The role of digital technologies in relation to children’s well-being: key questions on theories answered
We invited five experts from different disciplines to answer questions posed by the public on the role of digital technologies in children’s well-being – Dr Richard Graham (child and adolescent psychiatry), Professor Laura Lundy (child rights), Professor Sonia Livingstone (media and communications), Professor David Smahel (social psychology), and Professor Kitty Stewart (social policy and inequalities). These questions were asked by participants during a CO:RE Theories Webinar on this topic. They cover the following areas:
Defining and conceptualising children’s well-being;
Measuring children’s well-being;
The role of digital technologies for children’s well-being;
Institutional, corporate and individual responsibility;
Children’s well-being and the international arena;
The role of digital skills;
Inequalities and vulnerability.
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Conceptualising children’s well-being in a digital world
How does the active engagement of children in digital world relate to the construct of well-being, especially as regards its socio-cultural implications, which focus on the critical-cultural tradition rather than the media effects tradition?
Sonia Livingstone: I understand this question to contrast approaches to research on children’s well-being in a digital world. Taking a media effects approach, which seeks to identify the causal influences that impact on children’s well-being, researchers ask whether technology is a positive or a negative influence. While I think it is important to review the findings of such research, I prefer the alternative approach which focuses on children’s agency. This means starting one’s enquiry not with the technology but with children situated in their everyday contexts. The research question then becomes, how do children actively engage with the digital environment, including the risks and opportunities that it affords children? In answering this, one must include in the analysis a critique of the political economy and societal/cultural processes that underpin those affordances. Children’s well-being is implicated throughout this process, framing children’s engagement with technology and also emergent from it.
Well-being has negatives and positives and we need to be able to normalise the negatives. How can we engage in digital technologies to help with this?
Richard Graham: The helpful developments of positive psychology have had the unintended consequence that difficult feelings are perceived to be something bad that we should eliminate. Then we lose their value in terms of how they add to life. Sadness, when experiencing loss, enriches our lives, and helps value at a deeper level what we have lost. Understanding that perspective can make it easier to accept bad feelings, which are indeed, entirely normal.
Yet emerging mental health problems may be indistinguishable from ordinary feelings, but are likely to continue for longer, and have a sustained impact on functioning. As many mental health problems have an insidious onset, it can be helpful to self-assess, especially if you have had previous difficulties. We provide evidence-based assessments on Good Thinking for this reason: these can help you decide whether any further steps would be helpful.
Measuring children’s well-being in a digital world
Well-being scales, even when adapted for children, include terminology that children struggle to understand. How can the right constructs be measured while also making the scale “child-friendly”?
Richard Graham: I am more concerned that any scale does not cause distress, or a heightened experience of inequality. For example, a scale might lead you to feel more aware of what you lack, and it is possible, well-being scales have historically been better suited to those with good well-being. Not causing distress would be child-friendly.
What are the differences in how we measure well-being and how children might see it? For example, many children with access to social media might measure their well-being by how liked they are.
David Šmahel: I do not think that children measure their well-being only through the number of likes on social networks. This could impact the well-being of some more vulnerable children, such as children with lower self-efficacy or emotional problems. In my perception, most children think that the likes are not a crucial part of their lives. I believe that the current measures of the specific parts of well-being reflect children’s feelings quite well. For example, if we ask about life satisfaction, children know how they feel and they are able to report it. However, the scientific definition of well-being is probably broader than the views of children because it includes various measures for physical, social, psychological and economic well-being.
Is there a way of integrating robust and age-sensitive measures of well-being that include the socio-economic factors and more personal psychological measures of well-being, while also taking into consideration children’s online experiences and skills?
David Šmahel: I am not a fan of one integrated measure for well-being. I believe that the broad concept of well-being includes many different variables (or smaller concepts) which reflect different aspects of physical, social, psychological, and economic well-being. I am afraid that it would be a mistake to have one measurement for well-being because we could forget some aspects which are relevant to our current research. The measurement of well-being should be sensitive to the goals and the context of the research.
