Risks, Rights, and Responsibilities in the Digital Age: An Interview with Sonia Livingstone (Part One)

The first time I saw Sonia Livingstone speak about her research on the online lives of British teens, we were both part of the program of a conference organized by David Buckingham at the University of London. I was impressed enough by her sober, balanced, no-nonsense approach that I immediately wrote a column for Technology Review about her initiative. Here's part of what I had to say:

A highlight of the conference was London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone's announcement of the preliminary findings of a major research initiative called UK Children Go Online. This project involved both quantitative and qualitative studies on the place of new media in the lives of some 1,500 British children (ages 9 to 19) and their parents. The study's goal was to provide data that policymakers and parents could draw on to make decisions about the benefits and risks of expanding youth access to new media. Remember that phrase -- benefits and risks.

According to the study, children were neither as powerful nor as powerless as the two competing myths might suggest. As the Myth of the Digital Generation suggests, children and youth were using the Internet effectively as a resource for doing homework, connecting with friends, and seeking out news and entertainment. At the same time, as the Myth of the Columbine Generation might imply, the adults in these kids' lives tended to underestimate the problems their children encountered online, including the percentage who had unwanted access to pornography, had received harassing messages, or had given out personal information....

As the Livingstone report notes in its conclusion: "Some may read this report and consider the glass half full, finding more education and participation and less pornographic or chat room risk than they had feared. Others may read this report and consider the glass half empty, finding fewer benefits and greater incidence of dangers than they would have hoped for." Unfortunately, many more people will encounter media coverage of the research than will read it directly, and its nuanced findings are almost certainly going to be warped beyond recognition.

The last sentence referred to the ways that the British media had reduced her complicated findings to a few data points about how young people might be accessing pornography online behind their parents' backs.

This week, Sonia Livingstone's latest book, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities, is being released by Polity. As with the earlier study, it combines quantitative and qualitative perspectives to give us a compelling picture of how the internet is impacting childhood and family life in the United Kingdom. It will be of immediate relevence for all of us doing work on new media literacies and digital learning and beyond, for all of you who are trying to make sense of the challenges and contradictions of parenting in the digital age. As always, what I admire most about Livingstone is her deft balance: she does find a way to speak to both half-full and half-empty types and help them to more fully appreciate the other's perspective.

Given the ways I observed her ideas getting warped by the British media (read the rest of the Technology Review column for the full story), I wanted to do what I could to make sure her ideas reached a broader public in a more direct fashion. (Not that she needs my help, given her own skills as a public intellectual.) She was kind to grant me this interview during which she talks through some of the core ideas from the book.

In the broadest sense, your book urges parents/educators/adult authorities to

help young people to maximize the potentials and avoid the risks involved in moving into the online world. What do you see as the primary benefits and risks here?

My book argues that young people's internet literacy does not yet match the headline image of the intrepid pioneer, but this is not because young people lack imagination or initiative but rather because the institutions that manage their internet access and use are constraining or unsupportive - anxious parents, uncertain teachers, busy politicians, profit-oriented content providers. I've sought to show how young people's enthusiasm, energies and interests are a great starting point for them to maximize the potential the internet could afford them, but they can't do it on their own, for the internet is a resource largely of our - adult - making. And it's full of false promises: it invites learning but is still more skill-and-drill than self-paced or alternative in its approach; it invites civic participation, but political groups still communicate one-way more than two-way, treating the internet more as a broadcast than an interactive medium; and adults celebrate young people's engagement with online information and communication at the same time as seeking to restrict them, worrying about addiction, distraction, and loss of concentration, not to mention the many fears about pornography, race hate and inappropriate sexual contact.

Indeed, in recent years, popular online activities have one by one become fraught with difficulties for young people - chat rooms and social networking sites are closed down because of the risk of paedophiles, music downloading has resulted in legal actions for copyright infringement, educational institutions are increasingly instituting plagiarism procedures, and so forth. So, the internet is not quite as welcoming a place for young people as rhetoric would have one believe. Maybe this can yet be changed!

