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Blog, Webinar Theories webinar series CO:RE at LSE Published: 07 Jun 2021 Last updated: 08 Sep 2022

Children and the digital environment

Technologies are spreading into all aspects of our lives via smart devices, internet of things, augmented reality and data profiling. Children’s lives have become digital by default, with digital technologies the taken-for-granted means of playing, seeing family, doing schoolwork, hanging out with friends in a post-COVID world. But where does the digital begin and end, what does it include? Is it really the case that we can no longer distinguish between the offline and online? Should we talk of digital technologies, or the digital environment, or the digital era, or the digital world? Or, just, the digital?

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Speakers: Taina Bucher (University of Oslo), Christine Hine (University of Surrey), Jean-Christophe Plantin (LSE), Bieke Zaman (KU Leuven) | Chair: Sonia Livingstone (LSE) | Discussant: Mariya Stoilova (LSE) | 07 May 2021

Key takeaways from the webinar

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently adopted a General Comment on “the digital environment,” as the drafting team finally called it. In trying to future-proof the text for at least the next 5-10 years, we came up with this definition:

“The digital environment is constantly evolving and expanding, encompassing information and communications technologies, including digital networks, content, services and applications, connected devices and environments, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, automated systems, algorithms and data analytics, biometrics and implant technology.”

As a definition, it is primarily a list of digital technologies to be included, prefaced by a caution that the items on the list keep changing. The definition implies that, since they increasingly work together, these technologies constitute an “environment.” So “the digital” is not as simple as digital means noughts and ones, nor as all-encompassing as to include every technology or technique by which humans are governed or by which power is mediated. Nor, by comparison with the news headlines that focus predominantly on social media platforms, does it leave out the many crucial digital technologies that are not user-facing, but arguably are now part of the societal infrastructure.

Still, there is an unease in how the digital is discussed, and a reluctance among researchers to define it that can seem obfuscating to the wider public. We recently selected “the digital” as one of the keywords to be interrogated in our CO:RE webinars because it is central to the work of many of us. But perhaps we use the term differently, depending on our disciplinary training or research purpose or theoretical preferences? Let’s discover how our webinar speakers illuminated our thinking.

The digital is best conceptualised through its affordances

The walls of the digital environment are much stickier, much more responsive and expansive. They attend to the person moving through the digital space, they take note and ultimately contribute to changing that very space in a very performative manner.

Taina Bucher, Associate Professor in Screen Cultures at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, argued for a conceptualisation of “the digital” through an analysis of its various apps, platforms, devices and networks. We too often construct it in an opposition to “the analogue,” creating an artificial differentiation between an online and an offline environment. In such distinctions, “the digital” connotes futurity, innovation, cultural transformation, the new risks and opportunities. Instead, sidestepping such polarised thinking, it’s helpful to think about the digital through the parameters of what it offers to us – its affordances.

Originally developed by Gibson (1979), the concept of affordances allows us to “furnish” the (natural, material, digital) environment and think of the activities it enables (or impedes) and how these might be different for different users including children. As with the design of material environments, which govern our ways of moving through them, the architecture of digital spaces is also environmental, albeit that data, algorithms and infrastructure are used to construct these affordances and produce these possibilities for engagement. Arguably, in comparison to the physical environment, the digital environment is ever more expansive.

The digital is embedded, embodied and everyday

We move through complex and unpredictable social landscapes that span face-to-face and the digital, where people are continuously repurposing digital technologies in unexpected ways… These digital spaces vary in how much they are accessible to both children and adults.

Christine Hine, Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey, called on us to understand the digital through its embedding in specific contexts – technologies are rooted in our institutions, identities, and our ways of being accountable. Digital technologies are also embodied – they relate to our ways of being in the world, how we go about our lives. Thirdly, technologies are soaked into the texture of our everyday experience, normalised and often used without reflection.

Fundamentally, we need to focus on lived social experiences and what spaces people make significant within their own lives. At the same time, we can deploy other methods which allow us to hover above these spaces and study experiences, for example, though large-scale data analysis.

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Webinar: Children and the digital culture, Friday, 07 May 2021

Digital infrastructures become visible through their failures

When we keep focusing on contingent expression of technology, then there is a problem with temporality. If we ground our concepts in contingent technologies, then the life of our concepts will be pretty short… There is also a special aspect present. What we describe as technology reflects the standpoint of where we are in the world… We might describe it as universal but in doing so we shut off other expressions of this technology.

Jean-Christophe Plantin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, observed that during the pandemic we became much more reliant on digital technologies. Their very evident failures newly sensitised us to the numerous actors involved in building and supporting these services.