Is there an ideal place for well-being, where all children should be? Or, according to each context, each country, etc. do we have different patterns?
David Šmahel: I do not think that there is an ideal place or environment for well-being that applies to all children. Every child and family are different and they might have various needs, attitudes, and family rules. While something is good for one child, the same thing might be harmful for another child. For example, using online social networks a lot might be good for some children because of the social support but it might have negative effect on other children because of the possible harm or cyber bullying within that same environment. If I had to describe a good place to foster the well-being of all children, I would say that it is a family environment with love and positive relationships.
The role of digital technologies for children’s well-being
Is it possible to isolate “the digital” from overall well-being or to speak of digital well-being? What is the relevance of digital media as a determinant of aspects of subjective well-being such as physical health and basic needs fulfilment?
Sonia Livingstone: This is a question I often consider: what difference does the digital make? And, what do we mean by the digital? The way we have formulated Global Kids Online research tries not to foreclose on the answer, but to keep an open mind. Thus we ask about children’s digital experiences and the consequences for their well-being in relation to a host of other factors, many of them already long known to be of significance to children’s well-being – parenting, education, socio-economic status, family relations, health, and so forth. That way it is possible to identify the relative importance of digital and non-digital factors. Arguably, however, as we move into a post-digital world in which simple comparisons of digital and non-digital become implausible, we will need to think differently. Already, and certainly then, it will be important to specify more precisely which dimensions of the digital art or could be of concern. This takes us back to a critical analysis of the digital environment itself, and children’s modes of engagement with it.
Is the very heavy reliance on digitally mediated sociality during the pandemic crisis going to have specific immediate and/or long term effects on children?
Sonia Livingstone: I see this primarily as an empirical rather than a theoretical question. And the honest answer is that I don’t know. But from what we have learned over the years of children’s engagement with the digital world, it seems likely that the heavy reliance on the Internet during COVID-19 will exacerbate social and digital inequalities. More positively, I think we have learned during this crisis, that children and young people, just like adults, greatly value their physical freedom in the world, face-to-face communication with family and peers, and the opportunity to participate in the wider world. I hope this period will lay to rest some of the moral panic discourses which are vilified young people in their enthusiasm for digital technologies, and recognise the deeper priorities, agency and values.
Society’s perception of children’s digital well-being seems to focus mainly on avoiding negative effects, not about living something digitally positive. Can adults (parents, experts) design or prescribe children’s well-being when talking about digital life?
Richard Graham: Whilst it seems near scandalous that there remains work to be done in terms of understanding and assessing the well-being of young people, we may know even less about how to flourish digitally. At any moment, how does one evaluate whether a certain digital activity will add something positive to someone’s life, or be less helpful to them? I learnt in clinical work to explore the motives for any digital activity and any function it served; if an escape, what was it an escape from, and was that a temporary or more permanent solution to other issues? But I also learnt how many young people strived to flourish online, to build skills and competencies that they believed would improve their life chances and that was not an escape, but an embracing of possibilities. We have much to learn from them.
Many of the issues about cultural and social capital, and access to/use of to digital media are continuous with long-standing social inequalities. What is the potential of digital media for closing these gaps? Is there a progressive potential and if so, how do we harness it?
Kitty Stewart: There is surely progressive potential, when you think of the way that computers and the internet democratise access to information and education. There have been really interesting experiments such as Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ initiative in India, which placed computers in kiosks in urban slum areas which children could access freely. The children figured out the technology incredibly quickly and were soon teaching themselves an impressive range of subjects. I think this points to the importance of serious investment in digital technology so that all children have access to the opportunities it offers – in schools, libraries, youth centres as well as holes in the wall! But we also need to keep hold of the fact that this is a complement rather than a substitute for the other things that support learning – there is perhaps a risk that this sort of initiative is seen as a magic bullet removing the need for investment in school buildings and well paid teachers.
Is there a case for reducing digital use, to enhance well-being, bearing in mind negative outcomes from risks such as addiction?
