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Abstract

As Vietnam’s economic growth and consumer demands continue to accelerate, more Vietnamese families are now able to acquire portable touchscreen devices such as iPads. Previous research has shown that the use of touchscreen devices can benefit pre-schoolers’ learning, especially within school and home settings. However, little is known about the broader sociocultural environment within which such technology adoption by families with pre-schoolers takes place, especially in the Global South. Guided by Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development, this research investigates the ecology of tablet use and early childhood learning by pre-schoolers in Vietnam through an ethnographic investigation of 42 mother-child dyads. We found that Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use for the purpose of early childhood learning was initiated, sustained or even enforced by their parents. Vietnamese mothers strongly regard tablets as learning tools that give their children a distinct edge in educational achievement. However, such enthusiastic appropriation of the tablets was not matched by the mothers’ concomitant understanding of the benefits and risks of touchscreen devices for children, nor the availability of social scaffolding structures for the parents.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
1
Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use and early childhood learning:
An ecological investigation
Abstract
As Vietnam’s economic growth and consumer demands continue to accelerate, more
Vietnamese families are now able to acquire portable touchscreen devices such as iPads.
Previous research has shown that the use of touchscreen devices can benefit pre-schoolers’
learning, especially within school and home settings. However, little is known about the
broader sociocultural environment within which such technology adoption by families with
pre-schoolers takes place, especially in the Global South. Guided by Bronfenbrenner’s
ecology of human development (1979), this research investigates the ecology of tablet use
and early childhood learning by pre-schoolers in Vietnam through an ethnographic
investigation of 42 mother-child dyads. We found that Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use
for the purpose of early childhood learning was initiated, sustained or even enforced by their
parents. Vietnamese mothers strongly regard tablets as learning tools that give their children
a distinct edge in educational achievement. However, such enthusiastic appropriation of the
tablets was not matched by the mothers’ concomitant understanding of the benefits and risks
of touchscreen devices for children, nor the availability of social scaffolding structures for the
parents.
Key words
pre-schoolers, touchscreen devices, tablet devices, early childhood learning, media ecology,
Vietnam
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
2
Introduction
Research focus
Children of increasingly younger ages are using handheld touchscreen devices such as tablets
and smartphones. These devices have acquired mass appeal due to their portability, highly
interactive features and simple user interfaces. In 2015, Ofcom found that children aged 3 to
11 in the UK most frequently used tablets to access the Internet. A survey of Southeast Asian
parents found that 98% of them allowed their children aged 3 to 8 to use a smartphone and/or
a tablet (theAsianparent Insights, 2014).
Previous research has shown that the use of touchscreen devices can benefit pre-schoolers’
learning, especially within school and home settings (Neumann, 2014; Schacter & Jo, 2016).
However, little is known about the broader sociocultural environment within which such
technology adoption by families with pre-schoolers takes place. Guided by Bronfenbrenner’s
ecology of human development (1979), this study investigates the ecology of tablet use and
early childhood learning by pre-schoolers in Vietnam through an ethnographic investigation
of 42 mother-child dyads. Specifically, it focuses on Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ use of tablet
devices in learning and how such device use is influenced by various factors within the
micro-, meso-, exo- and macrosystem levels. We define pre-schoolers as children aged 3 to 5
who yet to enter primary school.
Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development
Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development (1979) theorises that children’s
development is shaped by nested, concentric structures that they live in: the microsystem,
mesosystem, exosystem and macrosystem. They are interconnected in a way that one system
is contained within the next like “a set of Russian dolls” (p. 3).
[INSERT FIGURE 1 HERE]
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
3
A microsystem is defined as the activities, roles and interpersonal relations experienced by
children in settings such as homes and childcare centres that most directly affect them. Roles
are the activities and relations expected of children within this microsystem, of others in
relation to children and based on the degree of reciprocity, balance of power and affective
relations. For instance, parents are expected to provide guidance to children, and children are
expected to accept such guidance with high reciprocity, mutual affection, and greater
authority from parents. A mesosytem is a system of interrelated microsystems that connect
children beyond their immediate settings and in which children actively participate, or that
involve other people who participate in interrelated settings, or communications among
settings. For example, the interconnections between children’s home and school where
children act as the primary link, parents and teachers act as supplementary links as they may
engage in intersetting communication to form intersetting knowledge. An exosystem
comprises settings that do not directly involve children but still affect them, such as their
parents’ employment situations and the family’s social networks. The macrosystem is the
overarching cultural and social contexts with underlying belief systems encompassing the
lower-order micro-, meso- and exosystem, and affects children most indirectly
(Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
While Bronfenbrenner’s framework of concentric structures has offered significant analytical
purchase, various refinements have been proffered by other scholars. Kotchick and Forehand
(2002) noted that factors outside the family shaping parenting practices and child
development were not well explored. In particular, they identified three contextual factors as
requiring more attention: ethnicity/culture, family socioeconomic status, and
neighbourhood/community context. Similarly, “Parenting: An Ecological Perspective
(Luster & Okagaki, 2005) was guided by Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective (1979),
and examined a more wide-ranging number of determinants that pose opportunities or
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
4
constraints for parenting. They identified determinants such as parents’ characteristics (social
cognitions, personality, developmental history, age, gender), children’s characteristics (age,
temperament, gender, needs), and contexts (the marital relationship, social networks,
socioeconomic status, parents’ employment, intervention programmes).
