Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives

It is methodologically challenging to try to find out the everyday lives of young children. As a response, Lydia Plowman and Olivia Stevenson have developed a novel approach asking parents to send the researchers combined picture and text messages to provide ‘experience snapshots’ of their child’s activities.

The paper “Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives” (2012) sets out the approach. There were four key problems that Plowman and Stevenson wanted to address in trying to understand more about everyday lives of young children:  i) their visits to family homes were generally during weekday working hours and so they could not be sure that what they observed was typical, ii) family homes do not easily lend themselves to participant research by outsiders, iii) the three- and four-year-old children who were the focus of their research were not able to remember some of the activities they had been involved in, or describe them fully, and iv) they wanted to know more about children’s activities beyond the home.

In order to address the challenge, they asked parents to send them combined picture and text messages using their own phones’ media capture functionality to provide a visual diary of family activities. The paper describes the procedure they developed to use this approach in their study ‘Toys and Technologies’:

“We sent text prompts six times at varying intervals between 09.00 and 17.00 on the pre-arranged Saturdays and parents were asked to respond within thirty minutes with a picture message of their child along with text stating i) their location, ii) who they were with, and iii) what they were doing, with the option of a reply saying that a picture was not possible. We did not ask them to focus on anything in particular, simply whatever their child was doing when they received the prompt. The leaflet stated ‘It doesn’t matter what is happening at the time – your child might be watching the television, going somewhere or just doing nothing much at all. There is no need to set up the photo – it can just be spontaneous.’ We confirmed receipt of each message. ‘” (Plowman and Stevenson, p. 542-543).

In another paper “Researching Young Children’s Everyday Uses of Technology in the Family Home” (2015), Plowman introduces and situates the technique of the mobile phone diaries within an ecocultural approach (Section 5.2.2) as well as introducing other approaches to research with young children and digital practices in the home.

Plowman L. & Stevenson O. (2012) Using mobile phones to explore children’s everyday lives. Childhood 19 (4) 539-553. (can be downloaded from Plowman’s academia site at or from the journal website at

Plowman L. (2014) Researching children’s everyday uses of technology in the family home. Interacting with Computers 27 (1) 36-46. (can be downloaded here at Plowman_2014).


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