Richard Graham: Perhaps a movement will arise, post-COVID, where young people do interrogate the value of our digital dependence, and what is lost through that. But for many young people today, the future is digital, and they want to feel that they can thrive within it. I have found clinically, in recent years, highly skilled young people who have struggled to find outlets for their digital talents, and then seem to languish in certain activities, such as video gaming. When parents have helped them find other opportunities to use and build skills, the gaming became less important. It was almost as if our education system was failing them and making them ‘redundant’. If ‘digitally dispossessed’, as with indigenous populations who became dispossessed offline, we may see more addiction and mental health problems in those frustrated and hopeless.
Institutional, corporate and individual responsibility
Could we argue that an institutional response is necessary for child rights, and that an individual response, like digital literacy, is needed for children’s well-being?
Sonia Livingstone: I don’t think there is such an easy mapping of institutional and individual responses onto these different framings. Whether we take a child rights or a well-being framing, we will need to consider both institutional responsibilities and ways to empower the individual child. Moreover, while a child rights framing emphasises the role of the State, this encompasses measures to ensure that educators provide adequate digital literacy for all children, and that businesses meet their responsibilities to respect, protect and remedy children’s rights. We may, however, need to conceptualise the role of institutions and individuals in their own terms, drawing on different bodies of theory as helpful.
While human rights are not the same as well-being, what contribution does regulation for online harms make to the concept of well-being?
Sonia Livingstone: Laura Lundy makes a distinction between children’s rights and their well-being as two ways of framing the goals of public policy regarding the digital environment. If one adopts a child rights framing, protection from harm is a key pillar, together with other equally important rights, and the task for the State is to ensure this protection, whether through regulation or other measures. If one adopts a well-being framing, it becomes a matter of public policy, and of political expediency, whether and how to prioritise child protection. In short, the conceptual framing has practical and policy implications, and vice versa. But whichever way we frame children’s relation to the digital environment, child protection will surely always be a primary concern. Whether or not regulation is seen as necessary, however, is likely to remain a matter of implementation, and indeed, of politics.
What should be the responsibility of internet access providers for online child protection?
Laura Lundy: Human rights place obligations on the States Parties who ratify the various human rights treaties. They do not usually put obligations on third parties such as businesses. However, governments have an obligation to do all that is reasonable to ensure that children’s rights are not breached by others including internet access providers. There is a set of 2012 principles on children’s rights and businesses which are helpful in this context. One key difference is that the obligation on the State is immediate – its actions must not harm children. The human rights obligation on the State in relation to business is to do all that is reasonable to ensure that businesses protect children from harm. They can do this through both civil and criminal law as well as providing systems to monitor and allow rights holders to complain and seek redress.
Children’s well-being and the international arena
How do international human rights apply to the prevention of online harms on multi-jurisdiction platforms like Facebook? How can international human rights law be applied to such platforms?
Laura Lundy: This is one of the trickiest issues facing human rights implementation globally – rights that traverse international borders. This is because the obligations of States are generally only owed to those within their borders, although there are always general duties to co-operate internationally. Each State will have a discretion as to how to regulate within its own legal jurisdiction. However, the impetus to co-ordinate internationally in this context is immense.
How is children’s well-being reflected in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Given the difficulties of definition, is well-being factored in?
Laura Lundy: The SDGs are informed by human rights but are not child specific and cover many fewer issues than the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)? Moreover, they are not legally binding and do not provide children with any human rights entitlements. That said, they do address some of the major issues connected to child well-being (poverty, education, health) and, if implemented fully, we would expect to see improvements in both well-being and in child rights. Well-being may be a side-effect of the SDGs.
The role of digital skills
Media and information literacy highlights areas such as analysis, evaluation and content creation. In relation to this, what is the changing role of children, from consumer to producer, in online media spaces and how does that changes the construct of child well-being?
David Šmahel: From my perspective, the construct of well-being is not dependent on the online role of the child, such as if the child is a consumer or a producer of content. We could study associations between the children’s online roles and their well-being, but I do not think that we should redefine the concept of well-being.