Despite the comprehensiveness of Bronfenbrenner’s framework, and its pertinence to
children’s media use within the home, it has not been extensively applied to understanding
the same. Indeed, extant research has largely omitted to examine the confluence of forces that
have impact on children’s media use (Jordan, 2004). Prior research has found that even when
factors influencing children’s television viewing time in the home ecology are quantified,
they may not predict well across families of different ethnic groups (Jordan, Bleakley,
Manganello, Hennessy, Steven, & Fishbein, 2010). Bronfenbrenner and related scholars have
not written much about the media in the different systems, and one challenge of the
ecological perspective is how to isolate key forces while acknowledging and connecting the
different systems (Jordan, 2004).
Warren (2005) sought to address this very issue by classifying different predictors of parental
mediation of children’s media use according to Bronfenbrenner’s systems. At the
microsystem level are children’s age and parental involvement. At the mesosystem level are
parents’ television viewing experience and attitudes. At the exosystem level is parents’
employment. At the macrosystem level are mothers’ expected gendered role as the primary
caregiver to children, ethnicity, parents’ income and education that accrue towards cultural
capital for children. Collectively, such extant research offers useful enhancements of
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory which can serve as a productive analytical framework by
which to understand parental mediation of children’s media use.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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5
Vietnam’s mobile media landscape
The enhanced ecological framework can thus be applied to understanding parental mediation
of children’s tablet use in Vietnam, alerting us to salient factors to consider in each structure
within the ecology. On the macrosystem level, it is crucial to understand the mobile media
landscape in Vietnam to better contextualise our research aims and findings. Although
Vietnam has a chequered history involving military conflict, political unification and other
social upheavals, the country has experienced rapid growth since the ruling government
implemented the economic reform policy Đổi Mi in 1986. In 2016, Vietnam’s GDP growth
rate was a healthy 6% (The World Bank, 2017). It is in this climate of robust economic
growth that Vietnam’s new middle class has strongly emerged. Their aspirations include
upward social mobility through the acquisition of wealth and conspicuous consumption.
Indeed, consumerism has become a potent indicator of social status, creating new social
divisions and hierarchies in the country (Earl, 2014).
With the rise of the middle class, Vietnam’s consumer goods markets have rapidly expanded.
The consumer electronics market has thrived with more competitors, thus ushering in
declining prices of devices and making smartphones and tablets omnipresent within
Vietnamese households. In 2016, 14 million smartphones were sold (Minh Do & Anh Duy,
2017) to a population of 92 million (The World Bank Data, n.d.). Within the first half of
2015, 582,000 tablets were sold - a 34.4% increase from 2014 - 76% of which cost less than
USD$300 (Nguoi Dong Hanh, 2015). Vietnam’s toy market is bearing the brunt of growing
tablet ownership as toys can no longer compete with touchscreen devices for young
children’s attention (Brands Vietnam, 2015). The cost of Internet services has also dropped
and Internet penetration was estimated to be around 45% (Thanh Nien News, 2016).
The mobile devices that dominate Vietnam’s electronics market are largely by foreign
manufacturers, with the top three best-selling brands being South Korea’s Samsung, China’s
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
6
Oppo and the US’s Apple, collectively accounting for 60% of the mobile market share in
2016 (Minh Do & Anh Duy, 2017). Samsung and Oppo launched aggressive marketing
campaigns featuring local celebrities (Minh Do & Anh Duy, 2017), while Samsung was
reported to invest more than US$14 billion and employ more than 100,000 workers in
Vietnam (Mansharamani, 2015). With strong competition from these foreign electronics
giants, Vietnamese tablet manufacturers have thus attempted to target the lower-income
segment with their wares, although many rivals from China have also entered the scene
(Vietnamnet, 2017). However, this growing adoption of mobile devices amid aggressive
market penetration has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in public
education efforts to guide and inform Vietnamese parents of the use of such devices by
children. We undertook a review of existing Vietnamese online public education materials on
children’s touchscreen device use and found them to be sorely lacking, save for some local
media reports on the benefits and risks of such device use. Furthermore, the local media
primarily cite sources and research findings from other countries when dispensing advice to
Vietnamese parents, most probably due to the paucity of research in the local context (see for
example Alo Bac Si, 2015; Dan Tri, 2015b; Tuoi Tre Online, 2015). Hence, part of our
research focus is guided by the underlying question: with the growing diffusion of
touchscreen devices in Vietnam, what kinds of public education have Vietnamese parents
received, if at all, on effectively managing their children’s tablet use?
Parenting culture and the importance of education in Vietnam
Another macrosystem factor is Vietnam’s parenting culture. Influenced by Confucianism, the
traditional Vietnamese family is highly patriarchal. Vietnamese children tend to be closer to
their mothers because the child-rearing task mainly rests on mothers (Locke, Nguyen, &
Nguyen, 2012). Children are expected to fulfil their family roles and to uphold the family’s
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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honour rather than to satisfy their own desires, to obey their parents’ authority, and to avoid
loss of face for the family; parents are in turn expected to ensure that their children are
educated, develop sound morals and protected from social evils (Mestechkhia, Nguyen, &
Shin, 2014).
