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A Systematic Review of Empowerment in Child-Computer Interaction Research
Maarten Van Mechelen, Line Have Musaeus, Ole Sejer Iversen, Christian Dindler, Arthur Hjorth
Center for Computational Thinking and Design, Aarhus University, Denmark
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Based on a systematic review we explore how empowerment has been articulated in 188 papers in Child-Computer Interaction
(CCI) literature since 2003. Using an existing framework outlining functional, educational, democratic , mainstream, and critical
empowerment, our analysis shows that while empowerment is rarely defined in CCI papers, a wide range of different articulations
coexists. We explore the prevalence of different articulations in the literature and how this has shifted over time. We show that
although empowerment has been part of the CCI discourse since the early days, a shift can be noticed in terms of how
empowerment is articulated from an emphasis on empowerment in its functional meaning towards a more even distribution and
the advent of critical articulations of empowerment. We conclude the paper by looking ahead into a new decade of CCI research
and posing three questions to assist CCI researchers in more clearly articulating the nature and understanding of empowerment.
CCS CONCEPTS •Human-centered computing~Interaction Design~Interaction design theory, concepts and
Additional Keywords and Phrases: Empowerment, Empowering Children, Child-Computer Interaction, CCI Research,
ACM Reference Format:
Maarten Van Mechelen, Line Have Musaeus, Ole Sejer Iversen, Christian Dindler, and Arthur Hjorth. 2021. A Systematic Review of
Empowerment in Child-Computer Interaction Research. In Interaction Design and Children (IDC ’21), June 24–30, 2021, Athens,
Greece. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 12 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3459990.3460701
Empowerment has been a core concern in the Child-Computer Interaction (CCI) community since the early days,
even before the community established its own conference in 2002 and journal in 2013. However, as CCI emerged
as an interdisciplinary research field integrating very different disciplines such as constructionism [54,55],
participatory design (PD) with children [62,77], and learning science [10,32,64], different understandings of the
term empowerment coexist. The heterogeneity is arguably a strength when studying the multifaceted relationship
between children, design and technology. Nonetheless, the interdisciplinarity in CCI literature might also obscure
what is actually understood by empowerment when it is put forth as the desired result of, for instance, active
engagement in the design process  or access to fabrication technologies . Looking beyond CCI research,
empowerment is increasingly used as an overarching goal when implementing strategies for digital literacy and
computing education in K12 education [16,41,47,72,73], and as a general vision for national and transnational
policy-making. In 2020, The European Union formulated a vision for Europe’s digital future envisioning “... A
trustworthy environment in which citizens are empowered in how they act and interact, and of the data they provide
both online and offline” . When empowerment becomes high policy, the need for a nuanced and research-based
understanding of the term is required and the CCI community could contribute to proving the foundation.
In this paper we explore how empowerment has been articulated through CCI research over time. Our aim is not
standardization of the term empowerment, but to deepen and nuance the understanding of the different meanings
of empowerment and how they feature in CCI research. We pursue this aim by conducting a systematic review of
188 short and full papers that include the term ‘empowerment’, thus addressing the research question ‘How does
CCI literature articulate empowerment in relation to children?’.
The paper is structured as follows. First, we provide an account of empowerment in CCI and surrounding research
fields. Against this background, we introduce an existing framework that we use for analyzing different articulations
of empowerment in CCI research. We then describe our methodological considerations for conducting the review
including the selection of papers, the coding process and the limitations of our study. In the final part of the paper,
we present the results of our analysis consisting of two main parts. The first part focuses on the prevalence and
distribution of empowerment in the literature and the second part focuses on different articulations of
empowerment and how these have changed over time. We conclude the paper by discussing the main findings and
provide three guiding questions for the CCI community.
2.1 A brief history of empowerment
The term empowerment was introduced in the 1960s and 1970s by social service providers and researchers, most
notably in the fields of development and community psychology . The aim was to give voice to marginalized
groups and involve them in decision-making processes that affect them in order to ensure their well-being .
Among the many origins of empowerment (e.g., Marxism, Gandhism, Black Power Movement) often cited is Freire’s
seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed  in which he argued that in every society a small number of people
has power over the masses which results in a dominated consciousness. To counterbalance this and attain critical
consciousness, Freire proposed an active teaching approach whereby educators do not merely transmit knowledge
but actively help the oppressed to move from understanding to acting and transforming the world around them
In the context of various social protest movements (e.g. racial minorities, feminism), a more radical discourse on
empowerment emerged in the 1980s. For instance, in his work on racial minorities, Solomon  described
oppression as the blocking of two sources of power: direct and indirect power. Whereas direct power relates to
access to resources, indirect power relates to the experiences of minorities and how these are mediated by
significant others. In order to become empowered, minorities need to recognize their value and ability to meet self-
determined goals by linking them with resources and providing adequate support . Building on this work, Perry
 pointed out that even if skills are gained and goals are met, attitudes can be so deeply rooted in society that
attempts to empower marginalized groups run the risk to be nothing more than superficial. For Perry, true
empowerment goes beyond symbolic power and control and requires the underlying attitudes of the dominant
societal group to be altered .