If there a correlation between (skills-enabled) agency and well-being?
Richard Graham: Having skills is empowering and increases that experience of one’s agency; that one can have an influence or impact. That in itself can enhance well-being, but when we also choose to do those activities that enhance well-being further, and achieve goals, well-being is boosted further. Yet if we take a simple model of improving well-being, such as the ‘5 Ways to Well-being’ agency may be desirable, but it is not essential to well-being alone. A person who is depressed or disadvantaged, may lack the motivation or feel too angry to ‘help themselves’, sometimes repeating earlier deprivations in the present. An external figure that encourages activities that will boost well-being may improve the individual’s well-being; a process often core to helping adolescents.
How much do parents’ digital skill or media literacy predict or affect children’s well-being in relation to the children’s media use?
David Šmahel: I do not know of any empirical evidence for such an association. I would guess that parents’ digital skills or media literacy on their own have a very limited impact on their children’s well-being – children whose parents have low digital skills can be perfectly happy.
Child rights and well-being
What is the basic level of provision/access that you consider a minimum right for children in the digital age? Do governments have a duty to provide this basic level?
Laura Lundy: There is no current human right to digital provision or access. However, such access/ provision might be necessary to realise other human rights that children have, such as their right to education. In that case, the minimum entitlement would be whatever is necessary to secure the enjoyment of the human right whose implementation is dependent on internet entitlement. Moreover, since rights must be enjoyed without discrimination, children would have an entitlement to the same access as other children, but again only where that is necessary for the realisation of another existing human right.
While well-being is not necessarily the realisation of children’s rights, it is important for children’s development, their flourishing and their lives. So, what is needed to bring well-being to the forefront of the children’s rights framework?
Laura Lundy: For me, human rights are politically negotiated compromises and I don’t think that well-being has to be brought to the fore of children’s rights. It’s a different approach, albeit one that may achieve the same ends by another route. My concern is that the use of well-being discourse may dilute the legal and moral obligations that flow from a human rights-based entitlement framework. However, from a research perspective, children’s rights can benefit from some of the expertise on the measurement of child well-being.
Inequalities and vulnerability
How do we explain digital well-being in a context of child poverty and lack of access to digital technologies?
Kitty Stewart: I think there are two distinct concerns about digital well-being when a child lives in a household in poverty. One is the obvious one that children don’t have access to the technology they need, both for learning and for social interaction. During the pandemic and lock down, we have seen clear evidence of the impact of inequalities in access to computers and broadband on educational opportunities, for example. But poverty also affects parents’ levels of stress and damages their mental health, making it harder to concentrate on providing structure, rules and supervision. This could mean children spending too much time on phones and tablets, for example, at the expense of other activities or late into the night.
Experiences of stigma are important for children’s well-being. How can stigma be reduced in a digital world?
Kitty Stewart: Digital technologies can play a really positive role in reducing stigma because they can make some transactions invisible that used to mark children and families out. A couple of examples: in English schools, children eligible for free school meals used to be given a ticket to pay for their lunch, while other children paid in cash. Today, fingerprint technology is used to pay for lunch in many schools: all children use their fingerprint to access their meals account, and no-one knows which accounts have money paid in by parents. Second, many countries have traditionally distributed cash benefits on a given day from a particular bank or post office. Increasingly mobile banking technology is reducing the need to queue in person. This saves families precious time and also reduces stigma.
How can we ensure the well-being of refugee and migrant children in transit and those settling away from places of safety?
Kitty Stewart: This is a great question – it’s not something I have thought about specifically, but it seems there must be ways to use digital technology to make things easier for refugee children and those who are migrating in difficult circumstances. Phones and social media offer the opportunity of connecting – to others in similar situations and perhaps to friends and family back home – or at least to people from the home community, speaking the same language. It would be fantastic if organisations helping refugees had the resources to give them not only some clothing and toiletries but a phone with internet access. There must be many other ideas which I would be interested to hear.