The topic of pre-schoolers’ early childhood learning is highly pertinent to Vietnam as a
significant proportion of the household income is spent on children’s education at every
developmental stage. Indeed, Vietnamese culture greatly emphasises the importance of
education. As with many other Asian societies, Parents make sacrifices for children’s
educational opportunities so that children can gain social respect and mobility (Mestechkhia
et al., 2014). Notably, wealthy Vietnamese parents send their children overseas for academic
pursuits, spending USD$1.8 billion on this endeavour in 2013 (Dan Tri, 2015a). The pressure
for the child’s academic achievement is pronounced, with both parents and children – and
even teachers – experiencing stress in this regard (Tuoi Tre News, 2014b). Many Vietnamese
parents send children as young as in pre-school to private tutoring classes, also known as
hc thêm”, although such shadow education has been banned by Vietnam’s Ministry of
Education and Training (Tuoi Tre News, 2014b).
Children’s learning of English is another prime concern among Vietnamese parents. Many
Vietnamese students start to learn English in elementary school or even kindergarten because
of the premium placed on English language ability in children. But due to rote-oriented
testing methods that focus mainly on grammar and reading comprehension, many students
fail to use English in daily life (Viet Toan, 2013). It is common for more affluent Vietnamese
parents to enrol their children in English classes in private centres to help them gain a better
command of the language. Such strong demand is also reflected in the fact that in 2013, there
were over 700 registered private English centres in Ho Chi Minh City alone (Vietnamnet,
2013).
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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Literature review and research questions
Pre-schoolers’ touchscreen device use, early childhood learning and the roles of parents
In light of the growing popularity of touchscreen devices worldwide, there is growing
research evidence on pre-schoolers’ touchscreen device use and its effects on their early
childhood learning at school and home, including drawing skills, early science skills, and
emergent literacy skills. For example, Couse and Chen (2010) found that pre-schoolers in the
US were comfortable drawing with tablets after some instruction from teachers, and still
persisted with their tablet use despite technical difficulties. Tablet interventions at school
through educational apps for pre-schoolers in the US and UK were found to contribute to
immediate and sustained learning gains in maths, especially for low-performing children
(Schacter & Jo, 2016; Outhwaite, Gulliford, & Pitchford, 2017). In the home setting, Formby
(2014) found that pre-schoolers in the UK who read stories using both print and touchscreen
media scored lower but enjoyed reading more than those who only read print. Australian pre-
schoolers with greater access to tablets at home were found to demonstrate stronger letter
sounds and name writing skills (Neumann, 2014). In fact, the educational benefits from
children’s computer use has long been acknowledged, and the question is not whether
computers can be effectively used, but whether they can facilitate children’s learning in ways
consistent with their development (Clements & Sarama, 2003). Indeed, the investigation of
pre-schoolers’ touchscreen device use should not simply consider whether it is beneficial to
early childhood learning, but also question what meanings such device use signifies, in what
contexts, and how it can be better informed and regulated. As we will later explain, the
present study will seek to address these dimensions.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
9
As pre-schoolers are still highly dependent on their caregivers, their touchscreen device use
tends to be heavily influenced by their parents and parenting practices. Pre-schoolers still
spend much of their time at home rather than at childcare centres or kindergartens, and have
yet to form strong relationships with peers. The important roles that parents play in their
children’s media use have thus been extensively examined through a large body of research
focusing specifically on the home setting. Parental mediation theory posits that parents adopt
three main types of mediation strategies: restrictive mediation (controlling children’s media
use by setting rules), active mediation (actively discussing media content with children) and
co-viewing (watching media content with children) (Nathanson, 2001). Parental mediation
theory is deeply rooted in television viewing, and has been widely applied to research on
children’s television viewing, video game playing and Internet use (Nikken & Jansz, 2006),
but has not focused on children as young as pre-schoolers and their touchscreen device use.
Parental mediation research has also been concentrated in developed countries in the global
North with a few notable exceptions (see Livingstone, Lim, Nandi, & Pham, 2019).
Research on parental mediation in other parts of the world still has much potential for
development. In the case of Vietnam, there is an urgent need for research attention on
children’s media use as the few existing studies conducted so far are highly descriptive and
statistically driven. For instance, a survey in Vietnam found that 19% of children under 3 and
59% of children aged 3 to 5 used tablets and smartphones from 30 to 60 minutes per day, and
that Vietnamese parents did not have sufficient knowledge to monitor their children as they
relied on intuition or habits, but did not delve into the causes or meanings of such data (Tuoi
Tre News, 2014a).
For this study, we wish to go beyond the scope of just the school or home environment which
has been well explored by existing literature on pre-schoolers’ tablet use and early childhood
learning, but we do not aim to extend parental mediation theory to the context of pre-
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
10
schoolers’ tablet use. Instead, we seek to examine the broader ecology of pre-schoolers’
tablet use and early childhood learning in Vietnam to take into consideration the different
factors, interactions and settings (which undoubtedly will involve the roles of pre-schoolers’
parents) at both micro and macro levels using Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human
development as the framework (1979).
