Associate Professor at the Institute for Media Studies
What are you currently working on?
I am currently studying the phenomenon of media convergence from various angles, with a specific interest in how this unfolds in the lives of children and young people. I like to cast a socio-technical perspective on mediated communication practices as they manifest themselves at the intersection of traditionally separate domains, such as video games, gambling and sports, and in assemblages of children, connected/digital media and data.
For example, in the Gam(e)(a)ble project, we look at the blurring boundaries between video games and gambling from the point of view of media (game design and advertising), psychology, legal and prevention research. In Niels Bibert’s doctoral research, a deepened investigation of the mediatized nature of the sports betting landscape, including e-sports, is put forward. In Marije Nouwen’s PhD research, we are collaborating with the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Salzburg to investigate how connectedness and phatic communion are established between grandchildren and grandparents without them being physically together. By co-supervising the doctoral research of Luciana Monteiro Krebs and Laura Slechten, I am learning more about how algorithmically governed platforms shape people’s interactions and how people make sense of these technological affordances. In the Internet of Toys ARC Discovery project led by Lelia Green, we look at how networked families with young children appropriate internet-connected devices and toys in their ‘smart’ homes via processes of (de- and re-) domestication.
I am also working on a more transversal research programme. Here the central idea of actively working with children comes to the fore. Working within the tradition of participatory design research, I pursue methodological advancements in how and why young people can be actors in design processes. Selina Schepers’ doctoral research fits nicely into this. Yet the participatory agenda does not stop at the moment we are collecting data for research, it also extends to the way we disseminate our research findings. By exploring participatory forms of science storytelling (e.g., through the EU H2020 PARCOS project) and creative approaches to science dissemination (e.g., in the PhD project of Chloé Dierckx), we study both the challenges and opportunities in terms of bridging the gap between science and citizens. The EU H2020 ySKILLS project led by Leen d’Haenens brings together these different research agendas, as we explore participatory ways of research and dissemination in order to promote digital skills and wellbeing for children, including children at-risk.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
I would say that was the Clapp project because it was a catalyst for new research opportunities. The project idea originated from a conversation I had with my colleague Rozane De Cock in 2015. We noticed that our young sons told similar anecdotes about scratch games at the soccer club and about YouTube influencers showing off the money they won by betting on the Ultimate Teams cards of the FIFA video game. So then we crawled back into the researcher’s shoes, wondering what is going on? By placing these observations in literature, we wrote the Clapp project, which became the precursor to the larger multidisciplinary Gam(e)(a)ble project. What this story shows is that new projects often come about through a dose of serendipity combined with well thought-out actions in fine collegial partnerships. Indeed, in all current projects, I have the honour of working with very nice and intelligent people. I realise every time that this gives a lot of energy, not only to celebrate great moments such as the KU Leuven Society Award Human Sciences 2018 that we won with this research programme, but also when we go through difficult waters together, such as facing rejections and reviewer 2 comments.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
It is a great honour to now head the Mintlab team, a fantastic group of bright scholars. Mintlab or in full the Meaningful Interactions Lab is a research group within the Institute for Media Studies of the faculty of Social Sciences at KU Leuven. It offers a welcoming place where creative minds meet in an open and constructive atmosphere that is intellectually fed by insights from different (sub)disciplines. As our name suggests, the word ‘meaningful’ is central, and being reflective about this characterises us in our work as well as in the way we organise us as a team. I am very grateful to our previous research manager David Geerts for this, as he has left a significant mark on the DNA of our group. A similar story goes for the foundation of the new KU Leuven Digital Society Institute of which I am the director. It brings together more than 50 professors and their teams to contribute to a positive digital future. It is my dream that one day several ‘digital society institutes’ around the world will be able to join forces in a global partnership.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
“What is a ‘good’ use of digital media for my child?”
I have to say that I often find myself in a split between the advice I know as a researcher and the practices that I myself as parent consider feasible or desirable. I guess that sounds familiar to many of us?
What would be your work motto?
If I had to put a slogan on it, it would contain the words ‘meaningful’, ‘collaborations’ and ‘creativity’ because I get energy in meaningful collaborations in which I can express myself creatively, both in terms of thinking and doing.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I am enthusiastic about every new publication, but after a while I also start to see the limits. The consequence of lifelong learning, I think. Therefore, if I pick one out, then it is a relatively recent one in Media and Communication(Zaman, 2020). In this publication, I combine insights from the domain of communication sciences and media studies with the research I do in the field of child-computer interaction. These are two domains that often operate in silos, and between which I try to build bridges. This publication fits into that endeavour, as do the roles I take in each of those communities, for example as Chair of the ECREA Children, Youth and Media Section and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Child-computer Interaction.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
That would be a participatory project with and for children without any administrative worries and where every recruitment is effortless 🙂 .
I would also find a transdisciplinary project involving long-term collaboration across cultural boundaries very enriching. If we could ever combine all our academic strengths and insights to shape the new generation of digital media for children and youth in a positive way, I would consider it a complete success.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Embrace the science of not knowing. The more we know, the more we also know what we do not know. I think it encourages us to question the obvious, to open ourselves up to learning from others both inside and outside academia, and to look at the same phenomenon from different angles, including through “right wrongs” and unusual, surprising combinations of conventional and atypical knowledge.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I thought it might be nice to put someone in the spotlight that I don’t know yet and would like to know more about. So I am happy to nominate Carmina Rodriguez. She is the founding director of RobtLAB UAI in Chile, a research lab that investigates the effects of interactions with social robots. I am sure we can learn a lot from her. I hope she can tell us more about the added value of communication scientists in what many may feel is a technical field of research. She can also speak from experience of working both in Europe and Latin America.