What are common mistakes researchers outside of economics make when discussing economic impacts of children’s well-being in digital spaces?
Kitty Stewart: I really don’t know, though I think it’s a very interesting question! I think economists themselves make plenty of mistakes. For one thing, anyone who works with large data sets gets stuck with the indicators collected in the data and these are often not what we would ideally want to measure. For example, we know very little about children’s subjective experiences and well-being as large surveys often do not speak to children directly. I think economists may also tend to focus more heavily on the direct economic impacts of poverty (e.g. not being able to afford certain technologies) rather than the indirect effects highlighted in an earlier answer (the implications for maternal mental health, and what that in turn means for children). Insights from sociologists and psychologists have been very valuable in developing our understanding of the multiple ways in which poverty matters, underlining the importance of interdisciplinary research.
Watch the webinar
Video: CO:RE theories webinar with speakers Richard Graham, Laura Lundy, David Smahel, Kitty Stewart. Chaired by Sonia Livingstone | Discussant: Mariya Stoilova | 29 May 2020.
If you are experiencing issues with the video player, please watch the video here on our YouTube channel.
A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times (Lundy, L., 2019. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 27(4), 595-601)
Checking in: Voices of young people during lockdown. (Long, Sharon, Norbert, Troy, Parr, Tracy and Graham, Richard, 2020. London: Partnership for Young London and Good Thinking & Healthy London Partnership)
Digital Health Generation? Young People’s Use of ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ Technologies. (Rich, E., Lewis, S., Lupton, D., Miah, A., Piwek, L., 2020)
Measuring Mental Wellbeing in Children and Young People (Public Health England, 2015)
Spotlight on adolescent health and well-being. Findings from the 2017/2018 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey in Europe and Canada (World Health Organisation, 2020)
The ‘wider’ influences on mental health in childhood and adolescence (Curtis, 2020)
The impact of digital technology use on adolescent well-being (Dienlin, 2020)
Understanding Adolescent Health and Wellbeing in Context (Journal of Adolescent Health Special Issue, Volume 66, Issue 6, June 2020)
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Child Well-Being (Lundy L., 2014. In: Ben-Arieh A., Casas F., Frønes I., Korbin J. (eds) Handbook of Child Well-Being. Springer, Dordrecht).
Further CO:RE resources on theory
- Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world
- On the concepts we use and what theory is good for On the concepts we use and what theory is good for
- Digital skills, literacies and citizenship Digital skills, literacies and citizenship
- A guided reading list with key texts on nine key topics A guided reading list with key texts on nine key topics
Dr Richard Graham is a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and a former Clinical Director at the Tavistock Clinic. He is currently Clinical Lead for Good Thinking: London’s Digital Mental Well-being Service. He has worked extensively in digital health and e-safety for the last decade and established the first Technology Addiction Service for Young People in the UK in 2010. Richard was appointed to the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (2016), co-chairs the Digital Resilience Working Group, and works with the BBC as Digital Well-being Consultant to the Own It app.
Professor Sonia Livingstone FBA, OBE works in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published 20 books including “The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age.” She directs the projects “Children’s Data and Privacy Online,” “Global Kids Online” (with UNICEF) and “Parenting for a Digital Future”, and she is Deputy Director of the UKRI-funded “Nurture Network.” Since founding the 33 country EU Kids Online network, Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, OECD and UNICEF.
Professor Laura Lundy is Co-Director of the Centre for Children’s Rights in the School of Social Sciences Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland and joint Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Children’s Rights. Her expertise is in law and children’s human rights, with a particular focus on children’s right to participate in decision-making, education rights and the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Professor David Šmahel, Ph.D is a Professor at Masaryk University, the Czech Republic. He is a member of Interdisciplinary Research Team on Internet and Society (IRTIS) which researches social-psychological implications of the internet and technology. His current research focuses on adolescents’ technology use and well-being, online risks, and human-computer interaction. David is the editor of Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace and has co-authored the book Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development (Springer, 2011).