Research questions
Hence, we seek to address four research questions:
RQ1: How do microsystems (such as the home and school settings) influence Vietnamese
pre-schoolers’ tablet use to develop their early childhood learning?
RQ2: How does the mesosystem (such as the interconnections between the home and school
settings) influence Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use to develop their early childhood
learning?
RQ3: How do exosystems (such as the family’s social networks) influence Vietnamese pre-
schoolers’ tablet use to develop their early childhood learning?
RQ4: How does the macrosystem (such as Vietnam’s cultural and social contexts) influence
Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use to develop their early childhood learning?
Methodology
We employed two qualitative research methods: semi-structured, face-to-face interviews, and
observations with note-taking and photo-taking, for which institutional ethical approval was
sought and granted. The first part of the research was an interview with the pre-schooler’s
mother lasting 50 to 75 minutes, followed by an observation session of the pre-schooler’s
tablet use in the mother’s presence for 10 to 15 minutes in their own homes. This allowed us
to observe the home environment and the natural setting in which pre-schoolers typically use
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
11
digital devices. The child was not expected to be present during the interviews with the
mothers but if the child happened to be around, his or her speech would also be captured. As
mothers bear more responsibility for child-rearing in the patriarchal Vietnamese family
(Locke et al., 2012), mothers were chosen as interviewees over fathers. Nevertheless, we
would capture the father’s input if he happened to be present during the interview and
interjecting.
During the interview, the mother was asked about herself, her household, her acquisition of
the tablet device, her views on the media, the child’s daily activities and patterns of using
tablets and other forms of media at home and at school, the roles of other people or social
factors influencing the child’s tablet use, and any other topic that became salient as the
interview progressed. Meanwhile, the researcher also took observation notes of the home
environment, the availability of media devices, the mother’s non-verbal cues, the child’s
activities and the mother-child interactions. The interview was recorded with an audio
recorder and ended with an “apps-ploration” exercise (Lim, 2017) in which the mother was
asked to show the researcher the tablet’s contents, including the different apps used by the
child and their motivations for installing them. Observations were also made of the physical
environment of the home, with special attention paid to locations in the home where the
tablet was stored and used by the child, the child’s play areas and his/her favourite toys.
Photographs of the apps and the home were also taken.
In the second part of the research, the researcher observed the child’s interactions with the
tablet device and/or mobile phones in the mother’s presence and took notes of the child’s
activity on the devices, the child’s spoken words, the apps used, the amount of time the child
spent on each device and the mother’s responses. The researcher would talk to the mother
and the child to probe when necessary. Photographs of the mother and child during the
observation session were taken from an angle to prevent facial recognition. Upon completing
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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12
the research, each mother-child dyad was reimbursed with a 400,000VND (USD$17.6)
grocery voucher that could cover the cost of approximately half a week’s groceries for the
average Vietnamese family.
The research was fully conducted in Vietnamese by author A and four Vietnamese research
assistants from August to September 2016 in the Ho Chi Minh Metropolitan Area in the
South of Vietnam. Purposive and snowball sampling methods via personal networks were
used to recruit 42 mother-child dyads. The interviews were simultaneously transcribed and
translated from Vietnamese to English by author A, or first transcribed into Vietnamese by
the research assistants and then translated into English by author A to ensure consistency in
meaning. The observation notes and interview transcript for each mother-child dyad were
consolidated into a short narrative to facilitate our understanding of their media use and
contexts. The data analysis involved identifying dominant themes and issues from the
interviews and observations.
Findings and discussion
Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ households and tablet use
A middle class household in Vietnam earns at least 20 million VND (USD$880) per month
(Tuoi Tre Online, 2016). The typical Vietnamese household in this study was of a lower
socioeconomic status (with a monthly household income below 20 million VND), owned one
television, one tablet and two smartphones. Alongside the popular iPad and Samsung Tab,
more affordable tablet brands such as Acer, Asus and Masstel were used in many households.
They accessed the Internet through WiFi installed at home with a monthly fee ranging from
100,000VND to 300,000VND (USD$4.4 to $13.2) which they considered acceptable.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
13
The Vietnamese pre-schoolers were exposed to tablets or smartphones by their parents when
they were as young as 6 months old, and used tablets more proficiently when they reached 2
or 3 years old. The interviewed mothers confirmed that they supervised their children’s tablet
use more than the fathers did mainly due to Vietnam’s gender role expectations. Most of the
children went to childcare centres or kindergartens, while younger ones stayed at home. The
pre-schoolers’ duration of usage varied greatly across families, from as little as 15 minutes to
as much 3 hours per weekday, typically after they had returned home from school or when
they had their meals. This range increased to 2 to 7 hours per day during weekends and
holidays. Although the pre-schoolers often used the tablets interchangeably with the smart
television1 or older family members’ smartphones, the tablets were still preferred by the
children thanks to their larger screens and portability, and by the parents because they did not
contain their private or work-related information. YouTube was the most popular app,
followed by games and educational apps. Although some of the children’s pre- schools had
smart televisions in class, none of them had access to or incorporated touchscreen devices
into their teaching.