It is helpful, therefore, to think about “the digital” not only in terms of platforms or devices or contexts but as socio-technical infrastructures. This encompasses several levels – the network artefacts, such as routers, service providers and data centres; the invisible forms of often global labour that support these infrastructures, such as the engineers and call centre staff; and the data that are created and circulated through these networks. These digital infrastructures are not infinite. For example, our digital consumption is limited by bandwidth capacities within which digital services “compete.”

The mutual constitution of the digital, user practices and context

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When we talk about the blended nature of media, it is very hard to say: here starts the analogue, the real or the physical, and here starts the digital. The digital is present even in our most intimate zones, like our bodies. When we talk about the digital it is also very hard to have future-proof language because we don’t know what will be coming next

Bieke Zaman, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction, KU Leuven, criticised current approaches to media and technologies that adopt a social constructivist and culturalist line of enquiry, paying attention primarily to processes of meaning-making and cultural appropriation. Lievrouw (2014), on the other hand, offers a more comprehensive framework to conceptualise “the digital” which points also to the materiality of media and communication technologies.

Extending her earlier work on new media technologies, Lievrouw’s mediation framework articulates the intersection and mutual influence of artefacts (technological infrastructures), arrangements (social, cultural, regulatory contexts) and practices (uses and appropriation). It recognises that content and materiality mutually shape each other in specific contexts and helps us move beyond the dual silos of technological determinism and cultural appropriation.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the collaborative element in the design, production and consumption of media, as described by Löwgren and Reimer (2013). Here digital technologies are the enabling factor which mediates the cultural forms designed, produced and consumed by users.

Concluding comments

The insights from our speakers point us in the direction of understanding the digital in its relational context, as a mediator and enabling factor for the expression of agency. This transcends sharp distinctions between offline/online, analogue/digital, structure/agency and prompts us to consider the digital as “blended”, embodied, dynamic and co-constructed. This emerging analysis of the digital draws on ecological thinking and demand that we understand it in all its expanding and evolving socio-technological and contextually-embedded forms.


Further reading

Amoore, L. (2020). Cloud ethics: Algorithms and the attributes of ourselves and others. Duke University Press.

Baumer, E. P. S., and Brubaker, J. R. (2017). Post-Userism.  Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 6291–6303).

Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Ecco.

Bollmer, G. D. (2018). Theorizing digital cultures. London: Sage.

boyd, D. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics. In Papacharissi, Z (ed.) A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites, pp 39-57.

Bucher, T. (2020). The right-time web: Theorizing the kairologic of algorithmic media. New Media and Society. 22(9): 1699-1714.

Bucher, T. (2018). IF…THEN: Algorithmic power and politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bucher, T. (2021) Data and algorithms, In Leah Lievrouw and Brian Loader (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Digital Media and Communication in SocietyLondon: Routledge.

Bucher, T., and Helmond, A. (2017). The affordances of social media platformsThe SAGE Handbook of Social Media, London: Sage.

Burlington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. Ill edition. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing.

Fuchsberger, V. (2019). The Future’s Hybrid Nature. Interactions, 26 (4), 26–31.

Gibson, J. J. (2015). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Classic Edition: 1979). Routledge.

Gray, J., Gerlitz, C. and Bounegru, L (2018). ‘Data Infrastructure Literacy’: Big Data and Society, 10, July 2018.

Hine, C. (2015) Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury.

Hine, C. (2019) The evolution and diversification of Twitter as a cultural artefact in the British press 2007 – 2014. Journalism Studies, 21(5):678-696.

Hine, C. (2020) Strategies for reflexive ethnography in the smart home: autoethnography of silence and emotion, Sociology, 54(1):22-36.

Larkin, B. (2013) ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’. Annual Review of Anthropology 42(1): 327–43.

Le Dantec, C. A., and DiSalvo, C. (2013). Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 241–264.

Lievrouw, L. (2014). Materiality and media in communication and technology studies: An unfinished project. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot (Eds.) Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality and society (pp. 21–52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Löwgren, J and Reimer, B (2013) Collaborative Media. Production, consumption, and design interventions. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Mansell, R. and Plantin, J.C. (2020). ‘Urban Futures with 5G: British Press Reporting’. Media@LSE.

Plantin, J.C (2021). COVID-19, Broadband Disruption, and Infrastructure Literacy. Media@LSE Blog.

Plantin, J.C. (2021). The data archive as factory: alienation and resistance of data processors. Big Data and Society. ISSN 2053-9517.

Plantin, J.C. (2021). The political hijacking of open networking. The case of open radio access network. European Journal of Communication. ISSN 0267-3231.

Plantin, J.C., Lagoze, C., Edwards, P.N. and Sandvig, C. (2018). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media and Society, 20 (1). 293 – 310.

