Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

The Ecology of Digital Childhood: the ‘digisystem’


In this post I argue for the Ecology of Childhood model proposed by Bronfenbrenner (1979) to be adapted in order to accommodate the roles that digital technologies and media might play in the life of the developing child.

Bronfenbrenner’s model* places the child at the heart of a system over which the individual has progressively less influence as the circles move outwards from the child. The first circle is the ‘microsystem’ which consists of family and others within the child’s immediate sphere of influence, the classroom, for example. The microsystem has extremely important influences on the child and the child’s development but this is reciprocal. The behaviours and responses of family, of classmates, friends and teachers are also affected by the behaviours and responses of the child. Beyond that is the ‘exosystem’ which is the wider community, for example, the school and its governance, worship/community groups of which the child is a part and relationships in the neighbourhood. The exosystem has effects on the child and, to a certain extent, vice-versa but at a remove (usually mediated by people in the microsystem – this network of mediating relationships is called the ‘mesosystem’).  Beyond the exosystem is the ‘macrosystem’ which consists of local and national structures and policies. Only in extremely exceptional circumstances does any individual child influence the macrosystem; examples of where such influence might occur would be high profile criminal cases involving children which then lead to changes in policy.

Bronfenbrenner argued that the mass media formed part of the macrosystem and this was appropriate at the time that the model was proposed. Mass media, in the sense of broadcast television/radio, studio-produced films, commercial music and commercially published newspapers/magazines are outside the area that can be influenced by any individual child, or, indeed, any individual who is neither a policy-maker nor working in the media industries. There is an argument put forward by theorists in the school of reader-response criticism, for example, Rosenblatt (1978) that the meaning of a text is an internal construction by the reader (or listener/viewer) in relation to her own experience and emotions but this does not negate the fact that the production of ‘traditional’ mass-media is situated in the macrosystem, well outside the area that can be influenced by a single individual.

However, although the production of media was, in 1979, always within the macrosystem, consumption typically took (and takes) place within the microsystem. Children have always watched television, for example, in the home with family and friends. The earliest BBC productions for young children were called ‘Listen with Mother’ and ‘Watch with Mother’ because it was believed that children would and should consume these programmes in the company of an adult carer. This is the argument made by McHale et al (2009) who said that media devices should be considered part of the ‘microsystem’ as these devices are within the home and the family circle and thus form part of the immediate environment of the child.

However, McHale et al only consider the hardware; they do not reflect on the roles of software and content. Moreover, they ignore the fact that users increasingly create media, they do not only consume it. This is particularly the case with social digital media such as Facebook but is also true of other ‘web 2.0’ media such as ‘YouTube’ which consist only of material uploaded by users. It might be argued that participation in these media, especially when involved in creating content (including comments on content created by other users) means that the media are not only part of the micro-system but an extension of the individual. Social media such as Facebook can be understood as contexts in which people create or perform identity in online settings. The intensely personal nature of some new media means that they could be interpreted as manifestations of the self rather than parts of the wider ecological system.

Even with mainstream, traditional media such broadcast television often is built around narratives that are wholly or partially determined by audience participation. For example many reality television programmes include audience voting and which means that the audience has a role in determining how the narratives of the programme may develop. Whilst the producers may have subtle ways of influencing audience votes, the audience feels a sense of involvement in the programme which then reduces the distance between producer and consumer. Not only are consumers more engaged in developing the narrative of television programmes but audiences may engage in corresponding conversations through the medium of social networks such as Facebook or Twitter (a phenomenon known as ‘multiscreening’). As a result, viewers are not passive recipients of the television programme but are actively constructing a discourse and possibly even parallel narratives which are shared with others.   This means that even pre-digital mass media, such as TV shows are no longer completely external to the viewer. The viewer is now an active participant in the co-construction of interpretations which, with some programmes, may influence participation in audience voting and hence the direction of future episodes.

Not only has there been significant change in the ways that people, including children, create and interact with media but the nature of media devices has also changed considerably since 1979. Increasingly, media, both social media and ‘traditional’ media are increasingly accessed through mobile and handheld devices such as phones and tablets. Ofcom (2014), reporting on on children’s media use shows that 31% of children aged 5-15 have a smartphone (proportion rising by age) whilst 71% have use of a tablet and 88% have use of a desktop or laptop computer (tablet and computer availability does not change significant by age) and that they use these devices to access news media such as the BBC. Recognising the personal nature of much media and technology use, Johnson and Puplampu (2008) and Johnson (2010) propose a “techno-subsystem” within the microsystem.

