This book is based upon research funded by ESRC & Leverhulme (particularly looking at 5-16 year olds)
Children in the Information Age
In the late 1990s there were predictions that ITC was about to cause economic, social, cultural & political changes on a level last seen in the industrial revolution… now information rather than manufacturing is the currency of value.
The opportunities that ICT offers users to access information and communicate with whom they want, freed from the material and social constraints of their bodies, identities, communities and geographies mean that those technologies are regarded as potentially liberating for those who are socially, materially or physically disadvantaged.
There are new opportunities for engagement – but means those who lack the skills will be denied full citizenship.
Children are the future… Tony Blair (1995) “Technology has revolutionised the way we work and is now set to transform education. Children cannot be effective in tomorrow’s world if they are trained in yesterday’s skills.”
There has been a lot of ‘scares’ about fears, unsubstantiated by research – and much research has been on extreme users, rather the everyday experience of a ‘child’.
In the West, the notion of a ‘child’ has developed as biologically, chronologically, but also less socially/intellectually/emotionally developed than adults – it’s a time “free from responsibilities” where parents manage/take responsibility (especially give them the best chance of success) … only really a notion that has existed since the Enlightenment.
2 views defined by Jenks in 1996:
- Dionysian notions of childhood – children = little devils – inherently naughty, unruly – must be disciplined/socialized into adulthood to be human.
- Apollonian views (later) – inherently good, ‘natural’ virtue/innocence of little angels to be corrupted as they socialize to adulthood.
Both views still exist in contemporary western society and underline most of our interventionist ideas of childcare, education, welfare services, although little (as this study will) focuses upon children as social actors in their own right.
Research has particularly focus upon the school – which prepares children to take up the roles expected of them, but this book will also look at the home, and the renegotiation of power relations within it that the computer has brought.
The ‘Real’ and the ‘Virtual’
A contested notion – should not be put in opposition to each other, but see how the two are interconnected. Some ‘boost’ the ability of the online to take you out of physical constraints, whilst others say it ‘detracts’ for a second-rate experience (and is a threat to physical being).
Research on cybercultures has commonly focused on users’ online activities, ignoring the way that these activities remain embedded within the context of the off-line spaces, and the social relations of everyday life. (p10)
Two notions of determinism:
- Social practices are partly determined by how we become socially acquainted with these technologies. (Strong tech impacts weak society)
- The notion of technology as a ‘neutral tool’ also problematic as tends to assumes meanings of tech are stable/unproblematic… replaces tech determinism with social determinism. (Strong society shapes weak technology).
In many cultures there’s a race to get online – either not to lose economic advantage, or to try and close the gap. Nationally ICT is seen as offering more access to the participative political process. Raise the important question of digital divides (and whether this is priority spending for developing countries) – all classes saw the importance of home computing, but cost was a huge factor to overcome. Schools were seen as a space to overcome this, but funds to provide, school policies, classroom culture and teacher fears meant this wasn’t equally implemented. What is the different experience of urban/rural schools – how does ICT change the experience in those geographies?
Fears about technology
Children’s technophobias are rarely a fear of machines per se but rather are fears centred around their performance in the classroom and how the technology might transform their social identities and relationships in the context of their highly gendered and heterosexed peer group cultures. In order to encourage children to take up the opportunities that they have to use ICT rather than resiste it, adults need to promote the use of technology in ways that relate to the social context of children’s everyday lives and communities of practice. (p71)
Refers to the notion of ‘digital natives’, but highlights that the media condenses complicated issues into single issues that can be easily ‘headlined’. Much of the moral panic in US, Oz and UK is down to the idea of the ‘child in danger’… or ‘the dangerous child’ who will deliberately seek out porn, commit fraud, hack websites, etc. The experience of children is presented as a homogenous one. Those who were more familiar with computers themselves were more likely to dismiss the panics as ‘gutter press’, and note that their kids could e.g. have as easy to access pornography offline as on. For those who are entirely risk averse:
It is only by refusing to go online that they feel that they can protect their children from a new set of risks that would otherwise invade the home: a space that wider social discourses suggest ought to be haven of safety for their children, protecting them from the dangers of the outside world. (p86)
The book emphasises that there’s no inevitable affects upon children/the family unit, etc. and that interventions can be made, and parents have choices. There’s a need to balance ‘trust’ with keeping an eye on what the children are doing – especially as children don’t passively abide by parents rules. The boys were more likely to break by going online to porn sites (reasserting norms of heterosexual masculinity), whilst the girls were more likely to talk to strangers (reasserting norms of ‘good at communication’).
