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Reading list Theories: children and young people CO:RE at LSE Published: 14 Dec 2021 Last updated: 02 Nov 2022

Children and young people - a guided reading list with key texts

The concept of the ‘child’ or ‘children’, along with alternative terms such as ‘youth’, ‘kid’, ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’, is surprisingly fraught. Even referring to age does not resolve matters. Many researchers follow the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in defining a child as a person from birth to 18. Others use the term ‘child’ until puberty and ‘young person’ thereafter. 

The choice between ‘adolescent’ or ‘youth’ tends to signal a psychological or sociological approach, although some sources suggest ways to overcome this (and other) polarisations. Relatedly, theories of child, children and childhood differ in the emphasis they place on age, development and maturation or on societal processes of socialisation, culture, policy and critique. 

These differing theorisations have consequences for how we conceptualise children online in terms of agency, vulnerability and the range of influences that shape children’s outcomes

Useful starting points

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos 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.

A short but powerful plea for an asset rather than a deficit approach to children and childhood, and to intersectionality in research with children in the digital age. This invites attention to the multiple factors that differentiate children’s life chances, including gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and disability.

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Contributors discuss how growing up in a world saturated with digital media affects the development of young people’s individual and social identities.

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A summary of sociological approaches to children and childhood. 

Further reading

Alper, M., & Goggin, G. (2017). Digital technology and rights in the lives of children with disabilities. New Media & Society19(5), 726–740. 

This article provides fruitful insights in rethinking the taken-for-granted concepts of normalcy, ability, and vulnerability that govern discussions of balancing risk and opportunity online, and opportunities to develop resiliency which are relevant to all children. Positioning disabled children as active subjects and theorists of their own lives offers an alternative to the adult-centric theories of childhood driven primarily by adult concerns.

Ariès, P. (1996). Centuries of childhood. Vintage. 

Ariès offers a historical examination of changing perceptions and definitions of childhood in western Europe by situating children as historical subjects. This approach views children as a ‘social construction’, not as a biological-psychological (behavioural) unit. 

Bandura, A. (1978). Social Learning Theory of Aggression. Journal of Communication, 28(3), 12-29.

Bandura suggests that children learn to behave aggressively by watching others act in a similar way. The theory emphasizes the significance of social context, individual observation of actions, and positive or negative reinforcement of aggressive behaviours.  

Barr, R. (2019). Growing up in the digital age: Early learning and family media ecology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(4), 341–346. 

This article adopts an ecological perspective to media use by children and their parents to unpack critical questions that derive from growing up in a digital age. 

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Harvard University Press.

The classic socio-cultural account of how the child is socialised within concentric circles of social influence, from the family (closest) to society (widest). This has been influential in offering a way of combining individual and psychological factors and also social and cultural ones within a single analysis.

Bronfenbrenner, U. & Evans, G. W. (2000). Developmental Science in the 21st Century: Emerging Questions, Theoretical Models, Research Designs and Empirical FindingsSocial Development (Oxford, England)9(1), 115–125.

The authors draw on the past to consider the future of developmental psychology and social development.

Buckingham, D., & Strandgaard Jensen, H. (2012). Beyond “media panics”: Reconceptualising public debates about children and mediaJournal of Children and Media6(4), 413-429.

The authors review the theory of moral panic to better understand media panics, especially as they relate to children and media. They problematize the epistemology of media panic theory, and offer that social constructionism and a new cultural history may provide productive alternatives to the media panics theory. 

Curran, T. & Runswick-Cole, K. (2014). Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies: A Distinct Approach?. Disability and Society, 29(10), 1617–1630. DOI:10.1080/09687599.2014.966187

Critical Disability Studies (CDS) is a transdisciplinary field of scholarship that connects the aspirations and ambitions of disabled people with transformative agendas of class, feminist, queer and postcolonial studies. Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies is an emerging area of inquiry, situated within CDS, that offers a distinct approach in regards to disabled children’s lives, in which disabled children are viewed not as having or being ‘problems’, but as having childhoods. 

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology : A once and future discipline. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Cole provides a way of looking at ‘context’ as “that which weaves together”. When context is thought of in this way, it cannot be reduced to that which surrounds; it is a qualitative relation between a minimum of two analytical entities (threads), which are two moments in a single process. As a result, the boundaries between task and its context are not clear-cut and static, but rather ambiguous and dynamic.

Coleman, J. (1961). The adolescent society : The social life of the teenager and its impact on education. Free Press of Glencoe.