Risk seems to be a particularly important word for you. How would you define it

and what role does the discussion of risk play in contemporary social theory?

I've been intrigued by the argument from Ulrick Beck, Anthony Giddens and others that late modernity can be characterised as 'the risk society' - meaning that we in wealthy western democracies no longer live dominated by natural hazards, or not only by those. But we also live with risks of our own making, risks that we knowingly create and of which we are reflexively aware. Many of the anxieties held about children online exactly fit this concept.

My book tries to show how society has created an internet that knowingly creates new risks for children, both by exacerbating familiar problems because of its speed, connectivity and anonymity (e.g. bullying) and generating new ones (e.g. rendering peer sharing of music illegal). These are precisely risks that reflect our contemporary social anxieties about children's growing independence (in terms of identity, sexuality, consumption) in contemporary society.

As you note, some want to avoid discussion of "risk" because it may help fuel the climate of "moral panic" that surrounds the adoption of new media into homes and schools. Why do you think it is important for those of us who are more sympathetic to youth's online lives to address risks?

I have worried about this a lot, for it is evident to me that, to avoid moral panics (a valid enterprise), many researchers stay right away from any discussion or research on how the internet is associated not only with interesting opportunities but also with a range of risks, from more explicit or violent pornography than was readily available before, to hostile communication on a wider scale than before, and to intimate exchanges that can go wrong or exploit naïve youth within private spaces invisible to parents. I think it's vital that research seeks a balanced picture, examining both the opportunities and the risks, therefore, and I argue that to do this, it's important to understand children's perspectives, to see the risks in their terms and according to their priorities.

Even more difficult, and perhaps unfashionable, I also think that we should question some of children's judgments - they may laugh off exposure to images that may harm them long-term, for example, or they may not realise how the competition to gain numerous online friends makes others feel excluded or hurt.

Last, and I do like to be led in part by the evidence, I have been very struck by the finding that experiences of opportunities and risks are positively associated. Initially, I had thought that when children got engaged in learning or creativity or networking online, they would be more skilled and so know how to avoid the various risks online. But my research made clear that quite the opposite occurs - the more you gain in digital literacy, the more you benefit and the more difficult situations you may come up against.

As I observed before, partly this is about the design of the online environment - to join Facebook, you must disclose personal information, and once you've done that you may receive hostile as well as valuable contacts; to seek out useful health advice, you must search for key words that may result in misleading or manipulative information. And so on. This is why I'm trying to call attention to how young people's literacy must be understood in the context of what I'm calling the legibility of the interface.

You argue that we should be more attentive to the affordances of new media than

its impacts. How are you distinguishing between these two approaches?

Many of us have argued for some time now that the concept of 'impacts' seems to treat the internet (or any technology) as if it came from outer space, uninfluenced by human (or social and political) understandings. Of course it doesn't. So, the concept of affordances usefully recognises that the online environment has been conceived, designed and marketed with certain uses and users in mind, and with certain benefits (influence, profits, whatever) going to the producer.

Affordances also recognises that interfaces or technologies don't determine consequences 100%, though they may be influential, strongly guiding or framing or preferring one use or one interpretation over another. That's not to say that I'd rule out all questions of consequences, more that we need to find more subtle ways of asking the questions here. Problematically too, there is still very little research that looks long-term at changes associated with the widespread use of the internet, making it surprisingly hard to say whether, for example, my children's childhood is really so different from mine was, and why.

Sonia Livingstone is Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is author or editor of fourteen books and many academic articles and chapters on media audiences, children and the internet, domestic contexts of media use and media literacy. Recent books include Audiences and Publics (2005), The Handbook of New Media (edited, with Leah Lievrouw, Sage, 2006), Media Consumption and Public Engagement (with Nick Couldry and Tim Markham, Palgrave, 2007) and The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture (edited, with Kirsten Drotner, Sage, 2008). She was President of the International Communication Association 2007-8.