The so called hallmarks of adulthood: maturity, rationality, social competence, knowledge and so on are just as readily performed by a child as a grown-up. Likewise, adults can sometimes demonstrate naivety, gullibility and other less reasoned responses that are usually ascribed to children. Emotional and social competence is not therefore a stable attribute of a particular age but rather is a fluid, context-dependent performance that can be staged by children and adults alike” (Valentine 1997b) (p96)
The Screen as a Material Object
Our life is built around a range of material objects that we engage with (as well as people). Early computers required technology savvy, so limited use, but once Government policy started to push access to computers – computer marketing went into overdrive – advertising campaigns focused on parents focused upon their ‘responsibility’, whilst those aimed at children focused upon the ‘fun & games’ aspect.
Fears are widely articulated that working practices and technology are all “eroding the ability of family members to create and maintain a spatial and temporal divide between work time and home time.” (p104) Previously defined by opening hours of e.g. school/office, these are now more fluid. When TV was introduced in the 1950s similar fears were raised by those who believed that they met together more frequently as a family… and putting the computer in ‘family spaces’ means that those working on it can also engage with the family.
Tapscott (1998) suggests that talk of children’s addiction to computers, and the threat they pose to family life is evidence of an anti-technology bias. He points out that people do not talk about book addiction but rather use more positive terms such as voracious readers to describe children who spend time on this hobby.” Gillis (1996) – moral panics about ‘time famine’ have a long history, and families often seem to have exaggerated their togetherness… (p108)
When children spend time playing on their computers, it can be a good break from ‘time-disciplined’ focus of school, exam pressures, etc. Computer in own room can escape e.g. marital conflicts, nags, chores, siblings… Online life is often represented as a poor substitute – but children don’t always have positive physical social environments – individuals often bullied/excluded by peers who perceive them as different – offers space for global social relationships.
Fears Repeat Themselves
… some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that on-line simulations might erode face-to-face relations with personal appearances becoming precious and rare. These anxieties replicate panics about previous ‘new’ technologies such as a the telephone, which was once seen as an exotic depersonalizing form of contact and is now regarded as important for sustaining face-to-face relations and get-togethers. (Fischer 1994) (p119)
Evidence suggests that computers are being used particularly to sustain local networks.
Curtis (1992) “If someone is spending a large portion of their time being social with people who live thousands of miles away, you can’t say they’ve turned inward. They aren’t shunning society. They’re actively seeking it. They’re probably doing it more actively than anyone around them.”
Online is cheaper than telephone, and quicker than post.
Expanding the World
Online relationships characterized by f2f characteristics: frequent, companionable, voluntary, reciprocal & support social & emotional needs.
Online relationships tend to be more particular – based on shared interests rather than accidents of geography…
Children when questioned seemed to see a clear divide between online/offline, but much online activity was rooted in their offline activities – e.g. nicknames, what they search for/talk about, etc…
Children noted that the internet makes the world smaller, but makes the locality feel bigger. Connecting with those in other countries allowed “virtual” cultural exchanges, and there is an awareness that much of the online experience is Americanised.
Parents focus their efforts on future benefits, whilst children’s horizons online are more concerned with present than future, with local interpretations of their activities online rather than global rights/responsibilities.
Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture in the third sector (especially faith). Author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’, regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.