Digital childhoods

In a continuation of our MACYS series Professor Rachel Thomson shares an update of her latest research project, and explains how research on childhood and youth carried out at Sussex underpins curriculum development and student learning on the MA in Childhood and Youth Studies.  

What distinguishes Masters level study? At the University Sussex we think it means being up close to the cutting edge of research and playing a part in innovation for practice and policy. That is why we see MACYS (the Masters programme in Childhood and Youth Studies) as working hand in glove with CIRCY, the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth.

CIRCY is currently working on a number of research themes, including the topic of Digital Youth, and this work informs what and how we teach on MACYS: for example exploring the ways in which the pervasive nature of new technologies transform the fabric of relationships and sociality for children and young people and how new technologies might offer exciting new strategies for documenting and representing their lives.

In a new project called ‘Face 2 Face: Tracing the Real and the Mediated in Children and Young People’s Lives’ we are working with two panels of young people (7-8 year olds and 13-15 year olds) to document the temporal rhythms of everyday life. This has included interviewing them about their ‘favourite things’, asking them to choose and discuss something that represents their past and something that represents their present/future. The method is a fantastic and accessible way of capturing young people’s material world and what ‘growing up’ means from their perspective.  What for example might it mean for an 8-year-old to glimpse the potential of the Internet as a route into teenage hood and independence?

Another method we use is the ‘day-in-a-life’ observation where we document a typical day in young people’s lives using the technologies that are available to them. In a new project called ‘Curating Childhoods’ we hope to archive these fascinating multimedia documents in a new collection that will form part of the unique Mass Observation archive that has a special relationship to the University of Sussex.  These materials will also be used in our teaching and provide resources for MACYS students to engage in secondary analysis for their dissertations.

We think that it is important to research the everyday ways in which the digital revolution is affecting childhood, in order to reveal the agency of young people and to counteract the dominant account of risk and peril that is in the popular media.

In my recent professorial lecture on the topic of digital childhood I reviewed some of the latest research in the field, that confirms that young people are the most intensive users of the Internet and mobile devices, and that access is coming at younger and younger ages.

Yet the picture on risk is complicated. Findings from the EU Kids Online project establish that only a minority report  (12%) distress as a result of what they have encountered online. It makes sense that those who are most vulnerable offline are also vulnerable online, but other groups also appear to have heightened risk including girls who are more likely to become embroiled in cyber-bullying, and technically able, yet socially isolated, young people who may access deeper and darker sites. Risk may be most acute in counties and cultures where there is a significant generation gap with parents unable to understand and support their children’s online worlds.

Our own research and that of others shows that young people are actively working through the challenges of balancing the need for privacy with the appeal of active participation through the creation and sharing of their own content online. This may involve the use of aliases or the creation of animations that do not reveal personal identity in a simple way.

We think that a project such as ours has the capacity to generate peer led materials for young people where they can debate and share strategies for online practice, within a model of digital rights and in contrast to the model of e-safety that Andrew Hope argues has so far dominated the debate.

A film of my lecture can be found online here and we hope to post more about the ‘Curating Childhoods’ project soon.

Watch this space!

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