Children are increasingly integrating digital media alongside traditional forms of play. For some, social media platforms are the stages for their imaginative performances.
During lockdown I've learned that scrolling on TikTok is an easy way to lose track of time. You open the app while you wait for the kettle to boil and before you know it your tea has gone cold and you can't get that Carol Baskin song out of your head for the rest of the day.
The social media platform of short videos can also easily lead you down a rabbit hole. I choose not to follow, like or comment on any Tiktok videos, instead just scrolling through an uncurated ‘For You Page’ (FYP) that samples from a the far reaching sub-communities and trends present on the app. From the practising wiccans of witchtok collecting rain water for spells to home renovations to cosplayers swapping costume tips, dancing grandpas and organising activists… I seem to get a bit of everything. One trend which I am seeing more and more is children who use the platform to broadcast examples of their imaginative play.
Over the past few months I've seen children designing and creating their own surprise bags to open on camera, children pretending to be beauticians setting up their own 'spa' and children recording their dramatic play with toys and dolls. One of the more common examples is shop roleplay where children pretend to operate an online store and fulfil customer orders. The Tiktoks are almost always filmed from the child’s perspective (you never see their face) while they check items off a whiteboard set on the floor and then place the items into a box:
“Okay so Jane has ordered a pair of socks - two ninety nine. A pair of air pods - sixty pounds. And a pair of cool trainers- 50 pounds. I’ll just pop those in the box for her. So that’s a hundred and twelve pounds and ninety nine pee. I’ll get that in the post for her today. Hope you enjoy your order Jane!”
In another video a girl is setting up a 'spa', checking off the treatments a fictional customer is having on an iPad and laying out various beauty products and candles :
"Today we have Josh in the spa. Let's put on some relaxing spa music. He's getting a massage and it's a foot massage so I will add that in the details. There's a deal on so he's getting it for half price. Let's get the spa area set up."
Children’s imaginative play - Why it’s important.
The role of imaginative play in children's development has been widely studied for decades. From language development to social skills and making sense of the world around them - role play gives children the opportunity to develop their imaginations while making connections between things they have seen, heard, or experienced.
The influence of technologies on imaginative play.
Increasingly, digital technology is a feature of children’s everyday lives and it is something that becomes a part of their cultural production and understanding from an early age. One way to examine children's play with technology is to look at how children symbolise or are inspired by digital media and integrate this into aspects of their play. For example, a child might use a defunct mobile device to pretend to be on the phone or they may use phrases such as 'don't forget to like and subscribe' when imagining they are a Youtube presenter.
In addition to the physical hardware or 'social media speak' which can be 'built into' children's play it is also possible to examine the role of digital spaces themselves as sites where play takes place. There are many digital spaces aimed at children such as online games and edutainment apps. However, those not specifically 'for kids' such as Instagram and Tiktok often hold the same (if not more) draw.
Broadcasting imaginative play - a new kind of Media Convergence?
The phenomenon I have seen on TikTok of recording and broadcasting imaginative play scenarios is interesting as it straddles both the elements of building technology into traditional play as well as playing 'within' digital spaces. This kind of play involves getting to grips with multiple literacies. Spoken literacy to imagine and voice the chosen scenario Digital literacy to record, edit and upload the scenario and Cultural literacy to understand the context of the chosen scenario and identify, source or even make the appropriate props to bring it to life.
Examples of Role Play TikToks 1. Josh gets booked into the spa. 2. Opening a homemade Covid-19 themed surprise bag 3. A short narrative acted out with Littlest Pet Shop figures.
When taking all this creative production into consideration it poses an interesting counter argument to the increasingly common belief that digital technology is negatively affecting children's ability to play creatively or imaginatively (Matters Journal, 2019, The Daily Mail, 2019). In addition to these fears about children's changing play patterns, the act of using social media at a young age to play in this way comes with its own ethical and digital safety issues. Online safety is an ever evolving and highly important issue, especially since using technology is such an important aspect of our work, communication and domestic lives. This is why childhood professors such as Bird (2019) and Fleer (2014) are advocating for educational practices to turn their attention to learning opportunities which can support children to be citizens of our digital world in a safe and ethical way.
The appeal of TikTok
When considering both he way in which we consume and create digital media as well as what children get from imaginative play, it is understandable that Tiktok provides an appealing offering.
"My siblings/parents/favourite vloggers use it so I want to as well!"
The people children admire often play a contributing role to how they play. This can be fictitious characters, animated characters, children's presenters or actors or stars of online platforms like Youtube. This is by no means a recent phenomenon. As a child I often replicated the behaviours and presentation style of Blue Peter presenters, addressing an imaginary camera as I made crafts in my bedroom. Notably of course I was not able to truly live that experience, whereas with just a mobile phone and an internet connection children can be on Youtube or TikTok or Instagram, like their favourite presenters or vloggers.
The influential role that siblings, friends and older family members play on children's imaginative play should also not go unrecognised. Children often replicate things they have seen their family members say and do and build this into their role play scenarios. Being on a mobile phone is no different. If a child sees their parents engaging on social media for their interests or hobbies, they may wish to be a part of this too.
"I love it when I have someone to play with!"
Professor of Culture and Language Education Karen Wohlwend (2020) highlights the emotional rewards children get from collaborating during play and sharing their experiences. Broadcasting play on TikTok offers this. The public nature means people can comment or request items for the shop role play to include. This is of course where adult concern lies ( and rightfully so) as an app aimed at much older people means that it may not just be other children commenting on the videos. Nevertheless, children who once had no other option but to play alone in their bedrooms now have the means to seek out others remotely to share their play experiences.
SIDE NOTE: It is perhaps worthwhile noting that I began to observe imaginative play on Tiktok during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, children will not have been seeing their friends to play in person and many children’s interactions with each other will have been solely screen based. .
"It’s great that other people like the way I play."
The third potential motivation is a speculation around the culture of social media traffic, likes and comments which some children and young people report helps them feel validated (Children's Commissioner Report 2018). There is ongoing debate among educators, academics and parents around children's digital media use for this very reason. Some argue that children should be shielded from technology as the risks outweigh the benefits while others feel it is necessary to nurture a healthy relationship with technology. Either way, an education linking the emotional and social issues with the role of digital media in our daily lives is one which better equips children to either be aware of online behaviours or to themselves be more confident, safe creators and/or consumers of online media.
While this trend of broadcasting role play scenarios is by no means representative of U.K children at large, the very appearance of it on my uncurated TikTok feed highlights that the platform has clearly presented an opportunity which a number of children feel drawn to.
Digital Media will continue to be an influencing factor in the lives of children and how they play. As use cases diversify, no doubt further research will be conducted in the fields of childhood play and digital media to uncover best practice approaches for families and educators.
Whether it's reenacting what children see their favourite YouTubers do or using coding apps to create their own games or experiencing AR to interact in new ways with their physical toys, the world of play is forever changing and the digital aspects of this have only just begun to reveal themselves.
Bird, J. (2020). “You need a phone and camera in your bag before you go out!”: Children’s play with imaginative technologies.British Journal of Educational Technology,51(1), 166-176.
Children's Commissioner (2018) Life in Likes. Children’s Commissioner report into social media use among 8-12 year olds
Fleer, M. (2014). The demands and motives afforded through digital play in early childhood activity settings.Learning, Culture and Social Interaction,3(3), 202-209.
Wohlwend, K. E. (2020). P(l)aying online: Toys, apps, and young consumers on transmedia playgrounds. In O. Erstad, R. Flewitt, & B. P. Kümmerling-Meibauer, Íris Susana Pires (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Digital Literacies in Early Childhood (pp. 391-401). London: Routledge.