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Blog, Webinar Theories webinar series CO:RE at LSE Published: 05 Aug 2020 Last updated: 08 Sep 2022

Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world

Wellbeing has become a bit of a buzzword, but what is it? How does it relate to cognate terms like happiness, health or quality of life? Is it a feature of an individual or a society, and what does it depend on?

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Speakers: Richard Graham, Laura Lundy, David Smahel, Kitty Stewart | Chair: Sonia Livingstone | Discussant: Mariya Stoilova | 29 May 2020

Key takeaways from the webinar

Trying to improve children’s wellbeing may seem a bit like chasing rainbows – a captivating yet elusive vision that always remains beyond our reach. The idea of wellbeing refers to outcomes from psychology, health, economics, among other disciplines. Yet as each discipline offers its own insights, and solutions to achieve it, this may not result in consensus.

Hoping to identify a solid foundation for conceptualising and measuring wellbeing, we invited four speakers from different disciplines to explore and contrast approaches to wellbeing across the social sciences. As we seek to understand and improve children’s wellbeing in a digital world, what research can we learn from, and what further work is needed?

Kicking off the discussion, Sonia Livingstone, a Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), argued that we refer to wellbeing as an ambition society should have for its children, a vision of a better future. We look for improvements in wellbeing to assess the success or failure of policy interventions.

In a digital world it is hoped that, if we can manage children’s internet access, strengthen their digital skills and literacies, enhance their online opportunities and minimise or mitigate any risks, and guide parents, teachers and others to support children’s digital experiences in constructive ways – then children’s wellbeing in a digital world will result. But perhaps children’s wellbeing in a digital world depends on lots of other things as well?

How does wellbeing relate to happiness, health or quality of life?

A psychologist’s perspective

As David Šmahel, a Professor of Psychology at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) argued that wellbeing is an interdisciplinary term spanning physical, psychological and social dimensions.  Cognitive and economic aspects could also be added to its many definitions. Wellbeing can be defined by its absence (anxiety, stress, physical abuse, peer problems) as well as presence (happiness, self-esteem, good health). The relation between technology and wellbeing depends on multiple factors at the individual level (age, gender, skills), social level (peers, family, educators), and country level (technology provision, culture, media), for these all shape how children engage with the online environment (encountering risks and opportunities).

Do we need agreement on what wellbeing is across the different disciplines and different types of research? My answer would be no! It is more important to think about wellbeing contextually, in relation to children’s everyday lives and the issues we are studying.

Relating wellbeing to mental health:

A psychiatrist’s perspective

Many of us think of wellbeing as the presence or absence of mental health problems, suggested Dr Richard Graham, a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist. Yet wellbeing is much more. Conceptualising it in relation to flourishing (Keys, 2005) allows for consideration of personal growth, autonomy, positive social functioning – and this highlights questions of child development of interest to child psychiatry. Although positive psychology can be hard to apply during a crisis or for vulnerable groups, incorporating self-help and resilience can give us a long-term perspective on wellbeing.

We may need different measures of wellbeing for the different stages of child development. However, childhood and adolescence is hugely influential for what happens later in life. A good measure that links young people’s digital lives to wellbeing could be used to support their problem-solving and shift away from the narrow focus on screen time.

Someone’s digital life is like their fingerprint – you need to understand their life and opportunities and whether use of technologies is disrupting that. In mental health, this sometimes takes you away from opportunities for development and enhancing wellbeing.

How does wellbeing depend on the context we live in?

A perspective from social policy

Kitty Stewart, an Associate Professor of Social Policy at LSE, focused on how socio-economic inequalities affect wellbeing. She argued for a conception of wellbeing that includes having enough to eat, warm housing, appropriate shoes and clothes to go out in. It also includes the opportunity to play and enjoy being a child, to be included as a part of society doing the things that other children are doing, to be loved and appreciated, and to have the opportunity to develop one’s talents and abilities. Poverty makes a difference to all of these.