Microsystem influences
A microsystem comprises the activities, roles and interpersonal relations experienced by
children in a setting such as the home and childcare centre, which directly affects them the
most (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). At the microsystem level, parental supervision was a key factor
influencing Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ use of tablets for learning. In the school setting
however, tablets and smartphones have not been formally incorporated into Vietnam’s early
childhood education.
Given their young age, immaturity and lack of independence, the pre-schoolers’ exposure and
access to the tablets and their content at home were dictated by their parents most of the time.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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14
Under Bronfenbrenner’s definition of macrosystem (1979), the parents and pre-schoolers
assumed their typical familial roles in interpersonal interactions: the parents were
unequivocal authority figures and provided supervision and guidance regarding device use to
their children who were accordingly expected to comply. While some mothers made it known
that the tablet was the child’s exclusive possession, other mothers made it clear that the tablet
belonged to them and was shared with the child on occasion. Regardless, almost all the
children had to seek their mothers’ permission to use the tablets and for how long. In
instances where the child threw tantrums and bargained for more tablet time, mothers sought
to assert their authority more firmly:
"[If she wants to sit there crying or acting like she does not hear me], I just let her be.
If she wants to do that, she can do that. I already decided to not let her use the tablet
anymore." S19, mother of two girls aged 4 and 7.
Unsurprisingly, the pre-schoolers’ use of the tablet for learning was largely influenced by
their parents’ supervision of the accessed content. Both the mothers and fathers had high
expectations of their children’s ability to acquire knowledge through the tablets, and
expressed pride and joy if their child demonstrated such progress. Generally, the mothers
commented or even lamented that their children were much more engrossed in entertainment
such as game apps or cartoon videos on YouTube. Instead they preferred that their children
view educational content such as educational YouTube videos, or apps for learning basic
languages (Vietnamese, English), simple logical thinking (maths, puzzles), and basic
knowledge about the world (numbers, shapes, colours, animals), or drawing and storytelling
apps. Our apps-ploration of the pre-schoolers’ tablets showed that the educational apps used
varied highly across different mother-child dyads, and tended to be downloaded by the
mothers or fathers before being introduced to the children. The measures undertaken by the
mothers to guide their children towards educational content also differed in levels of
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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strictness. Some mothers shared that they simply screened educational YouTube videos for
their children to help them acquire knowledge. If the children did not want to watch the
videos, they would not press further. Some stricter mothers required their children to be more
involved in learning through tablets. These mothers would ask the children to use educational
apps and practise some skills in their presence so that they could give advice and
encouragement when necessary. S36 and her 5-year-old son were one such example, as
shown in the extracts of the recording and researcher’s notes during the observation session
below:
Researcher: Can you help me open the apps?
S36’s husband: Show her the math app thing!
S36: These numbers are very tough! This one is easier. Do the math for auntie
[researcher] to see! 5 plus 4? Correct! Like that.
Child: [mumbling to himself]
[INSERT TABLE 1 HERE]
[INSERT FIGURE 2 HERE]
Some mothers were so strict that they would not permit the installation of any game apps in
the tablets at all, while some mothers deliberately hid the tablets to prevent their children
from using them because the children did not engage in educational activities as they
originally wished:
"When I first bought [the tablet], my husband and I just wanted to play English songs
so that [our son] could learn English [...]. But he was unable to key in the search
words and ended up opening any videos to watch and played games [...]. Recently I
hid [the tablet]from him, I don’t allow him to play anymore." S4, mother of two boys
aged 1 and 5
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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Clearly, within the small setting of the Vietnamese home at the microsystem level, the
parent-child hierarchy determined that the parents set the tone in terms of how the tablets
were used, with a strong preference for “productive” uses such as learning apps and
educational videos. In other words, given their tender age, the pre-schoolers’ tablet use in
early childhood learning was initiated, sustained and enforced by their parents.
As well-intentioned as it might be, the Vietnamese parents’ enthusiasm for the educational
value of tablets was not matched by their concomitant understanding of the benefits and risks
of employing tablets in early childhood learning. First, according to Kong (2017), besides
purchasing media devices and encouraging their children to learn through devices at home,
parents should regulate the children’s device use and set reasonable expectations to achieve
meaningful learning outcomes. Touchscreen devices have been widely used in early
childhood education in North America and Europe since the early 2010s, with lively and
well-advanced debate among scholars and practitioners. However, in many other developing
parts of the world such as the Global South of which Vietnam is a part, concepts of digital
literacy and the use of digital technologies for learning are still in their infancy. Even within
the Southeast Asian region, Vietnam lags behind more developed countries such as
Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines in its investments in digital and educational
infrastructure (Livingstone et al., 2019; Neumann, 2014). As touchscreen devices had not
been incorporated into Vietnam’s early childhood education at the time of this research in
late 2016, the Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ tablet use mainly took place in the informal setting
of the home, under the parents’ subjective guidance, and without evidence-based advice from
more authoritative sources such as public agencies or professionals in the healthcare or
education sectors. In the absence of such advice, the Vietnamese mothers had wildly varying,
and sometimes unrealistic expectations of the educational value their children could distil
from tablets. For example, S40 cheerfully shared that her 3-year-old daughter picked up basic
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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English words such as “father” and “mother” verbally from her tablet, while S5 took great
pride in how her 4-year-old boy could already read Vietnamese in long sentences thanks to an
app teaching Vietnamese. While such enthusiasm was understandable, the blind faith the
parents placed in the transformative potential of these apps was of concern because the
parents could end up setting unrealistic learning goals for their young children.
