Throughout this past summer, DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration has been working with the Sesame Workshop on its Play to Learn program to explore the possibilities for using digital tools to provide education services among children, ages 3 to 8, living in crisis-affected communities.

There are many well-documented barriers to digital inclusion that must be overcome for different individuals and groups to effectively access and use digital technologies. There are also a variety of frameworks that map these barriers in different ways. For this project, we chose to focus on the barriers listed below:

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Our Frontier Insights research for Sesame Workshop in Colombia, South Sudan, and Yemen clearly demonstrates some of these barriers but also reveals additional constraints. This led us to think about what is missing from the framework of digital inclusion barriers when it comes to children and families in communities in crisis.

What is Different about Early Childhood Inclusion in Crisis-affected Communities?

Barriers to digital inclusion take on another dynamic when children, ages 3 to 8—Sesame Workshop’s target—are a key beneficiary group, and when these children are living in contexts highly affected by crisis.

To begin with, digital inclusion for parents or caregivers, who tend to own the devices children might have access to, does not always trickle down to these children. This may become an added barrier for children being digitally included from the very beginning. This is particularly acute when considering the inclusion factor of attainability. For example, if social norms do not encourage children to engage with digital tools, or if adults are not willing to share their devices or internet access with children, children are effectively excluded from digital engagement and education. This point came out clearly, for example, through findings in South Sudan, where parents are reluctant to share their mobile phones with children, fearing, for example, damage or theft. In addition to age-based preference, there may be gender preferences, and in some contexts, boys are more likely to gain access than girls.

Another key consideration is which adults are making decisions for children and what decisions they make. For example, parents may not perceive digital technology as a tool for education, as they consider it exclusively a tool of entertainment. This is significantly dependent on context and is related to awareness in terms of how children become exposed to devices or content that may have educational value. We saw this demonstrated in South Sudan and Yemen, where digital devices are not perceived to have a strong pedagogical purpose, and as such, children are not often given access to them by their caregivers.

A parent’s literacy and numeracy levels and digital skills may also affect the ways in which they are able to support their child’s use of technology. However, just because parents have low digital literacy does not mean it trickles down to their children. Often, children—even as young as Sesame Workshop’s target age group—are more adept at navigating digital platforms than their parents. This is the case, for example, in Colombia, where even children who can’t yet read or write often have higher levels of digital literacy than their parents or caregivers, and easily can navigate devices on their own to watch videos.

Parents or caregivers might, due to a scarcity of resources, not allow children much access to digital media or content. This is related to affordability as data plans can be prohibitively expensive for families who have been displaced, are refugees, or are encountering another type of crisis. Affordability is an important barrier in all three research contexts, but there are also workarounds that some families use to continue accessing content on their devices, within these constraints. Specifically, for example, in Colombia, families take advantage of promotions where access to some apps, such as Facebook, are free to use with minimal credit on their phones and use these apps almost exclusively for watching videos that would otherwise be activities that consume significant amounts of data.

In contexts where affordability is a key concern, families may prioritize use of their digital device and the internet, often meaning that fee-earning activities, or parents and caregivers, are given preferential access over children. For families with multiple children, older children are likely to receive access to educational content through technology first, as they may be more formally engaged with school, and parents might see early childhood content as more focused on play and less on education.

What is Missing in a Digital Inclusion Framework for Displaced Families?

Displacement significantly limits factors of digital inclusion, such as attainability, as it is impossible to access technology without some degree of infrastructure. Some educational programs are simply inaccessible to people with disabilities for a variety of potential reasons related to ableism. And people might choose to limit their access to technology if there is a lack of trust or heightened security risk due to previous mistreatment by figures of authority.

Trust and security around digital platform and internet safety clearly emerged from our research as of foremost importance, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected states. This is related to both personal security, such as the fear of theft when children are using devices, as mentioned before from findings in South Sudan, and concerns around appropriateness of content for children. Appropriateness of content was key, for example, in one camp in Yemen, where caregivers noted that boys were exposed to violent and inappropriate content on mobile phones. In conflict-affected circumstances, there may be lower levels of trust as people are regularly exposed to rumors and fake news, or may have been under surveillance in the past, and, as such, assess their own risk environments based on these negative experiences. In Colombia, families report a distrust of information on WhatsApp, having received information on food aid programs or about COVID-19 vaccines that are false and, by following the instructions, have wasted their time and money on transportation.

Meeting Displaced Families Where They Are to Support Early Childhood Education for All

In our collaboration with Sesame Workshop, all of these digital inclusion factors exist against a backdrop of emergency, where families and children are living in difficult circumstances. They live in places where there is generally less infrastructure, more displacement, and higher incidences of trauma and disability. Both emergency circumstances, and early childhood engagement, add levels of complexity to digital inclusion for refugee families and children. These are elements that must remain top of mind when designing inclusive early childhood programming and delivery mechanisms that will support improvements in wellbeing for parents and their children. Digital inclusion is one increasingly popular mechanism to access more people, but there are additional elements to digital inclusion that are unique to these circumstances.

Ultimately, parents and caregivers are these children’s first and most important teachers, and they themselves have their own barriers to digital inclusion, which may or may not be mediated by their children. Understanding these types of realities is key to successfully engaging with communities through digital tools and approaches.

Engaging with these realities in a pragmatic way and meeting families where they are is the first step towards building support for digitally mediated early childhood education in these complex environments. Only with support from parents or caregivers will young children begin to be digitally included in an age and developmentally appropriate way. With thoughtful planning and community buy-in, this could be a new strength for communities under a great deal of stress and uncertainty.

Sesame Workshop’s Play to Learn is an innovative humanitarian program from Sesame Workshop, BRAC, the International Rescue Committee, NYU Global TIES for Children, and the LEGO Foundation that harnesses the power of play to deliver critical early learning to children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises. Through a combination of educational media and direct services, Play to Learn reaches families in their homes, health centers, play spaces, and via mobile phones—providing the tools needed to promote nurturing care and help children learn and thrive. In collaboration with independent evaluator NYU Global TIES for Children, we are measuring the program’s impact on children’s development and caregivers’ mental health and well-being. By sharing what we learn and advocating for increased prioritization and investment in early childhood interventions in crisis contexts, we are laying the foundation to transform how the world supports children affected by crisis, wherever they may be.