By the mid-1990s, the term empowerment had entered institutionalized discourse and was increasingly adopted
by Non-Governmental Organizations and policy makers . Empowerment also found its way into the field of
education. On an individual level, education is empowering when people get a sense of their own power as learners
and meaning makers as was shown by Courts  in his study on how language brought self-worth to the illiterate.
Education also has a social dimension and can have a different empowerment potential for different people,
especially when there is a dominant group and a minority. The minority may see education as a means to improve
their status in society, but education can be used to enforce the ruling ideology and prevent the minority from
determining the content of its own education, reinforcing the status quo . By the early 2000s, a domestication of
the term empowerment had taken place, and empowerment was increasingly associated with other approaches
such as democratization, decentralization, and political participation resulting in multiple definitions and
implementations . This led to criticism, not just towards the lack of a clear definition, but also towards the
motives for initiating empowerment and the role of power therein. Empowerment was increasingly being used to
legitimize existing top-down policies and programs, thereby reducing the notion of power to individual and
economic decisions-making, and softening the radical idea of power sharing. Despite this criticism, new grassroots
initiatives have emerged throughout the years that try to reconnect empowerment with its original ideals .
2.2 Tracing empowerment in CCI research
CCI emerged as an interdisciplinary research field integrating very different research disciplines, but broadly
speaking, the use of the term empowerment in CCI has two origins that reflect the community’s transdisciplinary
nature: computing education and PD. In computing education, the use of the term empowerment can be traced back
to Papert  who envisioned early on that computational thinking could empower children to make their own
decisions and shape their lives. He argued that the best way to learn is to build something tangible that is personally
meaningful as it scaffolds the construction of new knowledge (i.e., constructionism), and computers could be a
means to that end. “The role that the computer can play most strongly has little to do with information. It is to give
children a greater sense of empowerment, of being able to do more than they could do before. (...) What you ought to
be learning at school is that you don’t need to be taught in order to learn”, Papert .
Nowadays, there is a general consensus on integrating computational thinking in education with the aim of
empowering children . Along the same lines, Tissenbaum and colleagues  argue that the goal of computing
education is not so much for children to learn about computers, but to promote a computational identity or “the
recognition of oneself as capable of designing and implementing computational solutions to self-identified problems
and opportunities”. Digital empowerment, then, is the ability to put your computational identity into action in
authentic and meaningful ways on issues that matter to you . This resonates with what Kafai and colleagues
 describe as the combination of a cognitive approach to computational thinking, focused on skill and
competence building, and a critical approach focused on children’s agency through the process of creating and
disseminating media content.
In PD, empowerment has been a core value since the 70s and 80s. PD grew out of a commitment to empowering
workers in an increasingly computerized environment. The idea was that those who would use and be impacted by
technology in the workplace should have a critical role in its design . This premise to give workers a voice was
inspired by Marxist rhetoric in which workers were seen as oppressed by structures of the workplace, such as the
top-down implementation of new technologies by management to control work practices . The early PD
practitioners sided with workers to equalize power imbalances when designing for the workplace with the aim to
develop inclusive and democratic solutions, or as Björgvinsson and colleagues  put it: “The main approach in PD
has been to organize projects with identifiable stakeholders within an organization, paying attention to power
relations and the empowerment of resources to weak and marginalized groups; this has been the main rationale for
PD in contributing to democracy at work.” The forms and degrees of participation have varied across projects, as has
workers’ actual influence on the decision-making process. Moreover, the empowerment ideal of PD has existed
alongside more pragmatic rationales, such as improving the knowledge upon which technology is built and enabling
people to develop realistic expectations and reduce resistance to change .
PD’s initial call for empowerment and democracy was tied to a specific historical context in which most technology
was custom-made for the workplace and rather small-scale. In the meantime, technology use has expanded into our
homes and leisure time, which resulted in a proliferation of new technologies and domains that have widened the
scope of PD. It has become increasingly difficult to anticipate all different use practices, both desirable and
undesirable ones, and PD’s focus has shifted from freeing oppressed workers to emancipating people from
alienating technology and improving quality in life .
In CCI research, empowerment has been conceived in Papert’s sense by developing technologies that enable a shift
from learning by instructions to learning by doing , and in accordance to PD values by representing and
respecting children’s interests in technology design . Under the influence of PD, children’s role as passive users
of technology was gradually broadened to that of active participants who collaborate with researchers in the design
of new technology . Druin  was among the first to coin the term empowerment in CCI research a few years
before the first IDC conference. In order to identify what children want and need in new technologies, she and her
colleagues directly worked with children and collaboratively created low-tech prototypes. Druin : “In this way,
we as adult researchers can identify new technology possibilities that might not have been considered otherwise. At
the same time, children who are not well-skilled in the development process can be inspired and empowered by their
collaboration with adults to generate new ideas.” This is especially the case when children have few opportunities
to contribute opinions and be taken seriously by adults. Participating in the design process can furthermore boost
children’s confidence, both socially and academically, as they come to see themselves as more than users of
technology and realize that they can make a difference . This view on children’s role in the design process has
been echoed in many books and articles in the years thereafter [8,28], most notably by Fails and colleagues 
who discuss empowerment as an experience of co-design, and Hourcade  who expresses the need to broaden
target populations and empower disadvantaged children in the research and design process.
