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New Media and the Younger Generations

The keynote speaker at the 2005 Association of Internet Researchers conference today is Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics, speaking on emerging children's and young people's literacy of the Internet. What's new about young people's Internet use? To begin with, of course some very old moral concerns have followed from old to new media - the same moral panics which emerged around comic books or television now follow the Internet. This also demonstrates that the new media supplement rather than displace older media; familiar social norms reassert themselves in the way that the Internet is used in everyday life. The same context frames are applied in the way that new media are understood.

At the same time, there are some changes; practices are recombined, reconfigured, and remediated in a variety of ways; social spheres are blurred, and hierarchies are undermined; there is a move from mass, one-to-many communication towards a form of ubiquitous, interactive network communication. How does society change and reshape around the Internet, and how does the Internet shape according to social developments? There is a sense of co-determination between these elements.

Sonia suggests taking a child-centred approach to this investigation. She notes that there are important societal changes which affect youth - youth is now an extended period during which youth continue to stay at home (up to the average age of 29 in the UK), while they are also growing up faster (becoming more sexually and socially aware at an earlier age, for example). Dependence and independence, private and public aspects of young people's lives are continuing to be renegotiated. And, there is a shift from a hierarchical to a democratic family model, as Anthony Giddens has suggested. Further, public spaces are increasingly seen as unsafe and unwelcoming.

So, there is perhaps a retreat to the media-rich, unwelcoming home - and media are in turn seen as a chance to project the self, gain agency, experiment with one's persona in one's lifeworld, and develop identity and expertise. Interestingly, the Internet in particular seems to fit this analysis of youth - it is heterarchical and experimental, and often young people are seen as its 'media-savvy pioneers'.

At the same time, in the literature about young people's media use there is an important bifurcation: between a discussion of media and 'the child', and media and 'childhood'. In this, 'the child' is seen as singular, developing, vulnerable, passive, and in need of protection, where the 'childhood' approach sees a diverse and context-dependent persona, which is a skilled and active person in their own right and needs inclusion and recognition. Media and Internet studies has a strong preference for the latter, but this may also leave the industry off the hook in terms of ensuring the protection and safety of children.

Sonia's child-centred approach places the child in the centre, then, as an agent creating, networking, exploring, and even subverting through their use of new media technologies. This emphasises agency, a sense of tactics over strategies (in de Certeau's terms), and an engagement in the life-world rather than the system-world.

Sonia presents some results from the UK Children Go Online (UKCGO) research project. It was conducted in several phases (qualitative surveys and family observations, an in-home face-to-face survey of 9- to 19-year-olds and written survey of parents, and a further qualitative series of focus groups and family observations). Some basic results from this: 75% of 9- to 19-year olds were using the Net at home, 92% also at school, 98% had accessed it somewhere; 36% had more than one computer at home, 24% had broadband, and access was via PC (71%), mobile (38%), DTV (17%), and games consoles (8%). There is therefore a kind of cascading process whereby the latest access technologies are gradually diffused into the general population. 84% used the Net daily or weekly, and access is stratified by gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors.

Uses were (in order of importance) schoolwork, information, email, games, instant messages, music downloads, product lookup, Website creation, news reading, personal advice, chat rooms, and (admittedly!) plagiarism - however, does this truly make them technology pioneers? It is also notable in this context that a relatively low number of young users engaged in interactive forms on the Net - for example, for kids who did create their own Website, some of these sites never went online in the first place (they may have been school projects, for example), and many of the other sites were no longer online or had not been updated in a long time. Similarly, engagement in what may be considered civic Websites was still relatively low, and significant interaction with such sites was even lower; further, very few kids talked about their peers about such sites, and most of the were generally disinterested in such sites.