Second, many Vietnamese mothers expressed concerns about the potential negative effects of
tablet use on their children that resonated with past literature, such as excessive use, eyesight
deterioration, a sedentary lifestyle and exposure to inappropriate content (see Kong, 2017).
Hence they tried to restrict their children’s tablet use especially when non-educational
content was involved. However, different mothers had different conceptions of what
constitutes unhealthy use of tablets. For instance, some mothers would rather let their
children watch television than tablets, or choose tablets over smartphones because they
reasoned that bigger screens meant less vision deterioration, even though the content the
children accessed from the smart television, tablet and the smartphone was essentially the
same. In another instance, some mothers mentioned the word “radiation” with hints of
anxiety, albeit without knowing what “radiation” meant, from which devices they were
emitted, or how it would affect their children, if at all.
To the best of our knowledge, there has been no scientific evidence supporting or rejecting
such beliefs that seem to be grounded in lay-person reasoning. Hence, such subjective or
speculative understanding of the adverse effects of tablet use, and ways to counter the same,
should receive more research attention as they do influence parents’ supervision efforts, even
though these clearly need to be more firmly grounded in evidence-based claims.
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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Mesosystem influences
A mesosytem encompasses interrelated microsystems that connect children beyond their
immediate settings, or involves other people who participate in interrelated settings, or
communications between settings such as the interconnections between the home and the
school (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). We found that the interconnections between the Vietnamese
pre-schoolers’ home and school settings existed, but mainly through the inter-setting
communication between their parents and teachers who acted as supplementary links, rather
than through the pre-schoolers themselves who were primary links. This was understandable
given the pre-schoolers’ young age and limited verbal ability. The parents reported that they
were generally concerned about their children’s studies at school and often actively visited
their classes or talked to their teachers. Although the parents were highly concerned about the
effects of their children’s tablet use at home, the majority of the parents did not receive any
relevant advice from their children’s schools or teachers. This was unsurprising since
touchscreen devices had not been adopted by early childhood educators in Vietnam. Only one
mother was warned of excessive tablet use by her child’s teacher at a parent-teacher meeting,
and another mother was asked by her child’s teacher to restrict the child’s tablet use because
during class activities, the child kept mentioning the fictional characters he watched at home.
Children have more developmental potential in different settings in the mesosystem if their
role demands are compatible (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In other words, for tablets to fully
support Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ learning, the optimal solution is for the device to be used
both at home and at school for the same purpose. Kong (2017) also noted the crucial role
schools should play in addressing potential negative effects of children’s device use because
even though parents may have such concerns, they may not have the requisite technological
literacy skills to effectively manage their children’s e-learning at home. Indeed, many parents
in our sample admitted that they were not very media competent and often relied on their
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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own observations or intuition to supervise their children’s tablet use. Unfortunately, the
much-needed guidance and advice from schools and teachers for parents remained sorely
lacking in the Vietnamese context.
In brief, at the mesosystem level, there was an absence of interactions between the parents
and teachers regarding the children’ tablet use at home. This exacerbated the inconsistency in
expectations between the parents and the teachers in Vietnam and undermined parents’
understanding of early childhood learning through tablet use, which could intensify the
principal but possibly problematic role that parents play in supervising their children’s tablet
use. The parents’ blind emphasis on the tablets’ educational value given their subjective and
naïve understanding of its benefits and risks were also not moderated by the educators in the
mesosystem.
Exosystem influences
An exosystem does not directly involve children but still affects them, such as the family’s
social networks (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Our data showed that the family’s social networks
had some second-order effect influences on Vietnamese pre-schoolers’ access to and use of
tablets to develop early childhood learning. A second-order effect (Bronfenbrenner, 1979)
takes place when the influence of third parties does not directly affect the child, but indirectly
through impacting the parents’ perceptions.
Specifically, the majority of the mothers wished for their pre-schoolers to gain exposure to
digital technologies through their tablet use to keep abreast of the changing world around
them:
“I want her to be updated with the different technologies so that she is aware of them.
Otherwise she will be outdated. I will not want that.” S10, mother of two girls aged 4
and 9
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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That wish intensified among mothers who were initially reluctant about buying a tablet when
they saw other children in the family’s social networks gaining access to the tablet before
their own child did, thus stoking fears of losing out to others even when they were unsure
about the consequences of purchasing one:
"When she saw a few friends gathering around a device, she got curious and asked me
about it. It's a parental instinct to empathise with our child. We want our child to have
things that other kids have, regardless of whether we know it's good or not. Personally
I don't want to, but I felt that I needed to buy [this tablet] for her." S30, mother of a 5-
year-old girl.
The pressure to keep up with other children’s tablet use also applied to accessed content.