The level of family resources clearly really shapes the level of digital access that is available to children. It has been really interesting to see this play out during the current lockdown and the closure of schools and the huge inequalities in the type of replacement schooling that children are experiencing.

Poverty is damaging, first, because of its negative effects on parents’ stress, anxiety, and depression in families. Second, poverty can prevent parents from providing the scaffolding needed to support children’s safe and beneficial use of technologies. Thus poverty can be linked to children’s overexposure or problematic exposure to technologies.

Do children have the right to wellbeing?

A child rights perspective

While it may seem obvious to link wellbeing to children’s rights, this is problematic, both because children may experience wellbeing when their rights are infringed and because realising their rights may not necessarily result in wellbeing. Thus argued Laura Lundy, Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast. Children’s human rights do not address joy, flourishing, being loved – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is concerned with the minimal requirements to be met by the State, not everything that society may wish for its children.

Nonetheless, in seeking to realise children’s rights according to the UNCRC, it is important that we have a good understanding of what is beneficial for children, including in relation to the digital environment.

Children currently do not have the right to access the digital environment unless it impacts on the enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to access education on an equal basis… If the UNCRC was being drafted today and if children were involved as they should have been, it would be deemed sufficiently in children’s interest.

In developing an understanding of children’s wellbeing in relation to the digital environment, it is important to include children’s participation, so that the concepts and measures used are informed by children’s experiences and voices, recognising their right to be heard.

Some conclusions

Some noteworthy points that we might all agree on emerged from this multidisciplinary conversation:

  • Improving children’s wellbeing in a digital world concerns not only the digital but all the conditions of children’s lives.

  • Children have the right to be heard when state and non-state actors are designing the digital environment in which they also participate and which is, increasingly, vital to the realisation of all their rights.

  • It is important to consider wellbeing in relation to the different stages of child development – or, in a child rights language, according to their evolving capacity. Society should prioritise wellbeing from early childhood onwards as this has important long-term effects on what happens later in life.

  • Wellbeing consists of positive and negative aspects – we need to consider both to understand children’s outcomes from technology use. Conceiving of technology and wellbeing purely in terms of risk reduction offers only a partial view and we need also to understand how use of technologies can offer opportunities for learning, participation, entertainment.

Wellbeing is undoubtedly hard to pin down, but it is definitely worth chasing. So, let’s keep chasing rainbows!

Further reading

The impact of digital technology use on adolescent wellbeing (Dienlin, 2020)

Understanding Adolescent Health and Wellbeing in Context (Journal of Adolescent Health Special Issue, Volume 66, Issue 6, June 2020)

Spotlight on adolescent health and wellbeing. Findings from the 2017/2018 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey in Europe and Canada (World Health Organisation, 2020)

Digital Health Generation?: Young People’s Use of ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ Technologies. (Rich, E., Lewis, S., Lupton, D., Miah, A., Piwek, L., 2020)

The ‘wider’ influences on mental health in childhood and adolescence (Curtis, 2020)

Public Health England (2015) Measuring Mental Wellbeing in Children and Young People

Lundy L. (2014) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Child Wellbeing. In: Ben-Arieh A., Casas F., Frønes I., Korbin J. (eds) Handbook of Child Wellbeing. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-9063-8_94

Lundy, L. (2019). A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times, The International Journal of Children’s Rights27(4), 595-601. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15718182-02704013

Long, Sharon, Norbert, Troy, Parr, Tracy and Graham, Richard (2020) Checking in: Voices of young people during lockdown. London: Partnership for Young London and Good Thinking & Healthy London Partnership



Speaker biographies

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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 Wellbeing 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 Wellbeing Consultant to the Own It app.

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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.

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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.

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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 wellbeing, 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).

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Professor Kitty Stewart is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has a PhD in Economics from the European University Institute in Florence and worked at the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre before joining LSE in 2001. Her research interests focus on children, disadvantage and inequality, with particular interests in early childhood, maternal employment trajectories, and the social security system.

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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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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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