Meet Detective Dot, the most unlikely member of the CIA (Children’s Intelligence Agency). She’s an eight-year-old coder who uses her tech skills to solve the world’s problems. But coding isn’t her only asset. Dot has a special power: She can talk to objects. She can talk to a mobile phone and instantly know if its parts have been come from illegal mines in Africa. If Dot meets a T-shirt, it takes her only a split second to deduce whether child labor was involved in making it.
No case is too complex and no code too hard for Dot to hack, and she is determined to fight them all. But it’s not all work and no play: This brown-skinned girl with big dark eyes is an incurable geek who loves robots and rocks Minecraft.
Sophie Deen is the brain behind the Detective Dot series, a print and digital book as well as an app coming out this May from Bright Little Labs, the UK-based education company Deen founded last year.
Hence the birth of Detective Dot. Dot will counter stereotypes in children’s media while encouraging kids ages seven to nine and their families to reconsider their consumption habits. Deen explains, “A supermarket aisle is full of products that are bought all over the world. They all have stories, but sometimes very grim ones… Children need to know about the big picture behind these products. Forty percent of children don’t know that milk comes from a cow. They think it’s just grown in supermarkets.”
Deen worked at the intersection of coding and education for years before starting Bright Little Labs last April. Running a computer training program for primary school teachers in the UK, she struggled to make tech skills available to more children. “Children, particularly girls and minorities, need positive role models in areas like engineering, science, technology, arts, and math.” she says.
Apparently Deen was not alone in her frustration. Detective Dot’s Indiegogo campaign exceeded its £12,500 goal within weeks.
Deen is emblematic of a growing appetite for more diversity and less traditional content for young people. Independently created books and on-demand videos are taking children’s media by storm. In Nigeria, Queens of Africa dolls are outselling Barbie, and there is a black Disney princess now.
Ruby, another geeky female character, teaches children how to code. Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding, a book and app developed by Finnish programmer Linda Liukas, raised almost $400,000 on Kickstarter in 2014. Liukas uses storytelling to introduce kids ages four to eight to the basic concepts behind coding and programming.
While Deen acknowledges some progress has been made, she says it isn’t nearly enough: “Even when there’s a ‘geek girl’ in a cartoon or book, this girl is usually portrayed as a socially awkward, weird girl that nobody likes… It’s such a waste when girls and minorities cannot find positive role models in the media. At the moment, only 10 percent of the workforce in technology is female or has a minority background. Imagine the lost and untapped potential.”
It’s no secret that children’s brains are like sponges. Research shows that girls are more likely than boys to take media messages to heart. Viewing images of powerful women in the media also helped decrease women’s negative self-perceptions and increased their leadership aspirations, including in areas like science and technology.
Vicky Brook is the director of E-bop.tv, an ad-free online children’s TV channel that is trying to create more balanced and ethical on-demand content for children. According to Brook, “Traditional children’s media relies on advertisement revenues. Even if the content is created more sensitively, the messages in the advertisements can still influence children negatively.”
So even when the mainstream media make an effort to produce content that is relatable to girls and minorities, traditional revenue systems often get in the way of that goal. In the United States, the average hour of television is 36 percent advertising, and children’s shows aren’t exempt from this.
The good news? In an increasingly connected and digital world, children who have internet access no longer have to put up with this. With the rise of digital platforms like Amazon Kindle, YouTube, and Netflix, millions of children and adults now have alternatives to traditional media and aparadigm shift is taking place in the global media landscape that is altering people’s media consumption habits. Millions of children around the world are ditching TV for computers and tablets. On average, children spend more than six hours a day in front of screens and are more likely to watch something on a tablet than a television. Last week, 93 percent of kids read an ebook.
The proliferation of channels and platforms is also opening up distribution possibilities. Independent producers like Deen and Brook, who lack the big budgets of commercial broadcasters, can now create meaningful media and also attract an audience.
There are more than 3 billion people online but, Deen explains, it’s not the new platforms nor the ease of producing digital content that is driving this paradigm shift—it’s consumer demand. “People are tired of seeing the same old messages and stereotypes in TV and books,” Deen says. “More and more people, including children, are realizing there’s a diversity issue in the media.” Market research shows that consumer awareness and interest in social responsibility and sustainability has never been higher.
Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which help many independent media producers like Deen source their revenues, reaffirm the growing call from consumers seeking alternative children’s content. The demand to eliminate stereotypes isn’t limited to children’s stories. Recently, a mother who was frustrated that her daughter couldn’t find an astronaut costume for girls established BuddingSTEM, a girls’ clothing line that celebrates science, space, and dinosaurs. It raised more than $70,000 on Kickstarter.
Although demand is growing, it might take years before mainstream media and publishers catch up to it thanks to print publishing’s lengthy production cycles and complex internal processes. But with digital media, projects can happen more quickly. Independent production companies and individuals unencumbered by bureaucracy can produce ebooks and videos in a matter of weeks.
That said, digital media’s reach is still nowhere as large as that of traditional media. Even with the advantages of a decentralized digital media environment, the issue of the digital divide remains. Despite rising internet penetration, according to Deen, only 40 percent of the world is online. “More than half of the population cannot access the internet and thus are completely unrepresented.”
There’s no doubt that people want more female coders and geeky princesses. But even in advanced nations like the United States, where more than 80 percent of the population has internet access, getting online remains out of reach for millions of people from poor and undereducated backgrounds. The digital entertainment revolution for children is underway but despite the dizzying growth of global internet usage, it might take decades for digital children’s content to reach every child. If anyone is going to help tackle and solve this it’s Detective Dot.
Originally published by the Bright. Illustration belongs to the mentioned startup.