This book provides an account of the social hierarchies in 10 high schools across varied communities. The values and achievements were affected by a structure of rewards based on popularity, athletic ability and scholastic prowess. Social status during adolescence is achieved through the rewards and punishments based on these value systems.  

Cook, D.T. (2020). The Moral Project of Childhood. NYU Press.

The author points to the role of the market in creating the subject role of the child, the social politics of motherhood, historical anxieties about childhood and early children’s consumer culture. The book discusses child rearing as a moral project involving mothers’ management of taste, discipline and punishment, play and toys, and social expectations.

Corsaro, W.A. & Eder, D. (1990). Children's Peer Cultures. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 197-220. 

The authors discuss the significance of peer culture theories in child development. Central themes include sharing and social participation, child efforts to deal with confusion, concern, fear and conflict, and their resistance to and challenging of authority. 

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This report considers different theories and insights about the nature of play and its importance for children, focusing in particular on free play, where children have a high degree of choice and control. 

Cunningham, H. (2006). The Invention of Childhood. BBC Books.

This book explains the social history of childhood in the West in carefully researched yet accessible terms. It offers a socio-cultural rather than an essentialist account to position current explorations of digital childhood in historical terms.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. Norton.

This books puts forward a model of psychosocial development, outlining eight crucial stages of development from infancy to adulthood. 

Gittlins, D. (1998). The Child in Question. Macmillan Press.

This book discusses important tensions and contradictions implicit in notions of children and childhood. It examines how children can at once represent innocence, beauty and hope, while at the same time they are neglected, disenfranchised and abused. It provides a provocative exploration of what ‘the child’ means, and has meant, to adults.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Penguin.

Goffman applies a dramaturgical understanding of the everyday theatre of the performance of the self to distinguish between actions on the public stage, which are for the world to see, and the more private backstage, free from public gaze where one can discuss doubts, questions and dare to experiment. These two can be related to two important modes of youth connectivity: the private space which allows for experimenting and discussing one’s way of being and public onstage allows for expression of connectedness to a group and articulating group belonging.

Hammersley, M. (2017). Childhood studies: A sustainable paradigm?. Childhood, 24(1), 113–127. 

This is a somewhat provocative article that addresses the persistent and major bifurcations of the field of childhood studies (child development vs. socio-cultural approaches, qualitative vs. quantitative, deficit vs. agency), and challenges the field to live up to its aspirations.

Hockey, J. & James, A. (1993). Growing Up and Growing Old: Ageing and Dependency in the Life Course. SAGE Publications.

This book theorizes issues related to dependency, personhood and power in Western societies, paying attention to language and social practices, and noting how childhood is a key concept for other ‘life stages’. 

Holloway, S. & Valentine, G. (2000). Children’s Geographies and the New Social Studies of Childhood. In S. Holloway & G. Valentine (eds) Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning (pp. 1–26). Routledge. 

From a pre-mobile media time, this is a contribution from human geography for considering children’s relations with place and space. It explains the importance of material and also symbolic contexts for everyday life, including the child’s perspective on meaningful places as they see it. It offers many possibilities for analysing spaces and places in the digital environment.

James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing Childhood. Polity Press. 

This is a classic, and impassioned, exposition of the new sociology of childhood that rejects Piagetian-inspired accounts of child development as progressive, individual and primarily cognitive. Although, arguably, it overstates its case, this book marked out a new way of thinking about children as social, cultural and with agency, within a broadly structurational, critical and social constructivist framework.

Lauricella, A., Gola, A., & Calvert, S. (2011). Toddlers' Learning From Socially Meaningful Video CharactersMedia Psychology, 14(2), 216-232.

Findings from this study suggest that children under the age of two can learn both cognitive and logical reasoning skills from a video when the character is meaningful to them. 

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Littleton and Kucirkova bring together a wide array of literature related to children’s reading, and propose a model that explicates understanding of the underlying mechanisms of a child’s cognitive understanding of ‘self’ in relation to ‘other’. 

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This book integrates theories of childhood, family, socialisation and learning in the risk society with theories concerned with mediation and the everyday, and shows how they illuminate the lives of children growing up in a British suburb.

Mannheim, K. (1952)[1928]. The problem of generations. In P. Kecskemeti (Ed.), Essays on the sociology of knowledge. Routledge.