At the same time, concerns have been raised about the ways in which PD values are transferred to CCI research and
the extent to which children are truly empowered. In the first edition of the International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (IJCCI), Iversen and Dindler  propose a utopian agenda that rekindles the ideals of democracy,
skillfulness and emancipation found in early PD projects, and show how these ideals resonate with challenges in
CCI research. To realize this utopian agenda, they advocate the role of protagonist whereby children do not only
design technology but “develop new insights, design abilities, and a critical stance towards technology through their
engagement in design work” . Iivari and Kinnula , in turn, critically examined the discourse surrounding
children’s genuine or authentic participation concluding that, despite researchers’ best intentions, children are
often not allowed real responsibility because adults make the final decisions. In a follow-up publication, they
propose guidelines for empowering children in design activities through competence building . This resonates
with Van Mechelen and colleagues [74–76] who extended the objective from technology design to skill development
in order to empower children beyond the design process and prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century.
In the quest of empowering children, attempts have also been made to bridge PD and education. In a book on PD
for learning edited by DiSalvo and colleagues , contributors from across the fields of learning sciences and
design explored how PD can contribute to the development, implementation and sustainability of learning
innovations. In this book, Hoadley  argues that historically the learning sciences have done less well at
empowering learners as opposed to educators. DiSalvo and DesPortes  respond to this challenge by suggesting
the role of meta-designer for the teacher who “creates an educational environment that enables the students to
become active in directing their own learning, usually as part of a project-based learning activity”. They rely on the
work of Ehn  who describes how PD activities become meta-design when researchers provide the required
resources to prompt, support and sustain collective and collaborative inquiry through design.
These pioneering works, books and articles, many of which are published before or outside IDC and IJCCI, show that
empowerment has always been a topic of interest in CCI research. Moreover, as shown in the previous section, this
interest in empowerment did not occur in a vacuum but has to be situated in a broader socio-cultural context.
2.3 Different articulations of empowerment
To account for the nature, prevalence and diversity of empowerment in CCI research, we use an existing framework
of empowerment developed by Kinnula and colleagues in relation to digital technology and children . The
framework, which distinguishes between functional, educational, mainstream, democratic and critical
empowerment, builds on the work of Lukes , Clement , and Hardy and Leiba-O’Sullivan  among others.
It is important to note, that in this study, we use the five forms of empowerment not as exclusive categories but as
a means for identifying the ways in which the CCI literature has articulated empowerment. As demonstrated in the
background section, the work on empowerment in CCI is rich and nuanced and our aim is not to categorize papers.
The framework provides a stable and acknowledged point of reference in terms of exploring how empowerment
has been articulated in different ways within CCI research and to identify tendencies in terms of how the use of
empowerment has changed over time. Kinnula et al. outline identify the five forms of empowerment as follows:
Functional empowerment, wants to improve people’s life-conditions in service of organizational goals. For instance,
by enabling people to do their tasks more effectively and efficiently by the use of better technological tools. Similar
to mainstream empowerment, functional empowerment does not liberate people from those in power, nor does it
allow people to set goals themselves, which are assumed to be shared by all unproblematically .
Educational or competence empowerment, focuses on skill and competence building to improve people’s ability to
participate in society, leading to richer intellectual lives, better socio-economic status and improved quality of life.
In line with mainstream and functional empowerment, educational empowerment does not liberate people from
those in power, nor does it allow people to set goals themselves .
Democratic empowerment, sees empowerment as people’s right and ability to participate in all decisions affecting
their lives. Whereas mainstream empowerment can result in false consensus, democratic empowerment distributes
power equally among stakeholders. It questions the assumption that everyone with a keen interest can participate
in decision-making processes because even if they do, the agenda is often confined to safe questions determined by
more powerful stakeholders behind the scenes . In line with critical empowerment, this form is idealistic in that
it tends to neglect organizational goals and practicalities .
Mainstream empowerment sees empowerment as a tool for motivating people to strive for organizational goals by
giving them some power in how to achieve these goals, which are assumed to be shared by everyone. Although
people are granted more responsibilities with reduced supervision, their autonomy is constrained and initiated
from the top down . Hence, mainstream empowerment does not liberate people from those in power, nor does
it allow people to set goals themselves .
Critical empowerment, enables people without power (i.e., the oppressed) to combat those in power (i.e., the
oppressors), and achieve power this way. Since power can be used to prevent conflict from emerging in the first
place and perpetuate the status quo, critical empowerment does not confine itself to observable conflict. Rather, it
raises awareness about the circumstances of those who lack power, enabling them to move from understanding to
action [30,49]. This idealistic view of empowerment does not encourage collaborative development between
stakeholders (i.e., those with and without power), and neglects organizational goals and practicalities in
The five forms of empowerment described here are not necessarily exhaustive nor are they undisputable. We chose
this framework as the basis for our analysis for two main reasons. First, it was developed for addressing different
forms of empowerment within schools and in relation to digital technology, and thus with actors and contexts that
are central also to CCI. Second, the framework synthesizes several existing theoretical positions related to
empowerment, and hence it reflects a significant breadth which is useful for capturing the different articulations
present in the CCI literature.
