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In their voices: Foregrounding young people’s social media practices and experiences

Author: Devina Sarwatay

Please cite as: Sarwatay, D. (2022): In their voices: Foregrounding young people’s social media practices and experiences. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 10). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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A rights-based, culture-centred, and participatory approach towards studying children and their online practices is important to foreground young people’s voices and centre their experiences to unpack their social media lives. It lends a more nuanced, contextual examination and lays the ground for evidence-based policy making (Livingstone, 2021; Sarwatay et al., 2021; Third et al., 2014). This work describes methods used to foreground young people’s voices regarding their practices and experiences on social media in India based on a doctoral study (in process since 2018) titled ‘Growing up on social media: Indian adolescents’ experiences, perceptions and practices’.

In order to dig deeper into young people’s presentations of themselves and lives on/with/in social media, a qualitative/ethnographic approach helped examine the hows and whys in the inquiry. The in-depth semi-structured interview method was fitting, but not enough. There are many aspects to children’s social media lives that can only be studied by actually engaging with their presence online. This led to including a ‘guided tour of social media’ as well as ‘longer engagement by following each other’ on a platform of their choice as additional research tools.

After the research briefing with participants in the presence of an adult caregiver (parent/teacher), consent and assent forms for adults and participants (10-18 years) respectively were signed. The researcher and participant(s) went into an in-depth semi-structured interview (60-90 min) conducted in language(s) of their choice in an informal fashion to ensure participants’ comfort and ease. Questions about their access, uses, practices, experiences, safety, privacy, mediation (by parent(s), teacher(s), sibling(s)), problem-solving, and others that would help understand their self-presentation, identity-creation, meaning-making, and social media lives and practices were asked. Information about researcher’s social media life was also shared, especially if participants had questions.

The ‘guided tour’ towards the end of the interview involved a reciprocal and consensual sharing of social media profiles usually on Instagram or TikTok (now banned in India). They took the researcher through their feeds and profiles, and explained why they made choices like profile pictures, bios, whether to keep their accounts public or private, etc. In some cases, we also ‘followed each other’ on these platforms which allowed to partake in a more active - in most cases - and ‘longer engagement’ (for around one-two month(s) from the date of interview) with participants, including liking, sharing, and/or commenting on each other’s posts on these platforms. This also allowed them to view third party content like memes and other accounts participants and researchers both engaged with and followed, especially on Instagram.

In-depth interviews offered a chance to grasp how young people use, practice, and experience social media in their everyday lives. The guided tour allowed further scope to study identity-creation, meaning-making, and self-presentation online even as we see how their lives emerge in/through a digital/social world. Longer engagement has the added advantage of seeing how the interview and tour testimonies stack up and how their personalities and practices evolve over time.

Using an inductive approach and grounded theory, the researcher identified themes, codes, and categories that the data revealed for the central narrative/pattern around young people and social media in India. Given that the data was collected using multi-modal methods, open, axial coding revealed similarities and differences, and, eventually, the overarching theory(ies) from the data helped us further engage with young people’s digital cultures in India.

Multi-modal methods lend a certain validity and robustness to research since it is possible to triangulate data about participants from their interviews, guided tour, and longer interaction. Since the researcher was interacting with children and adolescents, there was a need to be mindful of the multiple roles to play as a researcher who wants her work to reflect their voices without compromising on their wellbeing, while also establishing and maintaining rapport. This is why participants were repeatedly asked for consent to move forward and have been anonymised from the transcription stage itself. Care is taken to redact any personal, identifiable information from any work within the researcher’s personal data archives and of course any work that is presented or published.

Lesson learned

Research like this is exploratory in nature, therefore the following things emerged as lessons learned during this process:

  • For complex explorations and detailed inquiries such as this one, a qualitative and/or ethnographic approach works well.

  • Multi-modal methods and triangulation of data helps ensure children’s narratives as recorded in interviews match well with and reveal more about their practices on social media as captured during the guided tour and longer engagement.

  • We need to remind ourselves of the multiple roles we play as researchers at different stages of the process and weave in necessary care at that stage in the role we are playing; for e.g. upholding ethical considerations while collecting data especially with vulnerable participants.

  • While framing the inquiry, we must ensure we have the necessary literature, theories and frameworks, and ethical guidelines (for e.g. ‘Ethical Research Involving Children’ and ‘Ethical Considerations When Using Social Media for Evidence Generation’) anchoring our proposal and Institutional Ethics Committee/ Review Board work.

  • During data collection, we must (re)check that participants are aware of the study and their rights, and are participating safely and willingly.

  • While analysing and reporting, we must ensure the work truly enlists young people as empirical experts by foregrounding their voices and experiences while protecting their anonymity and safeguarding their wellbeing.

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  1. Livingstone, S. (2021). Children’s rights apply in the digital world!. Media@LSE. Retrieved 6 June 2021, from

  2. Sarwatay, D., Raman, U., & Ramasubramanian, S. (2021). Media Literacy, Social Connectedness, and Digital Citizenship in India: Mapping Stakeholders on How Parents and Young People Navigate a Social World. Frontiers in Human Dynamics, 3.

  3. Third, A., Bellerose, D., Dawkins, U., Keltie, E., & Pihl, K. (2014). Children’s Rights in the Digital Age: A Download from Children Around the World. Melbourne: Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre. Retrieved from

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