The concept of generation is one of the key components in Mannheim’s broader sociological theory of knowledge that focuses on the social or existential conditioning of knowledge by location in a sociohistorical structure. The most well-known and widely used concepts, developed by Mannheim, include “generational location,” “generation as an actuality,” “generational units,” “formative years (and experiences),” and “fresh contacts”. 

Messenger Davies, M. (2010). Children, Media and Culture. Open University Press.

This book examines the view that technology has dramatically changed modern children’s lives and the concerns round the media effects (of internet, computer games, digital television, mobile phones) on childhood. It draws on different disciplines, including historical, sociological, psychological and political approaches, and examples such as fairy tales, films, books, art and games. 

Neal, J. & Neal, Z. (2013). Nested or networked? Future directions for ecological systems theory. Social Development, 22(4), 722–737.

The authors build on Bronfenbrenner’s research on social networks to develop a model that sees ecological systems as an overlap of structures, either directly or indirectly connected to the others by the social interactions of their participants. 

Oswell, D. (2013). The Agency of Children: From Family to Global Human Rights. Cambridge University Press.

The book re-evaluates how children’s agency is conceptualised in childhood studies. Drawing on notions of assemblage from post-structuralism, the book examines the spatial, temporal and material complex of children’s agency in a world of networked technologies and globalisation.

Rosen, R. & Faircloth, C. (2020). Adult–child relations in neoliberal times: Insights from a dialogue across childhood and parenting culture studies. Families, Relationships and Societies, 9(1), 7–22.

This is an introductory article for the Special Issue ‘Childhood, Parenting Culture and Adult–Child Relations in Global Perspectives’. It provides an overview of childhood studies and parenting culture studies, and suggests a move towards more relational approaches in the social sciences. The authors argue that there are both new and existing inequities underpinning childhood and parenting cultures and a changing relationship between state, family and capital. 

Shapiro, J. (2018). The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. Little, Brown & Company.

Although it is written more as a public scholarship book, each chapter is very well documented and referenced. It has a non-moral panic approach, inviting educators and parents to embrace new technologies for connecting with children, and rethinking together the cultural norms of the future.

Takeuchi, L. M., & Levine, M. H. (2014). Learning in a digital age: Toward a new ecology of human development. In A. B. Jordan & D. Romer (Eds.), Media and the well-being of children and adolescents (pp. 20–43). Oxford University Press.

The authors adapt Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory within a modern learning ecology to show how children’s and families’ interactions with digital media are both shaping and being shaped by interconnected factors. 

Trotter, S. (2018). The child in European Human Rights Law. The Modern Law Review, 81, 452–479. 

This article examines the category of ‘the child’ in European Human Rights Law and points to its (mutual) dependency on ‘the self’ and a self-understanding narrative. 

Tudge, J.R.H., Mokrova, I., Hatfield B.E., et al. (2009). Uses and misuses of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 1(4), 198–210.

This is an article that will help scholars understand how further research has been conducted on the basis of Bronfenbrenner’s work. The authors examine 25 papers that are underpinned by bioecological theory and find that the majority rely on outmoded versions thereby rendering conceptual confusion and inadequate empirical testing of the theory on families and their relationships. 

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos UNICEF (2017). The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World. New York.

UNICEF’s global environmental scan has been important in setting an international agenda for better understanding and better policy for children in the digital environment. It frames a wide range of evidence on children online within a child rights approach, drawing on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and highlighting the problems of digital inequality, especially between the Global North and Global South.

Vanden Abeele, M. M. (2016). Mobile youth culture: A conceptual developmentMobile Media & Communication4(1), 85-101.

The author seeks to understand the theoretical foundations of mobile youth culture. The commonalities constituting the culture are described, and the origins and appropriations are further analysed and discussed. 

Vygotsky, L. (1987). Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of human learning describes learning as a social process and the origination of human intelligence in society or culture. The Vygotskyian belief that social interactions between children and adults and between children themselves under supervision are important for co-constructing meaning and knowledge that supports child’s cognitive development. This happens in the “zone of proximal development” that is in between the things that a child can do on her own and things that are still beyond the reach of the child of certain age.

Wyn, J. & White, R. (1997). Rethinking Youth. Allen & Unwin.

This book challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding the position and opportunities of young people today, and provides a systematic overview of the major perspectives in youth studies.

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 (pp. 156–165). June. Barcelona.

This paper reviews the developmental literature suggesting that young children have the cognitive capabilities to perform as laddering interviewees, and applies and assesses this in practice.

More reading lists on other concepts

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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 She is leader of the CO:RE work package 5 on theory.


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.

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

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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