Many mothers actively introduced effective educational apps that their children used to other
parents, and/or observed and enquired about educational apps that other children used before
introducing them to their children:
"My child learned to read [Vietnamese alphabets] thanks to this app. [My colleagues]
heard about it and were very interested in hearing me share with them [about the app].
Other kids at this age can only read the 'a' letter or the word 'ba' (daddy). But my child
knows how to read this whole [Consent Form]!" S05, mother of a 4-year-old boy.
Thus, at the exosystem level, the family’s social networks shaped the Vietnamese parents’
wish for their pre-schoolers to gain access and educational benefits from tablet use, which in
turn influenced their actual tablet purchases and supervision of their children’s accessed
content. With social networks come social comparisons and peer pressure. Hence, the much-
vaunted educational value of tablets, even if not ultimately realised in practice, was still
strongly desired by parents in their unyielding quest to ensure that their own children did not
fall behind their peers.
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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Macrosystem influences
The macrosystem is the overarching cultural and social context that affects children most
indirectly (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In this study, Vietnam’s cultural and social contexts
manifested their influence on pre-schoolers’ tablet use for learning in two salient ways: the
valorisation of education for upward social mobility and Vietnam’s stressful education
system, and the paucity of public education for parents despite the popularity of tablet use
among Vietnamese children.
The parents’ enthusiasm for tablets’ educational benefits and their efforts in purchasing and
encouraging the use of educational apps as elaborated upon in the previous sections can be
attributed to the mothers’ perceptions of tablets as a critical educational tool. They saw these
devices as being able to enhance their children’s academic potential, thereby boosting their
chances for future upward social mobility. The valorisation of education in Vietnam
frequently emerged in our findings, and parents were willing to make sacrifices to give their
children the best educational advantages possible. For example, S41 went through
considerable inconvenience to take her 5-year-old daughter to a private English centre
located some distance from home with the hope that her daughter would have a promising
future:
"The [English] classes around [this peripheral district] do not cover good basics [...],
so I want her to take the English class in the city. [It takes us] a 45-minute motorbike
ride [to go from our home to the English class]. [When my child is in the class], I will
visit some drink stall and wait for her, because going back and forth will take too
much time actually [...]. I need to expose her to English [early so] she can learn
English better [at primary school]. [People now] need English certificates to apply for
jobs." S41, mother of a 3-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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Moreover, the Vietnamese mothers’ encouragement of the use of educational apps could be
seen as their strategy to cope with Vietnam’s stressful education system. Some mothers
expressed significant anxieties and even anger about the Vietnamese culture of private tuition
and the heavy workload and stiff competition at school, while some mothers already enrolled
their 5-year-old pre-schoolers in private tuition classes for English, Vietnamese and math.
Given this social trend, the use of tablets as educational tools, with their visually appealing
and entertaining features, that could be easily accessed in the cosy setting of the home, could
be regarded as the most convenient and enjoyable way to arm the child with prior knowledge
before entering the stressful primary school environment. In the words of one mother:
"If your child is about to enter Primary 1, your child will already be expected to know
the [Vietnamese] alphabets in advance, [so] I try to teach her at home. If I just show
her a letter [on a piece of paper], it may be very difficult to remember. But if she
learns the letter on the tablet, she will remember that letter much faster thanks to the
cartoons.” S11, mother of a 4-year-old girl
Second, despite the popularity of tablet use among Vietnamese pre-schoolers at home due to
their low prices and aggressive commercialisation by retailers, the mothers reported being
generally perplexed by tablets and smartphones’ potential effects on their children due to a
sore lack of social scaffolding. No mother mentioned being exposed to, or hearing about, any
public education material regarding the effects of young children’s device use and how
parents should manage it. To better guide themselves in monitoring their children’s device
use, many mothers actively read the news or discussed this matter with relatives, neighbours
and friends to learn more, but with seemingly little success. Some mothers commented that
different news sources contradicted each other about the effects of tablet use and that they
were torn between weighing its benefits and risks, and deciding which sources to trust. As
mentioned previously, there was scarce guidance from the children’s schools, and some
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
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mothers held subjective or speculative understanding of the effects of tablet use. This
situation was further exacerbated when some Vietnamese mothers duly noted the limited
quantity and quality of content and apps that were made specifically for the Vietnamese
market. This stood in stark contrast to an abundance of appealing content and apps from
foreign countries, which caused the mothers considerable difficulties in choosing and
explaining content to their pre-schoolers given their limited command of English and lack of
familiarity with Western popular culture. This notable lack of public education on children’s
touchscreen device use, therefore, signals an urgent need for intervention measures to support
Vietnamese parents’ supervision of their pre-schoolers’ tablet use, failing which they revert
to their own subjective reasoning and naïve understanding of the matter. S42’s quote below
best conveys these challenges that Vietnamese mothers were facing:
“Many [retailers] are competing against one another. I don't think [the creators of
touchscreen devices] want to harm us [...]. This iPad has been here for so long. The
government, the school should have known that kids really like these things. But they
have never warned me about anything. So I just use my own instincts, I let my child
play.” S42, mother of a 1-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl
In brief, at the macrosystem level, the overarching influence of Vietnam’s unique cultural and
social contexts gave us a fuller picture of why Vietnamese parents strongly emphasised the
educational benefits of their pre-schoolers’ tablet use. It also highlighted the dire lack of
public education regarding device use for Vietnamese parents, a discernible failure by public
regulatory agencies to catch up with the aggressive commercialisation and pervasive use of
touchscreen devices.
