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No Child Alone: SFU researcher to develop online social network for children to support their socio-emotional needs during COVID-19

November 17, 2020

By Tessa Perkins Deneault

Alissa Antle’s research in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology focuses on innovative design and technology solutions that benefit children. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she wouldn’t have considered doing a project involving an online social network, but now says she sees it as a really interesting challenge.

“I do work in socio-emotional learning, but I don’t work in online remote environments,” she says. “I've worked in a variety of different areas, like augmented reality, brain computer interfaces and tangibles, so I tend to be really involved in things that are more embodied.”

Yet Antle’s latest research project, which received a $105,000 NSERC COVID-19 Alliance grant, is an online social network for children called No Child Alone. She is working in partnership with Curatio, a digital health company that develops peer-to-peer online support communities. The company’s technical expertise and knowledge about private social networks pairs well with Antle’s expertise in how digital technology can support social/emotional learning interventions for children.

“It’s a really good partnership, because I know a lot about how to design for children's usability and accessibility, and Curatio has done tons of work in online networking.”

Curatio is led by founder and CEO Lynda Brown-Ganzert, chair emerita of the SFU Board of Governors. She approached Antle about forming a partnership, and Antle agreed because she sees a gap in social networks for younger children who are not on social media or who need a safe online community to connect with peers and receive support.

“There's really nothing for eight- to 12-year-olds in terms of safe, private social media connections, or private networks,” says Antle. “And there's nothing that gives them support around social emotional learning, or the fallouts of COVID.”

To design a platform that responds directly to children’s needs, Antle and her team of graduate students will emphasize co-design with children. They’ll conduct activities and interviews with children and their parents that involve making as well as dialogue to understand their unique circumstances and socio-emotional challenges. Of course, COVID-19 presents many challenges when it comes to connecting with children and ensuring their voices are heard.

“We're really trying to understand how to facilitate the sessions that will probably take place in the home or may take place remotely in a classroom after school.. It's totally different than being there with the kids.”

Conducting remote consultation sessions, however, provides an opportunity to include a more diverse set of children, some of whom may be geographically isolated.

Once children join the new No Child Alone online community, their sessions will be moderated by an adult, but the children will have some autonomy to interact with each other and connect directly to resources they might need. Antle plans to launch the app prototype with Curatio as a pilot with a limited number of children, and hopes to receive further grant funding to extend the project to a larger pilot and further study the impacts of the social network.