Bruce Fuller
José Ramón Lizárraga
James H. Gray
Publication Date
February 18, 2015

University of California, Berkeley

"We are learning much about how a colorful spectrum of Latino children and families now engage a variety of platforms and digital content to advance differing goals. These users often pursue some form of learning or novel information. Even when the purpose of these engagements is entertainment, they may convey fresh ideas or social norms that hold appeal for young Latinos."

Prepared for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, this report examines the experiences of Latino families in the United States (US) as they adopt technologies, finding a new digital divide in the extent to which digital platforms are used for educational purposes by Latino children in Spanish-dominant families relative to their middle-class peers. The authors explore questions such as: How are families engaging with this media? Who is producing digital content aimed at children and parents? How, or do, these producers consider Latino customers and clients? What kinds of devices are adults and children across this vast and diverse population using? How are these technologies disrupting - for better or worse - family and community ties? And how can community organisations mobilise digital tools to empower children and families?

The study's findings are presented in 5 parts. Section 2 reviews the growing evidence on how diverse Latino children and families utilise digital media and for what purposes. In short, Latinos' ownership of digital devices, especially cell phones and smart phones, lags only slightly behind that of middle-class whites. From 2009 to 2012, the share of Latino adults who said they go online via any platform increased from 64% to 78%. The proportion of Latinos who said they owned a cell phone rose to 76% between 2009 and 2012, while the proportion of whites possessing a cell phone remained steady during the same period. However, a significant gap in the use of laptops and tablet devices persists. This suggests that the uses and forms of media accessed by Latino parents and children may differ from, and perhaps be less educational than, the uses and forms of media accessed by middle-class whites. And wide differences in ownership and uses of digital technology persist, associated with family income, immigrant status, and home language among Latino communities. Latino parents, like other mothers and fathers, deploy digital tools as "electronic babysitters" or to reward desired behaviour, yet they still use television as the primary tool to occupy children. As Latino children become digital experts, new media are placing them in authoritative roles vis-à-vis parents and other kin. Latino families acquire digital tools for a variety of household activities, not only to create learning opportunities for their children.

Section 3 turns to what is being learned about the numerous and varied producers of digital knowledge and entertainment aiming to influence Latino children and families. The uneven market of kaleidoscopic content - transmitted from startups, national media outlets, and social media sites or nonprofit firms - means that competition among producers and the thirst for quick entertainment among viewers, while not always in conflict with learning, spurs creation of a variety of material that is unrelated to education or the vitality of families. Families and teachers, overwhelmed by options, increasingly rely on curators or consultants to sift through apps and programmes that claim to be educational. Yet curation services, advanced by for-profit firms and pro-social groups, display uneven quality as well, especially in their capacity to discern what digital material truly advances learning for Latino children and youth. Google launched a service for schools called Google Play for Education, which curates apps with a seal indicating approval by unnamed educators. Yet Google, like Apple, does not publish its criteria for selecting certain apps or digital content over other packages. The authors discuss the types of pro-education apps that aim to advance the individual child's cognitive or social development. Next, they move to the potential of digital media to strengthen social ties and peer relations, including cooperative play or action inside the family. For example, apps such as Historypin can emphasise the knowledge and experience of parents or Latino forbearers, encouraging literacy skills and family-wide collaboration. This takes the authors to the wider arena of how digital media are being deployed to improve parenting practices and mobilise families in ways that are culturally situated.

Section 4 then explores what is known about the influence of digital media on learning and socialisation inside the home and its role in mobilising civic action among Latino families locally. This section first describes key features of the family environment that may condition individual learning and social effects inside households, given the reordering of everyday activities by electronic media ever since the 1950s rise of television. They draw conceptually on the idea of social ecology, a framework emphasising how families try to settle into community niches that are economically sustainable and aligned with preferred child-rearing practices. This frame illuminates how cultural or linguistic groups reproduce home practices in accord with their heritage while adapting to novel social norms, tools, and learning from the outside. The authors then sketch 3 learning theories that speak to the child's direct experience with learning tools or the everyday activities (in the home or with peers) in which digital and other tools are employed by the child or parent. The authors detail how recent research has begun to focus on the social dynamics and home activities that form the context in which digital engagement takes place. This perspective is directly relevant to many Latino households, given a heritage that stresses firm parental authority and the primacy of the family's collective wellbeing rather than the individual child's interests. Finally, the authors summarise the small body of literature that finds benefits or risks to Latino children or their families. For example, evidence is emerging on how digital engagement may spill over into civic participation by youth or families. This is a major goal of Latino organisations that seek to enrich parenting practices or mobilise parents to boost college access or become engaged in civic debates.

Section 5 summarises the study's findings and delineates a future research agenda. Various broadcasters reach out to diverse Latino audiences. Yet beyond counting who is tuning in, private firms and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) "display little interest in assessing whether they are lifting learning or influencing the behavior of children, teenagers, or parents in positive ways. This is an area in which foundations and government might invest in research." The authors articulate empirical questions and describe how more robust evidence could benefit broadcasters, educators, and policy makers, showing them which approaches enrich learning and parenting and where effects remain fleeting or even damaging to families and children's development.


Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, accessed on March 17 2016. Image credit: Madeline Tompkins, Flikr