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Children Online: Research and Evidence
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Blog · 21 Oct 2021 · by Team Theories (WP 05) · Benefits and constraints: takeaways

A blog with key takeaways from the online opportunities webinar discussing theoretical approaches and debates

Online opportunities bring diverse benefits for children’s learning, participation, creativity and identity. Or so it is often claimed. Although society has invested hugely in access to digital technologies, a recent evidence review found that surprisingly little is understood about how online opportunities generate tangible outcomes for children.

Indeed, it isn’t always clear even which opportunities policymakers hope for when they provide access to technology and digital skills. We do know that opportunities are taken up unequally, so that interventions are needed if the “ladder of online participation” is fairly to children’s rights in a digital world.

When consulted, children enthusiastically call for a wide range of online opportunities, relating these to their rights in the digital environment. But when researchers try to theorise opportunities for learning, information, health, development, play, social relations or civic engagement, we find ourselves pulled in multiple directions, for each takes into a different research literature. Yet, the child, children and childhood link them all, and so researchers must find links too.

To debate the theories and concepts that underpin this agenda, we invited an international multidisciplinary panel of experts to speak at our CO:RE webinar on online opportunities – Prof Shakuntala Banaji (LSE), Assistant Prof Koen Leurs (Utrecht University), Associate Prof Giovanna Mascheroni (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore), Prof Jochen Peter (University of Amsterdam). Below we summarise their main points.

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Adding context to online opportunities: the interplay of benefits and constraints

Shakuntala Banaji, Department of Media and Communications, LSE

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Children do not have the same normative notion of what opportunity means. Their understandings of opportunity, as well as their agentic and privacy practices, were interjectionally linked to their everyday lives through gender, geography, social class, race, sexual orientation, religion and various levels of physical disability or mental health.

The term “empowerment” tends to be used in very optimistic ways to discuss how digital technologies can enable children in the Global South to voice their opinions or participate in social or political movements, taking control over their lives in ways that they were unable to previously. This stirs tensions between constraint and opportunity which raise theoretical questions about structure and agency:

  • Digital agency, which comes from using social media, digital tools or the internet more broadly, tends to be understood as the ability to take positive action without constraint. Such agency is often seen as being deployed in resistant ways against unfair practices and in favour of justice. Indeed, there are examples of children using social media in this way in the Global South, for example in relation to climate change activism or to offer support during lockdown.

  • However, the digital environment should not be seen only as agentic for children in the Global South as many of them are less agentic on social and digital media than they were in other parts of their life, such as while playing outside or trying to earn a living. Banaji’s research on children in India showed that the digital agency of many was constrained to a great extent by lack of access, poverty, religion, or parental authority.

  • In addition, what middle-class Indian children experienced online was not necessarily pro-social or pro-democratic. Their actions can reproduce cultural codes, social structures, maintaining inequal social formations, for example through misogyny, racism, or castism.

Enacting online opportunities: the role of the digital in performing identity

Koen Leurs, Department of Media and Culture, Utrecht University

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“We need an asset-based approach to recognise adolescents’ agency within the broader context of intersecting hierarchical power structures.”

Research on child and youth migrants, refugees and expatriates shows how the construction of identity and rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood are digitally mediated. In understanding how young people navigate the digital, there are three theoretical frameworks which are helpful:

  • Digital performativity allows us to understand how young migrants articulate their identities alongside stereotypes, norms and expectations. Performativity of digital identity focuses on how identities become visible online and how they are executed.

  • Online dramaturgy: this suggests two important modes of youth connectivity – the private space which allows for experimenting and searching for an identity and the public stage which allows the expression of connectedness and the articulation of group belonging. Both exist online but their differences can be difficult to maintain as their boundaries collapse.

  • Personal digital archive: the smartphone acts as a digital archive that enables both the storing of digital identity content for personal use and the sharing of content online for others to see. Such personal archives have specific materiality and tangibility, emotionality, politics, borders around public and private.

Theorising the opportunities of digital play

Giovanna Mascheroni, Department of Communication and Performing Arts, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

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“We tend to conceptualise affordances in their functional dimensions – technical features that enable or constrain certain forms of agency. But affordances are also relational – they depend on the context, on the children who use them, and the meanings that are attributed to them.”

We can look at digital play as affordances in practice and to explore how affordances are negotiated, taken up, and enacted in a social-material context. In this sense affordances are socially situated and contingent on a particular context, they guide users to take up certain forms of agency and not others.