3.1 Paper selection and data extraction
For this review we include all full and short papers from the IDC proceedings between 2003, when the 1st IDC
proceedings were published, and 2020, and all articles from the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction
(IJCCI) between 2013, the start of the journal, and 2020. We consider IDC and IJJCI to be the primary international
venues for CCI research. The aim of the review is to understand how empowerment has been articulated in the
literature over time. We thereby look at the level of sentences that contain the word stem ‘empower*’. An
interprofessional research team consisting of representatives from PD, Cultural Studies, Interaction Design, and
Computing Education collected and analyzed the papers. First, we downloaded all IDC full and short papers from
the ACM Digital Library and all IJCCI articles from the Elsevier database, resulting in 646 papers (481 IDC and 165
IJCCI). By developing and applying a Python script that automatically extracted all sentences across these papers
that contained the word stem empower*, all relevant papers were obtained. This search query allowed us to include
all derived words of empower* (e.g., empowered, empowering). The entire paragraph in which each sentence
occurred was also extracted and put in an Excel sheet. We excluded all instances of empower* in references, titles,
tables, keywords and acknowledgments, because these are either irrelevant or are do not constitute sentences
embedded in paragraphs. This resulted in a total of 188 papers (124 IDC and 64 IJCCI) with 582 sentences (399 IDC
and 183 IJCCI) obtained for analysis.
3.2 Coding process
The sentences, and the paragraphs in which they occurred, were coded using the framework presented by Kinnula
and colleagues  presented above using the five forms of empowerment (functional, educational, democratic,
mainstream, and critical) as coding categories. The research team familiarized themselves with the empowerment
framework in a joint discussion. The team then wrote and iteratively refined a coding manual in the following
manner: All team members first coded the same 10 randomly selected sentences on their own. The whole team then
met, discussed disagreements, and refined the coding manual. After two such iterations, the agreement among the
team members was sufficiently high, and the final coding manual was produced. Two team members then coded all
sentences independently of each other. Coders would read the sentence and assign the code (e.g. democratic or
critical). If the context given by the sentence was ambiguous or insufficient, coders would read the paragraph, and
if this still was insufficient, the researchers would consult the whole paper before assigning a code. The individual
coding of the full dataset was undertaken by two researchers who independently coded each sentence as belonging
exclusively to one of the five categories. In cases where a sentence could be coded as belonging to more than one
category, researchers coded only for the category that seemed most central to the way in which empower* was
used in the sentence. A few (5%) of the articulations of empowerment could not be assigned to any of the five
categories, hence, was not included in the study.
3.3 Inter-rater reliability
Any agreement of categories for each sentence was recorded, and an Inter-Rater Reliability (IRR) across coders was
established. We obtained an IRR of 0.85 (Cohen’s Kappa, SE: 0.02, 0.95 confidence interval) . This range value
can be interpreted as an almost perfect agreement according to McHugh . Of the 582 sentences, the two coders
disagreed on a total of 62. We extracted disagreement data in order to assess whether there was an underlying
systematicity to the disagreement. For the majority (>50%) of the disagreements, coder 1 labelled sentences as
educational, whereas coder 2 labelled the same sentences as democratic. This is not surprising since when children
are empowered in a democratic sense, it often happens in an educational context. While our IRR is more than
sufficient, this could still suggest some degree of conceptual vagueness or ambiguity which in turn could suggest
future work on conceptual disambiguation of the term empowerment.
The overarching goal of this study is to understand how notions of empowerment of children are used within CCI
literature, but our methods introduce a number of limitations. First, we did not rely on a well-established systematic
review protocol [3,58,59,70] but instead developed our own protocol that we believe was best suited to address
the research question. Second, we only selected papers from IDC and IJCCI, and there are of course conferences and
journals whose focus areas overlap with, or are adjacent to, these venues, and where many of the authors of the
included papers publish their work. Some examples are the ACM CHI conference, the Journal of the Learning
Sciences, and the International Conference of the Learning Sciences. Understanding every included researchers’ use
and understanding of empowerment would necessitate a much wider reading of their work across conference
proceedings and journals. With this study, we can therefore only speak to the use of empower* in the CCI community
to the degree to which the IDC proceedings and IJCCI reflect that. Third, when deciding to include or exclude papers,
we focused specifically on the term empowerment in order to maintain a manageable corpus and results that could
realistically be reported within the space available. However, research can embody empowering aspects without
explicitly using the term. Indeed, there are many terms that could be seen as synonymous or conceptually
overlapping with empowerment, such as emancipatory, participatory, democratizing etc. As a consequence, papers
that include elements of empowerment but do not explicitly use the term, are absent in our data. Fourth and finally,
we chose to code each instance of empowerment as belonging to only one category on the basis of the primary
meaning of the sentence. However, some instances could be argued to belong to several categories. Our high IRR
shows that using our coding manual when identifying the primary category was a reliable method, but we
acknowledge that there may have been nuances in the understanding of empowerment that a sentence deploys that
were lost in the coding process. These limitations may have hampered the construct and internal validity of our
systematic review, and if we were to generalize the finding beyond IDC and IJCCI, also its external validity .
We present our results in two main parts. First, we present data from a period ranging from the first IDC
proceedings in 2003 over the first IJCCI papers in 2013 to the latest of both in 2020, and address the prevalence of
the term empowerment over time. Second, we apply the five categories of empowerment to explore how
empowerment has been articulated across the corpus and over time.
