemporaries, Jean Piaget, argues that development is structural and guided by physiological and psychological stages.

Piaget posits that age is related to how children think, and this is reflected in stages of development. The stages are (1) sensory-motor (e.g., knowing through one’s body, such as opening one’s mouth to indicate the concept of open; approximate ages 0-1); (2) preoperational (e.g., intuitive thinking which can be magical, such as believing that Santa Claus can fly in his sleigh and bring toys to children; approximate ages 2-7); (3) concrete operational (e.g., logic begins to dominate how children know objects in this stage but it is bound to concrete experiences, such as conservation tasks where changing how an object looks does not change how much there is; approximate ages 7-12) ; and (4) formal operational thought (e.g., when knowing becomes abstract and adult-like in nature, no longer bound to concrete objects; approximate ages 12 and up).

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Table 1: Comparison between Cognitive Developmental Theory (Piaget) and Socio-cultural Theory of Learning (Vygotsky) (McLeod, S. 2022).

Recent research by Wartella and Pila (2020) applies Piaget’s theory to child development in media research, and offer implications for future research on children’s understanding of media using Piaget as a framework.

Conclusion

We would like to extend our thanks to the contributors, whose responses suggest that classic scholars are still being used and adapted. Different citation networks will allow you to evaluate the extent to which contemporary researchers are using classic theories in the design of their studies. For researchers new to the field who feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading on this topic, it may help to start with a meta-review, systematic review or evidence review, which identify, appraise and synthesize the available research that is relevant to a given subject. For example, in ‘Uses and misuses of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development’, Tudge, Mokrova, and Hatfield (2009) the authors evaluate the application of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory as it is employed in empirical work on families and their relationships. They examine a set of 25 papers and show how the majority rely on outmoded versions of the theory.

You can also refer to the CO:RE guided reading which provides a key link to the classic theories that offer a framework within which to not only explain connections among child development and also derive insights leading to the discovery of new connections.

Classic texts

Bandura, A. (1978). Social Learning Theory of Aggression, Journal of Communication, 28(3), 12-29.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1999). Environments in developmental perspective: Theoretical and operational models. In: Friedman, S.L. & Wachs, T.D. (eds.) Measuring Environment across the Life Span: Emerging Methods and Concepts. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 3–28.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P.A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In: Lerner, R.M. (ed.) Handbook of Child Psychology: Theoretical Models of Human Development. Vol. 1. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, pp. 793–828.

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of Intelligence in the Child. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Vygotsky, L. (1987). Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Works derived from classic texts

Allen, J. J., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2018). The General Aggression Model. Current Opinion in Psychology, 19, 75–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.034

Beaudoin-Ryan, L. (2020). Social Development Theory in Media Research. The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology. Wiley.

Bickham, D.S. (2015). Applying the ecological model of human development to the study of media’s effects on children. In Handsley E, MacDougall C, Rich M, (eds.) Media use and children’s well-being: Multidisciplinary perspectives from the Harvard-Australian Symposium. Annandale, NSW: The Federation Press. p. 14-28.

Lauricella, A., Gola, A.A. & Calvert, S.L.  (2011). Meaningful characters for toddlers learning from video. Media Psychology, 14, 216-232. DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2011.573465.

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos http://www.plos.org/ Ito, M., Arum, R., Conley, D., Gutiérrez, K., Kirshner, B., Livingstone, S., Michalchik, V., Penuel, W., Peppler, K., Pinkard, N., Rhodes, J., Salen Tekinbaş, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., and Watkins, S.C. (2020). The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship. Irvine, CA: Connected Learning Alliance. https://clalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/CLRN_Report.pdf.

Prot, S., Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., Suzuki, K., Swing, E., Lim, K. M., Horiuchi, Y., Jelic, M., Krahé, B., Liuqing, W., Liau, A. K., Khoo, A., Petrescu, P. D., Sakamoto, A., Tajima, S., Toma, R. A., Warburton, W., Zhang, X., & Lam, B. C. P. (2014). Long-Term Relations Among Prosocial-Media Use, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior. Psychological Science25(2), 358–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613503854.

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos http://www.plos.org/ Smahel, D., Machackova, H., Mascheroni, G., Dedkova, L., Staksrud, E., Ólafsson, K., Livingstone, S., and Hasebrink, U. (2020). EU Kids Online 2020: Survey results from 19 countries. EU Kids Online. Doi: 10.21953/lse.47fdeqj01ofo.

Takeuchi, L. M., & Levine, M. H. (2014). Learning in a digital age: Toward a new ecology of human development. In A. B. Jordan & D. Romer (eds.) Media and the well-being of children and adolescents. Oxford University Press, pp. 20–43.

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos http://www.plos.org/ Tudge, J.R.H., Mokrova, I., Hatfield, B.E., et al. (2009). Uses and misuses of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 1(4), 198–210. http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/J_Tudge_Uses_2009.pdf.

Wartella, E. & Pila, S. (2020). Piagetian Accounts of Child Development in Media Research. The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119011071.iemp0162.

Further CO:RE resources on theory

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Dr Miriam Rahali

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