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Sonia Livingstone

October 2nd, 2019

Making your imaginary friend real with your emotions


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sonia Livingstone

October 2nd, 2019

Making your imaginary friend real with your emotions


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In this post, Rojin Vishkaie discusses her study of how teachers view emerging technology which assists with children’s emotional wellbeing. Her initial research shows that teachers envision a playful technology that can help children display their emotions in the classroom. Rojin is an assistant professor of human-computer interaction and interaction design. She received her PhD in computational media design, with a specialisation in human-computer interaction and interaction design from the University of Calgary. Rojin’s current research focuses on embodying the interaction between young children’s creativity and emerging digital media. [Header image credit:  J. Baxter, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

“If I could have an app or companion or something, it would be like the Inside Out animated movie and a child would touch it and choose their feelings based on angry, worried, happy, joy to illustrate it, and that immediately would come to me somehow, and then I would have a document daily to know how they are feeling.” (Primary school teacher)

Prior research has recognised daily classroom life (for children and others) as an emotional environment where interest, enjoyment, curiosity, shame, pride, anxiety, confusion, boredom, engagement, coping, and motivational resilience reappear pervasively, frequently, and intensely. In The Second Self, Turkle explores, how the computer affects our awareness of ourselves, of one another, and of our relationship with the world”.

Similarly, in Affective Computing, Picard discusses how affective technology are “systems with the ability to recognise and express emotions” and have the potential to display what is felt inside and display the emotions to the outside world (e.g. the classroom). It is further argued that future emotion communication technology enables personalised learning opportunities for children, especially for those with emotional and behavioural problems (e.g. autism). Despite digital technology’s increasing relevancy in daily life, there is little research on how they can be used to help children perceive and express their emotions, particularly in classroom environments.

What did we do to date?

Initially, we considered interviewing children before exploring the design of our wristband, but the occasional difficulties that early elementary children had in identifying their emotions verbally in our pilot interviews resulted in a focus on learning about teachers’ perceptions of children’s emotions in the classroom. We then interviewed a group of early elementary teachers to gain insights into:

  • Teachers’ perceptions of the role that technology currently plays in improving children’s emotional wellbeing.
  • Teachers’ vision of the design of a child-emotion communication technology that provides support to children.

What did we learn from teachers?

From our initial study with teachers, we observed that they believed they could benefit from a mediated ’emotion companion’ for their students, and that they themselves could learn from children’s interaction with emotion companions. For the teachers, having such a companion means they could initiate more emotionally effective communications and interactions with their students. This led us to prototype the ways in which a child-emotion companion could become children’s emotional support and friend in the classroom. 

Figure 1: The wristband allows children to communicate their feelings

What is the Child-Emotion Companion?

Inspired by the teddy bear, a classic children’s toy, and the design of a playground, our Child-Emotion Companion prototype captures self-reporting data through a wristband with sensors that sends information through a wireless network to beacons mounted in a classroom. Colour-coded emotions (e.g. joy is yellow, sadness is blue, anger is red, disgust is green, and fear is purple) for all aggregated emotions of the children (e.g. the joy of problem solving) are projected as an ambient light (e.g. yellow), and through an art piece (e.g. sunshine painting) on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the classroom, or audio material (e.g. music). Also, the wristband can be personalised by the child wearer using various stickers and even their own audio materials, such as sounds and music to represent the manifestations of their emotions. We believe this can encourage more children to use the wristband as it allows for more personalised experience and playful interaction (See figures 1 and 2).

Figure 2: The Child-Emotion Companion wristband

 What do we envision to be the effects of our digital technology?

Our concept provides an alternative method for advancing children’s emotional wellbeing through the design of communication technology and art as a visual manifestation of emotion. However, we envision this intervention as relying on a combination of technical and social components to contribute to conversations regarding how emotion-sensing technology can be used to improve educational experience and wellbeing in the classroom and assist with emotional and behavioural problems. We further argue that emotions have a key impact on essential cognitive processes, which constitutes the importance of exploring how children and teachers interact with this technology to support their interpersonal connections.

While there is a growing trend of data collection of personal information which raises serious concerns about children’s digital profiling, we recognise that our intervention-based approach to collecting information about children’s emotional state may not be immediately and universally impactful. Although Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) provides some security measures for young children in the USA, they may not be as secure in other regions. This provides a limitation for our current concept.

What will we do next?

We have the following future goals:

  • Examining how our preliminary designs are received by both children and teachers in the classroom.
  • Safeguarding privacy and safety risks involved in children’s curating and sharing of personal information.
  • Examining issues ranging from effective communication of emotion to the impact of an aesthetic and playful shift from a common to an interactive classroom.
  • Building skills while reducing the stigma about children’s emotional and cognitive challenges.
  • Engaging community partners, such as elementary to high schools, universities, museums, tech-shops, and makerspaces to conceptualise the integration of wearable technology and methodological approaches to the curriculum.

We hope our current and future planned work will encourage anyone interested in parenting, children, and digital media to consider addressing the current limitations of emotion perception and expression through wearable technology, and the protection of children’s personal information.

This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people. Her most recent book is The class: living and learning in the digital age (2016, with Julian Sefton-Green). Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.' Sonia Livingstone is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society for the Arts and fellow and past President of the International Communication Association (ICA). She has been visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen, Copenhagen, Harvard, Illinois, Milan, Oslo, Paris II, Pennsylvania, and Stockholm, and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She is on the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, is a member of the Internet Watch Foundation’s Ethics Committee, is an Expert Advisor to the Council of Europe, and was recently Special Advisor to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications, among other roles. Sonia has received many awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the University of Montreal, Université Panthéon Assas, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the University of the Basque Country, and the University of Copenhagen. She is currently leading the project Global Kids Online (with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and EU Kids Online), researching children’s understanding of digital privacy (funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office) and writing a book with Alicia Blum-Ross called ‘Parenting for a Digital Future (Oxford University Press), among other research, impact and writing projects. Sonia is chairing LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission in 2017-2018, and participates in the European Commission-funded research networks, DigiLitEY and MakEY. She runs a blog called and contributes to the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog. Follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S

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