CO:RE Blog

Authors: Sonia Livingstone & Mariya Stoilova – CO:RE WP5 – Theories

Technologies play an increasingly important role for disabled children’s right to “live a full and decent life with dignity and, as far as possible, independence and to play an active part in the community” (UNCRC, Article 23). Yet the more children’s lives become “digital by default”, the more problematic it is that children with disabilities face significant barriers to realising their rights online. To mark the International day of persons with disabilities, we discuss EU policies, issues around conceptualising disability and inclusion, and emerging research.

There are an estimated 93–150 million children with disabilities globally, the large majority of whom live in the Global South. The challenges and barriers they face vary significantly based on the nature of the impairment. Some children struggle more than others, with implications for policymakers and service providers at all levels.

Online technologies offer opportunities for learning, communicating, socialising, and play which are often not as available offline, reported a recent Council of Europe study on children with disabilities. As authors Lundy, Byrne, Templeton and Lansdown put it:

“The digital environment can be an enabler that brings significant ‘added value’ to children with disabilities in terms of the realisation of their rights. It opens up a range of possibilities for some children with disabilities and, when it works well, is considered to operate as an ‘equaliser’”.

The digital environment can contribute to skill development and future employability for children with disabilities who are disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of access to digital technology and the opportunities it affords.

As a follow up from our recent webinar on Digital technologies in the lives of children and young people, we discuss disability and online vulnerability with our speakers from the European Commission and the newly funded Horizon 2020 projects on “the impact of technological transformations on children and youth”: DIGYMATEX, DigiGen, ySKILLS and CO:RE.This follow-up discussion is inspired by the theme of the 2020 Safer Internet Forum on Digital (dis)advantage: creating an inclusive world for children and young people online, considering the opportunities and risks of digital technology for children with disabilities.

Leen dHaenens
Leen d'Haenens
Uwe Hasebrink
Uwe Hasebrink
Halla Bjørk Holmarsdottir
Halla Bjørk Holmarsdottir
Marco Hubert
Marco Hubert
Sonia Livingstone
Sonia Livingstone
June Lowery-Kingston

The context is one of notable technological change. As Leen d’Haenens, who leads ySKILLS, explained to us: We are witnessing a transformation of the public sphere when it comes to the generation of public opinions. Legacy media have lost their centralised power, and public spheres have become disruptive. While online networks offer many beneficial opportunities, they can also be platforms for antisocial behaviour. We need to know more about the way social media are used, and we need to examine whether social media empower or disempower users. There is evidence for both. As communication scholars our research runs the risk of being outdated if we do not use the digital methods that are apt to study the dynamics of what happens on the platforms. So, our research must be interdisciplinary.

Conceptualising disability and inclusion

Halla Bjørk Holmarsdottir, DigiGen: DigiGen draws on an ‘interactional’ or ‘ecological’ model of disability (Smart, 2005). This is consistent with our overall theoretical framework in which we incorporate the ecosystems surrounding children and young people (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) to examine how these interact with the techno-subsystem (Johnson & Puplampu, 2008). Interactive models have the capability to incorporate the individual’s cultural, ethnic and/or linguistic identity into the disability experience. Also, any other characteristics of the individual toward which the public holds (unfounded) prejudice can be taken into consideration.

Sonia Livingstone, CO:RE: the terms “disability,” “disabled,” and “special educational needs” remain contested for implying variations from a presumed “norm,” as we discuss in chapter 5 of the book Parenting for a Digital Future, critics argue that society disables people who do not fit normative expectations, refocusing attention on the institutions that create conditions in which some are excluded. A hybrid position acknowledges the merit of disrupting the medical model’s equation of disability and deficit, but also recognizes that disability is not only socially constructed but also “complexly embodied” in ways emergent from the interplay between the body and the social context (Alper and Goggin, 2017).

Marco Hubert, DIGYMATEX: We consider the impact of brain developmental aspects on children’s and adolescents’ behaviour and, therefore, their vulnerability (e.g. Fuhrmann et al., 2015). Another interesting theoretical approach is the integration of the concept of self-regulation in order to explain issues and outcomes of vulnerability (e.g. Duckworth et al. 2011). From a business perspective, our research encompasses consumer ethics (e.g. Vitell, 2003) and the impact of technology on vulnerable people (such as children) (e.g. Betts and Spenser, 2017).

Uwe Hasebrink, CO:RE: The CO:RE Knowledge Base will offer a comprehensive resource to search for existing evidence on a broad range of topics related to the impact of new technologies on children. With regard to issues of disability and inclusion, it will help researchers and stakeholders to get an overview of theoretical and methodological approaches and of key findings in this area. Furthermore, it will show which aspects of the topic have been neglected and should get more attention on the research agenda.

Emerging research on children’s vulnerability in the digital environment

Leen d’Haenens, ySKILLS: The media landscape is changing very rapidly through the smartphone and through a wide variety of platforms. Platforms are not neutral. One of the central issues in ySKILLS is the validation of a method to measure young people’s digital skills and to examine how proficient children and young people in Europe are when facing misinformation. Our ySKILLS research will enable us to understand how they digest information and to equip young people with tools that enable them to reflect on their own news and information use.