4.1 Empowerment over time
4.1.1 Incidence of empower* in our dataset.
We identified and coded a total of 582 sentences within 188 papers. There was a clear increase in the number of
papers using empowerment over time. However, we have to take into account that there is also an increase in the
total number of papers published in the IDC-proceedings and IJCCI over time. In Figure 1, we see both the total
number of papers published in IDC proceedings in IJCCI, and also the absolute number of papers in IDC and IJCCI
using the term empower* represented per year. The number of papers containing the term empower* increases
substantially during the years, as do the total number of papers in IDC and IJCCI. We coded a total of 582 sentences,
across 188 papers, which raises the question of how sentences using empower* are distributed across papers. Table
1 below shows the frequency distribution of sentences across the 188 papers that were included in our dataset.
In the table, we see that almost half (93 out of 188 papers), use the term empower* only once. One fifth of the papers
use the term twice (37 papers), and nearly one out of ten papers use the term three times (16 papers). It is important
to note that empower* is being used as many as 61 times in just one paper . Having papers with that many
mentions of empower* will result in huge fluctuations when looking at absolute numbers that may not reflect
meaningful changes in the use of the term in CCI literature at large. Due to the varying number of papers published
across years and the variance in the number of sentences using empower* within papers, we will present the results
as the amount of papers in proportion of the total number of papers published each year in the rest of this section.
Table 1: Frequency distribution of sentences with empower* per paper.
No of empower*
sentences in each paper
No of papers
4.1.2 Prevalence of empower* over time per paper.
Given the considerations described above, we look at the proportion of papers per year that contain empower* at
least once in Figure 2. This figure shows the fraction of IDC and IJCCI papers that contained the term empower*
relative to all IDC and IJCCI papers published that year. Thus, 0.25 would indicate that a quarter of the papers
Figure 1 (left): Total number of papers (blue) and number of papers containing empower* (orange). Figure 2 (right): Proportion of
papers containing empower* per year.
published in IDC and IJCCI that year contained the term empower* corresponding to 25%. Having converted the
absolute number of papers to proportions, we clearly see that the term empower* have been part of the CCI
community discourse from early days. These papers represent up to 39% of all papers from IDC and IJCCI in 2018.
4.2 Articulations of empowerment
In this section we explore how empowerment has been articulated using the framework of Kinnula and colleagues
. We present the use of empower* for each of the five categories and how the use of empower* in IDC and IJCCI
papers has evolved over time. When presenting our results, we do however need to raise some methodological
considerations. As seen previously in Table 1, almost half of all papers use empower* more than once, raising the
question of how to count those papers. If we report on individual uses of empower*, those papers that use
empower* more than once will be over counted. In the rest of this section, we therefore sum the uses of empower*
to one per paper. Nearly three quarters of all papers uses empower* in a meaning falling into just one category,
approximately one fifth of the papers use the term in meanings belonging to two different categories, less than one
out of twenty papers use empower* in three different categories, and none of the papers uses empower* in four or
five categories. When calculating proportions of papers that use empower*, we divide each occurrence of empower*
by the number of different meanings of empower* in a paper. So, if one paper uses empower* in two different
meanings, each one counts for half, and if it uses three different meanings, each one counts for one third.
Consequently, papers always count for one, regardless of how many times and in how many different meanings
they use empower*.
With this established, we want to know how often, across the entire corpus of published IDC and IJCCI papers, we
see each category of empower* used. Figure 3 shows the proportion of papers that use the term in each of the five
categories. We see an unequal distribution in how empower* is used in IDC and IJCCI papers. The two most common
meanings relate to a functional or educational category of the term. Between 30-35% of the papers use empower*
to mean, respectively, functional or educational, making up nearly 70% of the corpus. Of the remaining one -third,
most of the papers use empower* in the democratic sense (23%). Finally, the mainstream category makes up 8%
of the uses of empower*, and critical only just nearly half of that, namely 3%.
Figure 3 (left): The distribution of papers according to category Figure 4 (right): Proportions of categories used in papers and
represented per year.
4.2.1 Use of empower* by category, over time.
We now want to look at changes over time in the way in which empower* is used. Hence, per year we calculated the
proportion of papers that use empower* in each of the five meanings. The results have been normalized to the total
number of papers per year, as discussed above. The results can be seen in Figure 4, which shows a number of
interesting things. First, how prevalent the functional category was during the first half of reviewed CCI literature
(from 2003 to 2011). In some years this was the only meaning of the term empower*. Secondly, in the first years
we see neither mainstream nor critical (from 2003 to 2007) and while mainstream appears in 2008, it maintains a
relatively small proportion per year with the exception of some years in which it does not appear at all. Thirdly, the
critical category does not appear until 2016. Although the critical category constitutes a small proportion of the
papers using the term empower* it has been consistent within the last five years.
As mentioned above, our review found a total of 582 sentences that included the term empower* in CCI literature.