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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Conclusion
This paper has extended the existing body of literature on pre-schoolers’ touchscreen device
use and early childhood learning by focusing on the understudied research site of Vietnam
with its unique cultural and social contexts. It has also applied Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of
human development to broaden our understanding of the multifaceted influences on pre-
schoolers’ tablet use. Despite the framework’s pertinence (Jordan, 2004), it has hitherto not
been widely applied in studies of children and the media. Our paper goes beyond the question
of whether touchscreen devices are beneficial to pre-schoolers’ early childhood learning to
examine the various meanings and settings of touchscreen device use and the central role that
parents play in supervising touchscreen device use. It also explored other factors outside the
home and school environments that influence touchscreen device use, and how such use
could be better informed and guided at the micro-, meso-, exo- and macrosystem levels.
Consistent with Jordan (2004), our findings suggest that children’s media use and their
parents’ supervision do not exist in separate realms, but in a variety of interconnected
dimensions and systems filled with the richness of everyday life.
We made two key findings. First, Vietnamese parents play a central role in their pre-
schoolers’ tablet use for learning. Due to their dependence on their caregivers, the pre-
schoolers’ access to tablets and content were initiated and heavily influenced by their parents’
supervision. While the children tend to prefer entertainment content, the parents strongly
encourage educational content that would potentially give their children a distinct edge in
educational achievements. The parents’ emphasis on tablets’ educational value was further
reinforced by social comparisons and peer pressure, and Vietnam’s social valorisation of
education for upward social mobility, as well as the strain of the stressful education system.
Second, Vietnamese parents’ monitoring of their pre-schoolers’ touchscreen device use is
contextualised within the unique media landscape of Vietnam, where zealous adoption of
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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foreign digital technologies is undermined by a dearth of local social scaffolding.
Specifically, the commercialisation and popularity of tablets in the Vietnamese home were in
part influenced by aggressive marketing and dominance of foreign electronics giants. Yet the
country’s early childhood education system, public education structures and locally produced
tablet content for children have not kept pace with the growing use of these devices. As such,
many mothers had to rely on informal self-education through reading the news or consulting
relatives and friends, while some mothers held subjective or speculative understandings of
what tablets could do to and for their children, or had difficulty understanding child-oriented
content from foreign countries.
These findings suggest two main implications for research and public education. To kick-start
the use of touchscreen devices in early childhood education and invigorate critical discussion
surrounding touchscreen devices and Vietnamese children, relevant authorities and
organisations in Vietnam should conduct more research and pro-actively intervene to provide
Vietnamese parents and educators with the necessary advice and support, especially on the
extent to which pre-schoolers should use tablets, and how to optimise such use for
educational purposes. Further investigations should also seek to uncover the potential
negative effects of tablet use at such a young age. Content and apps made in Vietnam for
Vietnamese children should be strongly encouraged for greater local relevance and language
compatibility. Research from the US and UK has found that low-performing children gained
more from tablet educational apps, and touchscreen devices can play a bigger role in reading
for enjoyment rather than for performance in assessments (Formby, 2014; Schacter & Jo,
2016; Outhwaite et al., 2017). As well, Jordan et al. (2010) noted that children’s enjoyment
of television viewing could provide them with some learning gains. Hence, at least for now,
Vietnamese parents should be advised to manage their expectations of pre-schoolers’ learning
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and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
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outcomes so that learning through tablets at home will be a joy rather than a chore, so as to
avoid exacerbating the already excessive emphasis on educational achievement in Vietnam.
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This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
31
Figures
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure captions
The child
Microsystem (home, childcare
centre, etc.)
Mesosystem (interconnections
between home & school, parents &
teachers, etc.)
Exosystem (parents' employment,
social networks, etc.)
Macrosystem (cultural &
social contexts)
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
32
Figure 1 caption: Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development
Figure 2 caption: S36 encouraged her 5-year-old son to interact with a maths app during the
observation session.
This is the pre-print version of Pham, B., & Lim, S. S. (2019). Vietnamese pre-schoolerstablet use
and early childhood learning: An ecological investigation. Journal of Children and Media, online
first, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17482798.2019.1613247
!
33
Table
Table 1
Observation notes for S36 and her 5-year-old son.
Child-device
interactions
Device & time
iPad, 15min
Activities on the
device
Practising math skills through an app
(encouraged by the parents), watching
Doraemon videos on YouTube (by
himself)
What the child
does on the tablet
The child knows what he is looking for,
touches the screen at moderate speed.
The parents sit beside the child, trying to
encourage him to use a maths app for the
first half of the observation session, but
the child prefers YouTube so he switches
to YouTube after that.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1 A smart television in this research has the functions of receiving traditional broadcasting
media like a normal television, but can also be used to connect to the Internet for purposes
such as browsing the web, watching online videos, etc.
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