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Looking at the opportunities of digital play, there are several important aspects in how we can theorise them:

  • Hybrid pathways and connected play: online play reconfigures the boundaries between the digital and the material, the online and offline, but also between toys and media. It also transgresses the boundaries between the global and the local.

  • Liveliness: this is co-constructed by the artifacts of digital toys and the children who play with them. It shows the simulation of autonomous agency which is embedded in the digital toys but also how it is tested by children.

  • Affective stickiness: these toys enable an emotional bonding with the child but, unlike traditional toys, smart toys can demand attention from the child. This in a way can constrain free play.

  • Portability: the material and symbolic portability is important because digital toys become a token for peer-to-peer interaction through which children negotiate their belonging to the peer group.

  • Adaptability: this feature is fundamental for enabling free play. Digital toys are pre-programmed with certain activities, but they are also open for children’s creativity.

Social robots: emerging opportunities beyond the screen

Jochen Peter, School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam

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“It would be naïve to talk about opportunities without taking the concerns and problems into account. Yet, I believe that a balanced approach to social robots may also include opportunities […] for education and learning, relationship formation, and therapy.”

There is growing interest in the opportunities for children offered by social robots, especially because of how they can interact in a meaningful way with children. Yet some are concerned about the risks, such as surveillance, privacy and security issues, associated with the fact that social robots have many sensors and collect a lot of data during their interactions with children. Further shortcomings of social robots relate to the limitations in what they can do in social interactions which can be disappointing to children.

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In spite of these challenges, there are several areas in which social robots can be beneficial to children:

  • Education and learning: social robots can improve children’s comprehension and knowledge, concentration, responsiveness while learning. Social robots can also be a model for pro-social behaviour for children.

  • Relationship formation: children can establish a relationship with social robots, especially when the robot has the ability to be responsive and to engage in substantive talk with the child. Some argue that these relationships are inauthentic and might wrongly suggest to the child that the robot cares for them. Still, these relationships can be beneficial when they happen alongside human relationships, rather than replacing them.

  • Therapy: a growing body of research shows that social robots can have a positive effect on children on the autism spectrum. Robots may help children overcome the problems they encounter in interactions with humans.

Last thoughts

Now that children are gaining ever more access to the internet, it is incumbent on researchers, policy makers and providers to clarify the specific opportunities they anticipate, and to explain why these are important for children. Several conclusions can be drawn from the webinar speakers’ combined contributions:

  • Different opportunities must be contextualised in relation to specific research literatures and communities of practice, and at the same time, links among them must be examined. For researchers, this requires a multi-disciplinary approach to children’s online opportunities. For policymakers, it requires a multistakeholder approach.

  • It is vital to recognise that, in practice, the pursuit of online opportunities also brings online risks, so conducting siloed discussions (and interventions) regarding either online opportunities or online risks is not plausible. Hence a holistic approach to children’s internet use and digital engagement is the way forward.

  • Not all opportunities necessarily lead to tangible benefits, just as online risk may or may not result in online harm. Researchers must explore how we conceptualise and research the pathway to beneficial outcomes. It also highlights the mediating role of socio-economic and other inequalities. So, we might ask, opportunities enjoyed by whom, and does provision for some result in disadvantages for others?

Watch the full webinar

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More webinars from this series on our YouTube channel

  1. Banaji, S (2015) Behind the high-tech fetish: children, work and media use across classes in India. International Communication Gazette, 77 (6). pp. 519-532. ISSN 1748-0485

  2. Banaji, S and Buckingham, D (2013) The civic web: young people, the Internet, and civic participation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA. ISBN 9780262019644

  3. Banaji, S. and Moreno-Almeida, C (2021) Politicizing participatory culture at the margins: The significance of class, gender and online media for the practices of youth networks in the MENA region. Global Media and Communication. 2021;17(1):121-142. doi:10.1177/1742766520982029

  4. Berriman L, and Mascheroni G. (2019) Exploring the affordances of smart toys and connected play in practice. New Media & Society. 21(4):77-814. doi:10.1177/1461444818807119

  5. Leurs, K (2015) Digital Passages. Migrant Youth 2.0. Diaspora, Gender & Youth Cultural Intersections. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

  6. Leurs, K and Georgiou, M (2016) Digital makings of the cosmopolitan city? Young people’s urban imaginaries of London. International Journal of Communication, 10, (pp. 3689–3709)

  7. van Straten, C. L., Peter, J., & Kühne, R. (2020). Child–robot relationship formation: A narrative review of empirical research. International journal of social robotics, 12(2), 325-344.

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About the authors

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Theories (WP 05)

Sonia Livingstone

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Theories (WP 05)

Mariya Stoilova

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