Despite the frequency and the tendency to include empowerment as a concern in CCI research, we found that only
five out of 188 included papers present a definition or theoretical framing of empowerment, and none of these
papers were published prior to 2015. The first one is an IJCCI paper by Yarosh  who asserts that definitions of
empowerment vary depending on the theoretical perspective of the author. She uses a definition posited by
Gutierrez  which was developed in the context of coping with stressful life events, and includes both cognitive
and social psychology elements. Here, empowerment is defined as “increasing self-efficacy, developing a critical
consciousness of one’s role in the social order, developing specific skills to enact change, and involvement and
identification with similar others.” The same definition is used in a 2020 IDC paper , co-authored by Yarosh, that
suggests three ways in which future IDC research can attend to children’s empowerment: as a quality of design for
children, in the research and design process, and as data empowerment  . Andersen and Pitkänen  in
turn rely on Freire’s seminal work ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in their IJCCI paper, defining empowerment as
“making people stronger, increasing their self-confidence, ability, and power to control their own life” . The final
two papers, presented at IDC 2018 and 2020 [37,69] refer to the empowerment framework developed by Kinnula
and colleagues  that we also used in this study to scrutinize different articulations of empowerment. Moreover,
both papers are co-authored by Kinnula and/or Iivari who developed the framework, meaning that definitions and
theoretical perspectives of empowerment in CCI literature can be traced back to only a few authors.
Despite the scarcity of definitions, we can track the different articulations of empowerment using the framework
presented earlier . Our goal is to gain a better understanding of empowerment in the CCI literature. Even though
we have a high inter-rater reliability, we acknowledge that there is a wide variety in the descriptions even within
the same category, which we will address below. However, the empowerment framework is a useful tool for
understanding the frequency and tendency throughout the years in relation to the different categories.
4.2.2 Functional articulations of empowerment.
The functional articulations of empowerment include all sentences in which empowerment is conceived as
providing better technological tools that help children achieve top-down defined goals, often of an educational
nature. Our study revealed that 32% of the papers using empower* use it primarily in a functional sense, making
this category one of the two most frequently used interpretations of empowerment in CCI literature. The prevalence
of the functional category is perhaps unsurprisingly high, as IDC historically is grounded in the human-computer
interaction tradition in which emphasis is put on novel interfaces and interaction design. A temporal analysis of the
functional category indicates that its prevalence is highest during the first half of time span analyzed (from 2003 to
2011). In fact, in the years 2004, 2005 and 2010 this was the only meaning of the term empower*. Within the
category of functional empowerment, CCI papers generally address how advances in digital technology can
empower children. An archetypical example of this relationship between digital technology and children is found
in : “This paper reports on an exploratory prototype called Studio, which is an authoring environment aimed at
empowering children to create their own games and animations, while using no code blocks, very little text, and no
knowledge of programming constructs like loops or branches.” Here, the Studio authoring environment provides new
functions for children to express themselves in games and animations which, according to the authors, can lead to
child empowerment . This is also found in  where authors introduce “... Scratch Memories a new data driven
web-based system that empowers children to celebrate and reflect on their creative journey with Scratch, an online
community for programming and sharing interactive projects.”
4.2.3 Educational articulations of empowerment.
The educational articulations include all sentences in which empowerment is conceived as offering children
important skills and competencies. The prevalence of the educational category in CCI literature is 34% making it
the most commonly used category in CCI research together with the functional category. CCI’s strong rooting in the
learning sciences and constructionism, most notably by the work of Papert [54,56], is a plausible explanation for
why the education category is widely represented and distributed in IDC proceedings and IJCCI with a few
exceptions (2004, 2005 and 2010). In the educational category, we analyzed different articulations of
empowerment related to children. In some cases, technology provides means for children to empower their own
learning process. As an example,  describes how electronic whiteboards in kindergarten can lead to
empowerment in learning: “From the first perspective, our goal is to introduce more children-friendly tools to
empower learning.” Here, empowerment is directed towards children’s individual learning process. In other cases,
we found that empowerment is more concerned with the educational setup such as new subject matters, new class-
room settings or new technologies. An example of this articulation is found in  emphasizing how a new
curriculum is empowering children: “Today, the current drive in many countries to teach design and technology
competences to all has the potential to empower and support creative learning activities to support problem solving
concept.” Educational articulations are also found in CCI literature related to the engagement of children in PD
processes. Here, emphasis is on the informal skills and social interaction as in : Many researchers feel that the
process of participatory design is just as important as the outcome. Indeed, taking part in participatory design can be
an enriching and empowering experience, especially for children, as they learn new skills and ways of interacting.”
4.2.4 Democratic articulations of empowerment.
The democratic category includes all sentences in which empowerment is primarily conceived as children’s rights
and ability to participate in decisions affecting their lives, often in a design context. Democratic articulations are
primarily found in relation to the engagement of children in the design of digital technologies which has been a
hallmark of CCI literature since the very beginning. Consequently, democratic articulations are represented over a
significant part of the timespan from 2003-2020 with the exception of some years (2004-2008, 2010, 2012).
Democratic articulations of empowerment include pragmatic viewpoints of children's engagement in design
processes. This is found in  stating that children gain democratic empowerment by engaging in the design of
future technologies: “In contrast, for children located in the same geographic area as technology designers, many
widely-accepted methods exist for empowering users to direct the creation of the products they will ultimately use.” In
other articulations, democratic empowerment is more concerned with a political agenda of participation in which
child engagement in itself can raise awareness of their presence in the world. This is found in many recent
articulations of democratic empowerment such as in : “Further, it confirms and extends work on participatory
design that shifts focus from participant empowerment and the act of democratizing design towards how the
experience of engaging in participatory design can shape participants, their emerging view of themselves, and their
identities and relationship to their world.”