Marco Hubert, DIGYMATEX: DIGYMATEX tries to identify and converge the manifold ICT-related antecedents such as use quantity, use quality, digital content (i.e., social media, games), situational factors (i.e., assisted/supervised situations) and social context of using mobile ICTs (individually, with peers, with family) in association with socio-demographics (i.e., age, gender), risk perceptions and individual characteristics (i.e., value structure, vulnerability). Furthermore, a major part is also the acknowledgement of brand developmental aspects and underlying (often-automatic) processes influencing ICT-related behaviour (i.e., self-regulation strategies, addiction, and escapist motivation).

Sonia Livingstone, CO:RE: Digital technologies are often lauded for having a special relevance for people with disabilities, for example, by relieving the pressures of face-to-face communication. Far from being an equaliser for young people with disabilities, digital technologies are accessed and experienced unequally and present specific forms of risk. In Parenting for a Digital Future, we found that although young people with autism can spend significant amounts of time with digital technologies – even more so during the pandemic – they tend to make less use of social media, and face particular problems when they do engage, struggling to assess information or determine what to disclose and whom to trust. This leaves them at greater jeopardy for online bullying or scams, and less able to obtain help.

Disability policies in Europe

It’s been over ten years since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) (2006) – the first international, legally binding instrument setting minimum standards for rights of people with disabilities. The treaty entered into force for the EU in 2011 and has guided the creation of the European disability strategy 2010-2020, which aims to remove barriers to people with disability and to ensure their rights and full participation in society and economy. The strategy focuses on actions in eight priority areas: accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education and training, social protection, social protection, and external action (EU enlargement and international development).

The 10-year evaluation of the strategy shows that there has been a positive impact on mainstreaming disability in EU legislation and policy and funding, as well as on the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities. Challenges still remain in relation to creating a comprehensive set of benchmarks and indicators and effective monitoring and implementation frameworks, gathering EU-wide disaggregated data on persons with disabilities, ensuring comprehensive knowledge about disability issues across services, involving persons with disabilities and organisations representing them in legislative and policy initiatives, and better progress monitoring at a national level. In this respect, the CO:RE Knowledge Base can contribute to a better overview of the existing evidence in Europe.

“The European Commission is committed to building a Union of Equality and to supporting inclusion and equality across Europe. At DG CNECT, we are firmly committed to supporting inclusion and equality in the digital space and to ensuring everyone can fully benefit from the opportunities digital technology offers.”

June Lowery-Kingston

Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT), European Commission

As June Lowery-Kingston observes for this blog post, one of EU Commission’s political priorities is to build a Europe fit for the digital age, allowing everyone, including persons with disabilities, children, youth, and the elderly, to benefit from technology. The Commission will present a strengthened strategy for disability in early 2021, building on its existing initiatives and aiming to address challenges brought about by the digital transformation and to ensure that persons with disabilities are fully included in this transition process.

Useful academic sources for research on inclusion and disability

Alper, M. and G. Goggin (2017). Digital technology and rights in the lives of children with disabilities. New Media & Society, 19(5), 1-15.

Alper, M., Katz, V. S., & Clark, L. S. (2016). Researching children, intersectionality, and diversity in the digital age. Journal of Children and Media, 10(1), 107-114.

Betts, L. R., & Spenser, K. A. (2017). “People think it’s a harmless joke”: young people’s understanding of the impact of technology, digital vulnerability and cyberbullying in the United Kingdom. Journal of Children and Media, 11(1), 20-35.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Datta, A., Bhatia, V., Noll, J., & Dixit, S. (2019). Bridging the Digital Divide: Challenges in Opening the Digital World to the Elderly, Poor, and Digitally Illiterate. IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, 8(1), 78-81.

Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26.

Ellis, K., & Goggin, G. (2015). Disability and the media. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., & Blakemore, S. J. (2015). Adolescence as a sensitive period of brain development. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 558-566.

Goggin, G. (207) Disability and haptic mobile media. New Media & Society, 19(10), 1563-1580.

Hahn, H. (1993). The political implications of disability definitions and data. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 4, 41-52.

Johnson, G. M. & Puplampu, P. (2008). A conceptual framework for understanding the effect of the Internet on child development: The ecological techno-subsystem. Canadian Journal of learning and Technology, 34(1), 19-28.

Livingstone, S and Blum-Ross, A (2020) Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives. New York: Oxford University Press

Lundy, L., Byrne, B., Templeton, M. & Lansdown, G. (2019) Two Clicks Forward and One Click Back: Report on children with disabilities in the digital environment, Council of Europe.

Pinchevski, A., & Peters, J. D. (2016). Autism and new media: Disability between technology and society. New Media & Society, 18(11), 2507–2523.

Pledger, C. (2003). A new model of disability. American Psychologist, 58(4), 279–312.

Smart, J. (2005). The promise of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). Rehabilitation Education, 19(2/3), 191-199.

Vicente, M. R. & Lopez, A. J. (2010). A multidimensional analysis of the disability digital divide: Some evidence for internet use. Information Society, 26(1), 48-64.

Vitell, S. J. (2003). Consumer ethics research: Review, synthesis and suggestions for the future. Journal of business ethics, 43(1-2), 33-47.

Weerakkody, V. Dwivedi, Y. K., El-Haddadeh, R., Almuwil A. & Ghoneim, A. (2012). Conceptualising E-Inclusion in Europe: An Explanatory Study, Information Systems Management, 29(4), 305-320.

Wong, Y. C., Ho, K. M., Chen, H., Gu, D., & Zeng, Q. (2015). Digital divide challenges of children in low-income families: The case of Shanghai. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 33(1), 53-71.

Further resources from CO:RE Work Package 5: Theories

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