Ladder of opportunities
Digital technologies are conceptualised as significant activities of childhood that can scaffold learning and develop values, for instance in relation to priorities and expectations around relationships with others, and definitions of success. Researchers analysing how, and with which outcome children use online opportunities might find Hasebrink’s ‘ladder of opportunities’ helpful. This is based on the notion that opportunities can be divided into groups – some are more easily accessible to a larger number of children while others are practised by fewer and, therefore, harder to reach.
Analyses of the empirical data collected by EU Kids Online and Global Kids Online projects show that online opportunities are usually related to age, gender, socio-economic status and digital skills. Livingstone and Kardefelt-Winther show that
“many children, especially younger ones, enjoy some of the fun and sociable opportunities that the internet provides, but do not climb the ‘ladder’ to reach the civic, informational and creative activities that are often heralded as crucial opportunities of the digital age.”
The “ladder of opportunities” approach shows that the contextualisation of digital lives demands an interdisciplinary lens. This lens is also useful to help understand the complex and often contradictory digital lives of vulnerable youth, such as those with mental health conditions or refugee and migrant children.
Of key importance to the beneficial outcomes that the digital environment affords children are the opportunities for learning. Learning is relevant, resilient and asset-based when it is connected to young people’s social lives, culture, and identity. Digital spaces and networks provide unique opportunities to support these connections.
To foster the growth and maintenance of learning in a more equitable and broad way, Itō et al. have developed the concept of ‘connected learning’, which holds that a young person can pursue a personal or shared interest with the support of a care network, and in turn can link this learning to educational, economic or political opportunity.
Much research on children and digital media focuses on the child as an individual, surrounded by a digital media world. ‘Connected learning’ focuses on the conditions of childhood and the collaborative/ shared/ networked relations among children and also adults, taking a socio-cultural perspective. Connected learning also focuses on the mutual relations between people and designed situations, including the design of the digital environment, learning environments and informal social and civil situations. This helps combat the individualised focus of much research on children’s digital lives, recognising that agency is socially constituted.
This theory draws on post-Vygotskian socio-cultural theory combined with learning science and a critical/ anthropological approach to digital media cultures. It conceptualises children and childhood in an ecological perspective, co-constituted with designed physical/ digital environments in ways that afford or inhibit agentic possibilities for young people’s digital lives. It emphasises that their lives are situated within meaningful networks and enhanced by imaginative, collaborative and participatory activities that reshape the environments in which young people live. Another area of such creativity is play.
Qualities of digital play
Amongst the wide range of online opportunities, play seems to be the activity that is most accessible for children of different ages and abilities. Play can also bring numerous benefits to children. Online entertainment, for example, like playing videos games and watching videos, can help young children develop an interest in educational, informative and social online experiences. Yet, the role of children’s online play is often dismissed by adults despite its beneficial qualities.
In the offline world, there is something about the notion of ‘play’ that captures the essence of childhood. Not only does play serve an instrumental role in cognitive, emotional and physical development, but also it can spark creativity and imagination while fostering problem-solving skills. There is a vast amount of literature about how child play has been conceptualised and researched. However, defining ‘play’ has been subject to much debate on account of its diverse and socially constructed nature.
The social construction of childhood draws attention to the actors and discourses that attempt to construct society’s ideas about the nature of childhood. These perceptions and experiences of childhood can vary over time and in different cultures. Therefore, it is beneficial to recognise play’s ambiguity as a multi-dimensional construct through multiple discourses instead of seeking a more precise definition.
Looking into children’s online activities, The Digital Futures Commission has made a fruitful distinction between ‘play’ and ‘free play’, identifying 8 typical qualities of child-led play:
Diversity of forms
These qualities may be useful for scholars as a guide for the way play can be nurtured online, in the digital world. Despite the evident benefits, the significance of child’s play remains overlooked or constrained by factors such as time, space or adult attitudes.
Civic and political participation
Researchers interested in moving beyond specific categories of play and enrichment to focus on applying media literacy competencies and skills for civic purposes may benefit from conceptualisations of ‘participatory politics’. Participatory politics allows investigation of an individual’s competencies and skills for utilising digital media in opinion formation and social action, which are essential to the dynamics of civic engagement. This perspective of citizenship also acknowledges children and young people as citizens with present rights and responsibilities and recognises how they engage in public life through digital activities.
Connected with the conception of actualising citizenship, Jenkins and colleagues advocate a participatory culture that validates how children and young people express their civic interest through digital media. This understanding sees the role of the digital as encouraging participatory politics through interactive peer communication used by young people to exert both voice and influence on issues of importance to them.
Core practices of participatory politics can be placed within digital engagement literacies as the capacities for investigation and research, dialogue with information stakeholders, production and circulation of information, and mobilisation for change. Through investigation of issues of public interest, children and young people identify, analyse, and evaluate information relevant to civic and political issues. Engagement in dialogue with their peers and community via social networking platforms enables deliberation and understanding of divergent perspectives. Production and circulation of content using an array of digital tools help children and young people articulate issues meaningful to them and shape the broader narrative.
Finally, children and young people may rally their networks and mobilize others for collective action. Participatory politics empower youth to circumvent traditional gatekeepers of information and inﬂuence and operate with greater independence in the political realm. Reﬂecting the practices that are prevalent in a broader participatory culture, they often blend media and political activity, help shift cultural and social understandings, and generate pressure for change.
With a focus on optimising youthful digital media engagement in terms of play, enrichment, collaboration and civic engagement, this post aimed to review some of the key theories and concepts of opportunities related to the online interests of children and youth. These draw on the responses from our Theories in circulation consultation with experts in the field who told us about the theories they use the most in their work. Please see the guided reading list on children's online opportunities for more.
More resources on opportunities and benefits
Other areas of children’s digital lives in the theories toolkit
Bennett, W.L. (2012). The Personalization of Politics Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644 (1), 20–39.
Colvert, A. (2021). The Kaleidoscope of Play in a Digital World: A Literature Review. Digital Futures Commission, 5Rights Foundation.
Georgiou, M. & Leurs, K. (2022). Smartphones as personal digital archives? Recentring migrant authority as curating and storytelling subjects. Journalism, 23(3), 668-689.
Hasebrink, U. (2012). Young European’s Online Environments: A Typology of User Practices. In S. Livingstone, L. Haddon & A. Görzig (eds.) Children, Risk and Safety Online: Research and Policy Challenges in Comparative Perspective, (pp. 127–139). Policy Press.
Itō, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, Irvine, CA, USA.
Jenkins, H., Itō, M., & boyd, danah. (2016). Participatory culture in a networked era : a conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics. Polity Press.
Kahne, J., & Bowyer, B. (2019). Can media literacy education increase digital engagement in politics? Learning, Media and Technology, 44(2), 211-224.
Kahne, J., Hodgin, J., & Eidman-Aadahl, E. (2016). Redesigning civic education for the digital age: Participatory politics and the pursuit of democratic engagement. Theory & Research in Social Education, 44(1), 1-35.
Livingstone, S. (2014). Developing social media literacy: How children learn to interpret risky opportunities on social network sites. Communications. The European Journal of Communication Research, 39(3), 283–303.
Livingstone, S., Kardefelt-Winther, D., Kanchev, P., Cabello, P. Claro, M., Burton, P. & Phyfer, J. (2019). Is there a ladder of children’s online participation? Innocenti Research Briefs no.2019-02. Florence: UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.
Prout, A. (2008). Culture-nature and the Construction of Childhood, in Drotner, K. & Livingstone, S. (eds.). The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture, (pp. 21-35). Sage.