Thus, perhaps these young users are not so expert after all - they might be taking the first steps to exploration, creativity, and engagement, but remain at that level; the Net use by weekly users, too, is much more cautions and narrow than that of daily users, and it is only older teens, boys, and those kids with better quality of access and better skills and self-efficacy who do participate in a more rich and complex sense - the usual suspects, in other words. Watching young people use the Net, there is a lot of excitement from them in what they are doing, but there is also a lot of disguised uncertainty about whether their use has been effective; there is, for example, a great sense of concern when dialogue boxes pop up - they are the intrusion of an incomprehensible male adult voice into the process, Sonia suggests.

At the same time, these young users style themselves as more competent and experienced users than their parents. Children report being able to do more than their parents, but nonetheless their reporting figures still remain relatively low, other than for basic information discovery. And even searching remains problematic and uncertain for them; further, they are unsure about the sites they discover through their searches, and have a hard time parsing the information they find for its background, ideological position, and institutional origins.

So, Sonia has been led to question the creating, networking, exploring, and subverting image of young Internet users which she presented earlier. Instead of actively reaching out in this sense, perhaps children are actually subjected to structural influence from the state, school, commerce, and parents - the state, for example, is inviting young people to be (or perhaps at least feel) involved and heard, yet children still continue to feel that nobody is truly interested in listening to their concerns. Perceptions of such outreach sites are very different between the producers and the users of these sites - funky vs. cheesy; participatory vs. non-engaging; information delivery vs. non-conversational; magazine format vs. unclear structure; universal appeal vs. stereotypical; involving selected young people as contributors vs. a view of such contributors as geeks. Against this, kids do suggest other places where participation does work for them - this is the case in many school councils, for example.

Other issues exist in the context of commercial approaches to young users. Many of such sites are very successful, and they're often based on established brands or products from other media; big brands are often preferred and trusted by the kids, indeed. Sites are often located via television programmes, and are walled gardens which are seen as safe for children; interactivity is heavily constrained. But there is often a disconnect between kids' needs and interests and the design of sites.

In the case of parental influence, there are of course considerable parental anxieties about their kids' Internet usage. Parents want control - tougher laws, more guidance, and better filtering - and set up rules for their children which constrain interactivity. Children do resist many of these rules, of course; they develop strategies and tactics for evading their parents' gaze, and are looking for ways of achieving privacy from their parents - this is similar to avoiding parental checks (or 'spying') into the contents of kids' rooms and pockets. The study found that parents did believe that there was a far lower incidents of such subvention than was reported by the kids. Parental regulation is relatively ineffective, then; more access leads to more use, more skills, and also more risks and opportunities for children in their Internet usage. Online opportunities and risks go hand in hand in this context, indeed. (There is also no apparent effect of parent/child co-use or supervision.)

In the context of school-based Internet use, there remains a relatively traditional and curriculum-focussed use of Internet, and little exploration of new modes of utilising new media technologies. ICT access in school lags behind the home, and teacher training remains a challenge; further, safety requirements also constrain effective use. On the other hand, there is a curricularisation of leisure: there is an increasing burden on leisure time to have a learning outcome (this also impacts on parenting, of course). Thus, there is as yet limited evidence of educational benefits of new media use in schools.

Ultimately, perhaps the truth lies in a combination of both views - the structural influence of other institutions on kids, as well as the view of kids as active agents utilising new media technologies. The question is where the balance between these models (structure and agency, strategies and tactics, structure-world and life-world) lies. Further, of course, the structural institutions around childhood are not static, but subject to change - there is an interpenetration of spheres (Sonia bases this on a Habermasian model), between public (state and the public, school sphere) and private (commerce and the intimate, parental, familial environment), between system (state and commerce) and lifeworld (public sphere and intimate environment). Private is impacting on public, system is impacting on lifeworld, and each sphere is conflicted and changing.

Children's literacy exists at this interaction between system and agency, between state and lifeworld. What literacy is needed to engage with these slow-changing institutions, and what is it for in the first place? It is about citizenship and the skills required to engage with the state online, to have a critical response to commerce, to engage with the public sphere, learning and eduction, and it is about personal fulfillment and creating effective relationships for engaging with others (whether online or offline, or both). Literacy empowers children to be an agent in these environments, about the engagement between the agency of the individual and the structures which position them more generally.