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Vlog Theories CO:RE at LSE Published: 15 Mar 2021

Ellen Wartella on grand theory, multidisciplinary, child development and theorising from the margins

In this vlog, Ellen Wartella talks about her work, the ideas that inspire her, and how we should develop our current thinking related to children’s internet use.

A truly multidisciplinary scholar, Prof Ellen Wartella captures my attention early on in our conversation by arguing that grand theorising is beyond its “prime time” and we should not try to shoehorn our understanding of children’s internet use into a single disciplinary approach. Grand theorising has been replaced, in her view, by a new rubric which focuses on understanding children and how their experiences might differ – across age, social background, or digital contexts. For this, a developmental perspective can offer interesting insights into the interaction of social emotional and cognitive development and how this affects children’s wellbeing. It can also help refute the popular myth that technologies harm children’s development:

I get really suspicious whenever I hear strong claims made about how technology is having strongly negative influences on children and that it’s somehow harming their development. Children are much more resilient than that and technologies themselves rarely have the technique to create such negative effects.

We talk about the imbalance between paying too much attention to the negative experiences of children and technologies and the insufficient acknowledgement of the positive aspects when we theorise children’s engagement with the digital environment. Ellen recalls an insightful contribution by a shy girl she interviewed who explained that the internet has helped her make more friends in “real life” because she can find their common interests and later summon the courage to talk to them when they meet in person. But such stories are not voiced often enough, she argued.

As we sum up the takeaways from our conversation, Ellen talks about the importance of paying attention to marginalised children’s experiences, the outliers that challenge dominant understandings and enrich our conceptualisation of children’s media use.

No one discipline has a monopoly on the best understanding of children and technologies. We may draw on concepts and different theories, including the old grand theories like Piaget or Vygotsky, but grand theorising is probably not as useful today.

Watch the full vlog with Ellen Wartella

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Video: CO:RE theories vlog series - an interview with Sonia Livingstone.
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Podcast: series "theory calling" with Ellen Wartella.


Ellen Wartella is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication, Professor of Psychology, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Professor of Medical Social Sciences. She is the Director of the Center on Media and Human Development at the Northwestern University. Prof Wartella is a leading scholar of the role of media in children’s development studying social policy, media studies, psychology and child development at the University.

Further reading

Grossberg, L. Wartella, E. and Whitney, D. C and Wise, J. M. (2006). Mediamaking : mass media in a popular culture. (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Wartella, E. and Pila, S. (2020). Piagetian Accounts of Child Development in Media Research. In The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology, J. Bulck (Ed.).

Wartella, E., Lovato, S. Pila, S. Lauricella, A., Echevarria, R., Evans, J. and Hightower, B. (2019) Digital Media Use by Young Children: Learning, Effects, and Health Outcomes. In Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Media, Beresin, E. and Olson, C (eds). St Louis: Elsevier.

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Team member, CO:RE at LSE

Mariya Stoilova

Mariya Stoilova is a post-doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) working on children’s rights, online risks and opportunities, and well-being. She is member of the CO:RE work package 5 on theory.

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

The team at the LSE works on theory, providing a series of mutually cross-fertilising mechanisms to coordinate and support the theoretical dimension of research. The team identifies valuable theoretical concepts that offer multidisciplinary breadth and depth in understanding the long-term impact of digital media on children and youth, and coallates all in a comprehensive theories toolkit that provides guidance throughout the theory pathway, from (research) question to generating theory.

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