Exploring the KOALA Hero Toolkit: An innovative approach to digital parenting

16 May 2024

Portrait of Dr Jun Zhao

Dr Jun Zhao
Senior Researcher

Dr Jun Zhao is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University. Her research focuses on investigating the impact of algorithm-based decision makings upon our everyday life, especially for families and young children.

Portrait of Ge Tiffany Wang

Ge Tiffany Wang
Doctoral Student

Ge (Tiffany) is a DPhil student in the Department of Computer Science at University of Oxford. Her research investigates the algorithmic impact on families and children, and what that means for their long-term development.

Parent child digital device
© Adobe Stock
This is the first of a two-part series exploring two innovations from the Oxford Martin Programme on Ethical Web and Data Architectures offering greater data autonomy for parents and children. This blog examines a toolkit to help parents better understand how their children’s data might be used in a digital age.

In today's digital age, children are growing up surrounded by technology, with their online activities often being tracked, analysed, and often monetised. While the digital landscape offers countless opportunities for learning and exploration, it also exposes children to a myriad of datafication risks, including harmful profiling, micro-targeting, and behavioural manipulation.

It is for this reason that Computer Science researchers working on the Oxford Martin Programme on Ethical Web and Data Architectures developed the KOALA Hero Toolkit. It has been co-developed with families and children by Oxford researchers over several years in response to increasing concerns from families about the risks associated with extensive use of the digital technologies.

Digital monitoring-based technologies, enabling parents to restrict, monitor or track children’s online activities, dominate the market space. Popular apps such as Life 360, Google Family Link, Apple Maps, Qustodio, and Apple screen time, are widespread. According to an Ofcom report, in the UK 70% of parents with children aged 3-17 have used technology to control their child’s access to online content. A similar report is found in the US, with 86% of parents with children aged 5-11 years having reported restricting when and for how long kids can use screens, and 72% using parental controls to restrict how much their child uses screens.

Research has shown that such approaches have limited efficacy in keeping children out of the boundaries of the digital space or reduce screen time usage. At the same time, the risks associated with these approaches are much less discussed, such as their potential to undermine family trust relationships or prevent the development of children’s self-regulation skills. With modern families increasingly struggling with their children’s relationship with digital technologies and lack of effective and clear guidance for them, new approaches are urgently needed.

The KOALA Hero toolkit has several key features:

  1. Promote family awareness development: By providing families with insights into datafication risks, i.e. how children’s data may be collected and processed, and used to affect what they see online, the toolkit empowers families to make informed decisions about their online activities.
  2. Support interactive learning: Through both a digital and physical component, and the provision of interactive activities and discussion sheets, the toolkit facilitates meaningful conversations between children and parents, fostering a deeper understanding of digital privacy and ethics.
  3. Encourage family engagement: By providing worksheets that guide conversations and interactions with the toolkit among families, with both children and parents involved in the learning process, the toolkit strengthens familial bonds and promotes collaborative problem-solving.

We assessed the toolkit with 17 families, involving 23 children aged 10-14. We found that families developed better awareness of the implications related to datafication, in comparison to their prior understandings. The toolkit also enabled families to feel more equipped to discuss datafication risks and have more balanced and joint family conversations.

These findings provide positive indications for our approach of encouraging proactive family engagement, instead of focusing on controls and monitoring. We hope to improve the toolkit and work with a larger sample through a longer-term study before sharing the toolkit on popular app stores.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.