4.2.5 Mainstream articulations of empowerment.
The mainstream articulations of empowerment include all sentences in which empowerment is conceived as
helping parents, teachers, and other caregivers in achieving their goals which, from children’s perspective, are
defined from the top down. In this way, mainstream articulations differ significantly from the other articulations as
empowerment here is indirectly connected to children and always through actions of caretakers, teachers or
parents. Mainstream empowerment appears in IDC and IJCCI papers in 2008, 2012-2013 and again from 2015
onwards and is thus significantly present in CCI research - and especially in the past decade. An significant part of
the mainstream articulations is concerned with how CCI research can provide adults with new technologies for
supporting children’s formal learning processes such as in  “...The proposed methodology within this paper
enables researchers to transfer the technology they have developed into schools in a realistic way by empowering a
number of classroom teachers to use the technology in their everyday practice”. Other publications emphasize
technologies to support parents in supporting children’s informal teaching and learning as in  “Similar
statements indicated that parents felt empowered to teach their children because of the teaching and learning
resources provided by the intervention materials.”
4.2.6 Critical articulations of empowerment.
In 2016 and onward, critical articulations of empowerment emerged in IDC and IJCCI papers. The critical view
includes all sentences in which empowerment is conceived as children developing a critical stance towards
technology and are actively supported in shaping their own lives and environment. The critical articulation of
empowerment resonates well with the idea, that children should not only engage in designing their future
technology as testers, users or co-designers . Rather, as proposed by , children should be admitted access
to all processes around design of future technology, including a critical stance towards digital technology and their
implications. This approach also emerged around 2016 in IDC and IJCCI research. Critical empowerment
articulations most often relate to children being critical towards the technology itself such as in  “Future work
should also investigate how creative uses of ML could empower youth to investigate, understand, and critically analyze
ML systems in the world, such as those used in facial recognition, voice detection, and image parsing.” Critical
articulations can also be directed more specifically towards the impact of digital technology such as in : “They
[children] felt empowered to not only change their environment (clean neighborhood) and build whatever they want
(a bench) but also cope with their situation (living in a refugee camp in occupied territory).” The critical
empowerment articulations are both present in research related to design processes and design outcomes, such as
in digital technology prototypes. However, this particular way of articulating empowerment is less frequent and
thus not as well established as many of the other articulations presented in this paper.
The aim of this systematic review was to address how CCI literature has articulated empowerment in relation to
research of and design for children, and to look for prevalence, distribution and development throughout the past
18 years. We were interested in finding trends and tendencies within CCI literature to primarily mature our
research field and secondly to support the increasing use of ‘empowerment’ in policy-making and in curriculum
development world-wide. Based on the results presented above, several points warrant discussion.
5.1 Empowerment is frequently used but few definitions are provided
Our results show that empowerment has been part of the discourse of IDC since the first published proceedings,
which confirms an earlier study by Yarosh and colleagues . Moreover, the term is used substantially over time
and not just in absolute numbers but also proportionally. This means that, when we take into account the larger
number of published papers in recent years and the fact that some papers contain more than one mention of
empowerment, we still see a significant use of the term empowerment between 2003 and 2020.
Only very few definitions and theoretical framings of the term empowerment are provided in CCI literature
[2,37,43,69,82]. The lack of clarity of the term empowerment in CCI research is noteworthy. As accounted for in the
background section, the theories and understandings of empowerment in other related research areas are
extensive and accessible to the CCI community. Being an interdisciplinary research field, CCI has a long tradition for
integrating theoretical concepts from related research to substantiate emerging CCI research in well-consolidated
related research on children, technology or interaction. Nevertheless, empowerment in past and present literature
seems ill-defined and risks becoming merely a slogan when designing for or with children. As a consequence, CCI
as a research community, risks referring to different and equally important understandings of empowerment that
are becoming increasingly opaque. In this regard, the use of the term empowerment in CCI literature arguably
reflects the domestication of the term in society at large. Nowadays, empowerment is frequently used as a synonym
for related approaches (e.g., decentralization, democratization, political participation) , and the motives for
initiating empowerment and the role of power therein are often obfuscated. This has led to criticism, because
empowerment may become a means to legitimize top-down policies and programs, thereby reducing the very idea
of power-sharing .
5.2 Several interpretations of empowerment coexist
When we look at the articulations of empowerment, the functional (32%) and educational (34%) categories are
most represented, followed by democratic (23%), mainstream (8%) and critical (3%). This distribution among the
five categories reflects the transdisciplinary nature of CCI as well as the historical use of the term empowerment in
computing education and PD. In computing education, empowerment was conceived in a functional and educational
sense by developing technological tools that enable a shift from learning by being told to learning by doing .