The idea of a techno-subsystem, however, ignores the way that digital media are both proximate and distant. Children using a personal device will not be consuming media alongside a parent; their co-viewing social interactions will be outside rather than inside the home and family. The personal digital device occupies a unique position in that physically it is located within the space that Hall (1966) identified as the intimate zone. Normally, the only people that we allow (comfortably) into this zone are lovers, spouses, children and parents. However, whilst the device itself is in the intimate zone, the content often comes from far, far away: possibly the other side of the world. Digital media, therefore, are both in the microsystem and the macrosystem. It can even be argued that part of the child self is ‘outsourced’ to the digital world through the performance of identity on social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. Although the onion-ring ecological model is useful in many ways, it does not fit the reality of digital devices and media and so it is useful to add an element which crosses all levels: the ‘digisystem’.


The significance of the digisystem is that, unlike the microsystem and exosystem, it need not involve relationships or negotiation with a child’s parents or carers. The digisystem enables the wider world and the child to engage with each but parents/carers and teachers may not necessarily even be aware of all the types of interactions that take place. This does not mean that digital interactions are necessarily inappropriate, simply that they beyond the boundaries of parental influence and control. This is an important difference between the ecology of childhood in the final quarter of the 20th century and the ecology of childhood today. Parents/carers, decide where a child lives, choose a school and determine what community organisations the child will join. This gives parents/carers considerable influence and control with regard to the exosystem. Traditionally, parents/carers are also responsible for mediating relationships between the child and the wider community. Through choices and mediation parents can shape the values and attitudes that predominate in the world of the developing child. ‘Parental control’ of technology is usually discussed in the context of online safety and access to inappropriate content such as violence or pornography. However, even when children are interacting online in safe and approved settings, the digisystem puts the child in contact with people who would not otherwise be available and who may come from different cultural and attitudinal backgrounds. This may be viewed as a benefit as children may be exposed to a diversity of values and moral perspectives. However, that diversity is not guaranteed as a paradox of the digital world is that whilst everything is available, personalisation algorithms filter incoming material so that people tend to be presented with content that reinforces existing interests and belief systems. This may be a problem if those beliefs contradict the values that parents/carers and school seek to instil.

The ecological model of childhood recognises the agency of the child and that the child is most powerful in the inner circles of the model. However the child is an actor throughout the digisystem. Not only does the digisystem bring the world to the child, it also takes the child to the world. This can be seen most clearly with young people who have created blogs or popular YouTube channels. For example, in 2012 a Scottish schoolchild, Martha Payne was in the news when her blog about school meals raised £100,000 for charity.   Martha was also perceived as contributing to a wider debate about children and school food. Gee and Hayes (2010) have written about the ways that ‘making’ within the digital world can enable marginalised young people, particularly girls, to have impact and status beyond the school and immediate environment. Children are not passive consumers of digital media but are active creators of their own selves and the world with which they interact and that world crosses all levels of the ecological system.


Bronfenbrenner U. The ecology of human development. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA: 1979.

Doughty, Mark and Lawson, Shaun and Linehan, Conor and Rowland, Duncan and Bennett, Lucy (2014) Disinhibited abuse of othered communities by second-screening audiences. TVX ’14 Proceedings of the 2014 ACM international conference on Interactive experiences for TV and online video . pp. 55-62 available from

Doughty, Mark and Rowland, Duncan and Lawson, Shaun (2011) Co-viewing TV with Twitter: more interesting than the shows? CHI2011 available from

Gee, J. P. and E.R. Hayes (2010) I New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, E.T. (1966) The Hidden Dimension: man’s use of space in public and private London: the Bodley Head

Johnson, G. M. (2010). Internet Use and Child Development: Validation of the Ecological Techno-Subsystem. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (1), 176–185.

Johnson, G. M., & Puplampu, P. (2008). A conceptual framework for understanding the effect of the Internet on child development: The ecological techno-subsystem. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 34, 19-28

McHale, S. M., Dotterer, A., & Kim, J.-Y. (2009). An Ecological Perspective on the Media and Youth Development. The American Behavioral Scientist, 52(8), 1186–1203. doi:10.1177/0002764209331541

Ofcom (2014) Children and Parents’ Media Use and Attitudes

Rosenblatt, L. (1978) The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

*My colleague Ruth Swanwick provides a particularly clear explanation of the Bronfenbrenner model at


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