9th March 2018

When watching Black Mirror, follow Fred's lead….use tech "with" rather than "instead of"…

by Susana Beltran

"Computers can be useful machines, especially when they help people communicate in caring ways with each other…" -Fred Rogers, 1996.

Venturing into the world of Black Mirror has been a fascinating experience. Each episode describes a futuristic, imagined universe in which technology and media have become society's oppressors. While the show, through worst-case scenarios, makes a criticism about current media and technology trends, I see themes of opportunity to understand how, we as humans, can learn to understand technology.

Arkangel, episode two in series four, provides a great example of why relationships matter when using technology.

This episode describes a mother who satisfies her obsession for control and protection of her daughter. The episode starts when Marie's daughter, Sarah, goes missing in the playground. She is recovered shortly after. Marie becomes paranoid at the thought of losing Sarah again she decides to implant Arkangel in Sarah's brain to keep track of her at all times. Arkangel allows Marie to view Sarah's location through a tablet, and censor what Sarah sees that might cause her stress by blurring out the images and sounds. As Sarah grows, she lacks empathy and emotion intelligence due to the censorship. Marie worries and takes Sarah to see a psychologist, revealing that Arkangel might be the cause of it. Although Arkangel cannot be removed, Marie decides to stop surveilling Sarah. Yet, Marie cannot stop worrying about Sarah and decides to activate Arkangel without Sarah's consent. Sarah grows furious when she finds out that her mother was the cause of her brake up with her boyfriend. She beats her mother unconscious with the tablet but cannot see what she is doing because of Arkangel's censorship. Only after the tablet turns off, she sees Marie bleeding. Yet, Sarah still decides to leave her mother.

Emotions and feelings are left out for Sarah to experience. This is depicted in two key scenes of the episode. As Sarah grows, she experiences her grandfather's death. She sees her mother from far way crying at her grandfather's grave, but Sarah lacks emotion to understand why her mother is crying. When Sarah beats her mother unconscious, she once again lacks the emotion to understand what she did.

What I hope the audience takes from this episode is not that technology is bad and therefore we should all burn our devices, but that technology can be that tool and serve as a catalyst for positive social interaction and emotional growth. Marie's mistake was that she trusted the technology to be the all-encompassing teacher and mother to her daughter and left their relationship out of technology. It is not hard to sympathize with Marie's character. She wants to protect her child like any other mother wants. But what Marie forgot is that pain is part of growing up. Is what makes us resilient. Is what makes children resilient. Pain helps us develop empathy and social and emotional intelligence. And positive adult relationships can further help develop children's growth to address challenges and barriers the best way they can.

It is the same with technology. Relationships matters in the integration of technology and interactive media with young children.

Nothing will ever take the place of one person actually being with another person. There can be lots of fancy things like TV and radio and telephones and the Internet, but nothing can take the place of people interacting face to face. (Rogers, as quoted in Davis, 2000, p. 29).

Research has shown that certain educational media content can help young children develop social skills, language skills, and even school readiness (Brown, A., & Council on Communications and Media,2011). This learning happens when adults engaged in active mediation. Active mediation is defined as parent-child discussion of media and technology (Nathanson, 2001). Active mediation can help a child better comprehend content with technology when adults are role modeling through relationships (Rasmussen et al. 2016). Just how adults interact in conversation with children to engage in pro-social relationships skills, the same is needed when you add technology to the equation. With the introduction of technology and new media literacy tools, children can have more learning opportunities (Fisch, Truglio and Cole 1999; McCarthy, Li, Tiu and Atienza 2013; Silverman and Hines, 2009; Verhallen, Bus, and Jong, 2006). Children will be exposed to things we do not want them to see or play games we might find violent. But children also count with adults to intentionally leverage the potential of technology and interactive media for their benefit.

Technology and interactive media have changed the way children learn. Children, with multimedia-enhanced tools, are more likely to gain and improve skills in language, vocabulary, and math, especially for low-income children (Silverman & Hines, 2009; Verhallen, Bus, & Jong, 2006; McCarthy, Li, Tiu & Atienza 2013). Fisch, Truglio & Cole (1999), investigated the positive effect of Sesame Street as a broadcast tool for children to improve skills. The results of their study indicate, "preschool children who watched educational programs-and Sesame Street in particular-spent more time reading and engaged in educational activities" (Fisch, Truglio & Cole, 1999, p. 169). Their study found that children who watch Sesame Street were more likely to show empathy and have higher levels of social and emotional development, achieve better scores in standardized testing, gain letter-word knowledge, and improve mathematics skills in their school readiness, subsequently retaining those skills long-term even after starting kindergarten (Fisch, Truglio & Cole, 1999, p. 169). The results of the study indicate how the different opportunities of learning with new technologies can positively impact a child's learning and growth. Yet, it is important to note that the use of technology and interactive media is effective when it is age-appropriate for children and includes the use of digital literacy and curriculum implementation in classrooms and at home as a supplement to traditional learning (Penuel, Bates, Gallagher, Pasnik, Llorente, Townsend, Hupert, Dominguez, & Vander Borght, 2012; NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center 2012).

As an early learning educator and media and technology practitioner, I have encountered many early education educators, still apprehensive about the integration of media and technology in a child's learning path. Many of these educators state that technology has no place in early childhood classroom. I counter that technology has a place in young children's learning path, but as long we follow Fred's lead, use tech "with" rather than "instead of" and when relationships are part of the learning equation.


  • Brown, A., & Council on Communications and Media. (2011). Media use by children younger than 2 years. _Pediatrics, 128, _5, 1040-5.

  • Fisch, S., Truglio, R., & Cole, C. (1999). The impact of sesame street on preschool children: A review and synthesis of 30 years' research. Media Psychology, 1(2), 165-190.

  • Nathanson, A. I. (2001). Mediation of children’s television viewing: Working toward conceptual clarity and common understanding. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Communication yearbook (Vol. 25, pp. 115–151). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

  • McCarthy, B., Li, L., Tiu, M., & Atienza, S. (2013). PBS kids mathematics transmedia suites in preschool homes. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, 128-136.

  • Penuel, W., Bates, L., Gallagher, L., Pasnik, S., Llorente, C., et al. (2012). Supplementing literacy instruction with a media-rich intervention: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(1), 115-127.

  • Rasmussen, E. E., White, S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., Densley, R. L., Shafer, A., Colwell, M. J., & Wright, H. (2016). Relation between active mediation, exposure to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and US preschoolers’ social and emotional development. _Journal of Children and Media, 10, _4, 443-461.

  • Silverman, R., & Hines, S. (2009). The effects of multimedia-enhanced instruction on the vocabulary of English-language learners and non-English-language learners in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 305-314.

  • Verhallen, M., Bus, A., & de Jong, M. (2006). The promise of multimedia stories for kindergarten children at risk. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(2), 410-419.

Tags: ECE, EdTech, Social and Emotional Development, Technology

Want to learn about learning?

Enter your email address and I’ll send you my latest blog posts via email. No spam, I promise!