This idea goes back to Papert who, in the late 70s and early 80s, envisioned that computing could empower children
as active learners who shape their lives . The finding of the use of functional and educational empowerment as
the most used categories reflects this tradition in computing education. Indeed, looking at the design work in CCI,
much of this aims to provide either coding or construction tools for children or to provide technology for
CCI research also has a tradition of empowering children by representing and respecting their interests in
technology design, which it inherited from PD . Starting before the first IDC conference, children’s role was
gradually broadened from passive users and testers of technology to that of active participants who collaborate
with adult researchers and designers [17,28] and protagonists who develop new competencies and a critical stance
towards technology through their engagement in design work [35,40]. Finding democratic and critical
empowerment in little over one fourth of uses of the term in published CCI papers, reflects the PD tradition. We
were surprised by this relatively low number compared to the functional and educational articulations which
together represent two thirds of uses of the term empowerment. While this paper does not intend to take a
normative stance on the definition of empowerment, we expected this number to be higher given the emphasis on
actively involving children in technology design in pioneering works, books and articles published before and/or
outside IDC and IJCCI publications [8,18,22,33]. A possible explanation is the use of related concepts (e.g. active
involvement, partnering with, emancipation) by CCI researchers to describe children’s participation that were not
accounted for in this review. It is also noteworthy that democratic empowerment includes a wide range of practices
in CCI literature, ranging from pragmatic approaches that primarily aim to develop better technology [60,78] to
political approaches that, in line with the Scandinavian PD tradition in which democratic and critical empowerment
are historically interlinked, emphasize long lasting impact beyond the design process [12,37,40].
5.3 From an emphasis on functional empowerment to a more even distribution
When we look at the representation of the five categories over time in CCI literature, there was a heavy skew
towards papers articulating empowerment in a functional sense in the first decade, whereas mainstream and
critical empowerment were almost absent, but this is no longer the case. There are many possible explanations, one
of which is related to the zeitgeist that characterized the early years of IDC conferences when technology pervaded
children’s everyday life and learning. The initial focus on providing tools and improving access to and usability of
digital technology, gradually shifted towards studying the larger ecology and impact of technology on children. As
previously mentioned, a similar evolution towards an emphasis on the ‘human’ side of technology could be
witnessed in the field of human-computer interaction at large to which IDC conferences were closely linked in the
early years [67,68]. Since then, CCI research has moved from providing digital tools (i.e., functional) to providing
support for teachers and other professionals who work with children (i.e., mainstream) and nourishing a critical
stance towards technology (i.e., critical), while the attention for competence building (i.e., educational) and giving
children a say in technology design (i.e., democratic) has remained more or less constant. This has resulted in a
more equal use of empowerment in its functional, democratic and educational sense in recent years. Despite their
significant increase, mainstream and critical empowerment are still the least represented categories. Moreover, the
increased attention to critical empowerment can be largely attributed to the work of Kinnula and Iivari who not
only addressed the lack of conceptual clarity regarding empowerment [36,46], but also argued for more critical
design in CCI research [37,44,45,48].
5.4 Looking into the new decade of CCI research
Summing up, the term empowerment has always been part of the discourse and is widely used in CCI, albeit with a
shift in meaning. In the first decade, the ‘infancy phase’ of CCI, there was a heavy focus on empowerment in its
functional meaning but in the second decade, the ‘teenage phase’, there was a tendency towards less functional and
a more equal distribution of different forms of empowerment and, noteworthy, critical empowerment made its
entry. In the current decade, the ‘adult phase’ of CCI, the community is arguably faced with the challenge of maturing
by being more explicit about the precise meaning of empowerment and its objectives in relation to children. This is
not to say that one form of empowerment is better than another or that other ways of articulating empowerment
than those used in this paper are not fruitful. As a first step in this maturing process, we propose the following three
questions as a means for the CCI community to better articulate and reflect on their understanding of empowerment
as a concern in research and design:
• What is your definition or conceptualization of empowerment?
• Who are you aiming to empower, how (i.e., the means) and to what end?
• How do you account for and evaluate if you have reached your goals?
Our systematic review of 188 papers from the IDC proceedings series and IJCCI demonstrates that empowerment
is a widely used term in relation to children, their participation in design and digital technology. Our study shows
that despite the prevalence of empowerment in the literature, the notion is seldomly defined. This is striking when
considering that CCI research usually consolidates its main conceptions with theoretical backing from surrounding
research communities. As accounted for in the background section, there is a very nuanced understanding of
empowerment and its wider implications available in social sciences and humanities. Our study also reveals that
many different articulations of empowerment coexist within CCI research. We coded for functional, educational,
democratic, mainstream, and critical articulations of empowerment and found a more equal distribution within the
latest five years of CCI research even though critical empowerment accounts for a minor part. Moreover, our study
shows that even within each of these five broad categories, a wider range of articulations of empowerment is
detected. Our findings have two wider implications. First, the many different and unaccounted articulations of
empowerment might obscure what is actually understood by empowerment when it is put forth as the desired aim
or end-goal. Second, CCI might not currently provide the service expected by national institutions or transnational
organizations when implementing empowerment in school curriculum or in high policy visions. In this sense, our
findings are a call for action for CCI research. Without jeopardizing our interdisciplinary lenses on children, design
and technology and thus our multi-voiced understanding of empowerment, we must provide the information
needed to understand how empowerment is articulated, who is the subject of empowerment and how we evaluate
to what extend empowerment is achieved in the particular context.
This work has been funded by VILLUM FONDEN grant no 28831 and It-Vest networking universities grant no AU-
SELECTION AND PARTICIPATION OF CHILDREN
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