Schepers, S., Schoffelen, J., Zaman, B. and Dreessen, K. (2021) I’m the boss of the Stiemerbeek valley!’ Reconsidering children’s empowerment in participatory design from the perspective of infrastructuring, CoDesign.

Star, S.L. (1999) ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3:11): 377–91.

Sterne, J. (2016). Analog. In Digital Keywords (pp. 31-44). Princeton University Press.

Van Mechelen, M., Zaman, B., Laenen, A., Vanden Abeele, V. (2015). Challenging group dynamics in participatory design with children: lessons from social interdependence theory. In: IDC ’15 Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (219-228). June, 2015, New York.

Vanden Abeele, V., Zaman, B. (2008). The Extended Likeability Framework: A Theoretical Framework for and a Practical Case of Designing Likeable Media Applications for Preschoolers. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, Art.No. ARTN 719291.

Zaman, B. (2020). Designing Technologies with and for Youth: Traps of Privacy by Design. Media and Communication, 8 (4), 229-238.

Zaman, B., Nouwen, M., Van Leeuwen, K. (2020). Challenging Adolescents’ Autonomy: An Affordances Perspective on Parental Tools. In: L. Green, D. Holloway, K. Stevenson, T. Leaver (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children, Chapt. 18, (195-203). Routledge.

Zaman, B., Van Mechelen, M., Bleumers, L. (2018). When toys come to life: considering the internet of toys from an animistic design perspective. In: IDC ’18 Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (170-180). June 2018: Trondheim.

Zaman, B., Vanden Abeele, V. (2010). Laddering with young children in User eXperience evaluations: theoretical groundings and a practical case. In: IDC ’10 Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (156-165). June 2010: Barcelona.


Speaker biographies

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Taina Bucher is an Associate Professor in Screen Cultures at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo. She studies the relationships and entanglements between algorithms, social and political concerns – examining how users experience and make sense of algorithmic power and politics. Her first book, IF…THEN: Algorithmic power and politics (Oxford University Press, 2018) details the ontological politics at stake in the algorithmic media landscape. Her most recent book, Facebook (Polity Press, May 2021) provides an invitation to think Facebook anew.

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Christine Hine is a Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. He work offers a sociology perspective on science and technology with a particular focus on the role played by new technologies in the knowledge construction process. Christine Hine has a major interest in the development of ethnography in technical settings and in “virtual methods” (the use of the Internet in social research). In particular, she has developed mobile and connective approaches to ethnography that combine online and offline social contexts.

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Sonia Livingstone FBA, OBE is a Professor of Social Psychology at 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.

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Jean-Christophe Plantin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. His research investigates the politics of digital platforms, the evolution of knowledge infrastructures, and the rise of digital sovereignty. His research investigates the increasing infrastructural role that digital platforms play in society. In his first book, Participatory Mapping: New Data, New Cartography, (Wiley, 2014) details the use of web-based mapping platforms (exemplified by Google Maps) by non-experts to participate in socio-technical debates, focusing on radiation mapping initiatives after March 11th 2011 in Fukushima, Japan.

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Dr Mariya Stoilova is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her area of expertise is at the intersection of child rights and digital technology with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people, data and privacy online, digital skills, and pathways to harm and wellbeing.

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Bieke Zaman is an Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction and research group leader of the Meaningful Interactions Lab (Mintlab) at the Institute for Media Studies, KU Leuven, Belgium. Her work lies primarily at the intersection of human computer interaction research and communication sciences and focuses on children, digital media and design; media convergence in a digital society; progressive research and dissemination methods. Some of her most recent projects include ySKILLS Gam(e)(a)ble: Interdisciplinary research into the blurring of boundaries between gaming and gambling in teenagers, and PARCOS – Participatory Communication of Science.

Further CO:RE resources on theory

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Authors

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Team member, CO:RE at LSE

Mariya Stoilova

Mariya Stoilova is a post-doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) working on children’s rights, online risks and opportunities, and well-being. She is member of the CO:RE work package 5 on theory.

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Team leader, CO:RE at LSE

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone DPhil (Oxon), FBA, FBPS, FAcSS, FRSA, OBE, is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK). She currently directs the projects “Children’s Data and Privacy Online,” “Gobal 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 countries EU Kids Online research network, Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, OECD and UNICEF, among others, on children’s internet risks, safety, media literacy and rights in digital environments. She blogs at www.parenting.digital. She is leader of the CO:RE work package 5 on theory.

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
CO:RE at LSE
Theories

The team at the LSE works on theory, providing a series of mutually cross-fertilising mechanisms to coordinate and support the theoretical dimension of research. The team identifies valuable theoretical concepts that offer multidisciplinary breadth and depth in understanding the long-term impact of digital media on children and youth, and coallates all in a comprehensive theories toolkit that provides guidance throughout the theory pathway, from (research) question to generating theory.

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