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

A real strength of your new book, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities, is that it combines ethnographic and statistical, qualitative and quantitative approaches. What does each add to our understanding of the issues? Why are they so seldom brought together in the same analysis?

I'm glad you think this is a strength, as it's demanding to do, which may be why many don't do it. The simple answer is that I am committed to the view that qualitative work helps us understand a phenomenon from the perspective of those engaged in it, while quantitative work helps us understand how common, rare or distributed a phenomenon is.

Personally, I was fortunate to have been trained in both approaches, starting out with a rigorous quantitative training before launching into a mixed methods PhD as a contribution to a highly qualitative field of audience research and cultural studies. While I don't argue that all researchers must do everything, I do hope that the insights of both qualitative and quantitative research can be recognised by all; as a field, it seems to me vital to bring these approaches together, even if across rather than within projects.

You begin the book by noting the very different models of childhood which have emerged from psychological and sociological research. How can we reconcile these two paradigms to develop a better perspective on the relationship of youth to their surrounding society?

I hope that the book takes us further in integrating psychological and sociological approaches, for I try to show how they can be complementary. Particularly, I rebut the somewhat stereotyped view that psychologists only consider individuals, and only consider children in terms of 'ages and stages', by pointing to a growing trend to follow Vygotsky's social and materialist psychology rather than the Piagetian approach, for this has much in common with today's thinking about the social nature of technology.

However, this is something I'll continue to think about. It seems important to me, for instance, that few who study children and the internet really understand processes of age and development, tending still to treat all 'children' as equivalent, more comfortable in distinguishing ways that society approaches children of different ages than in distinguishing different approaches, understandings or abilities among children themselves.

One tension which seems to be emerging in the field of youth and digital learning is between a focus on spectacular case studies which show the potentials of online learning and more mundane examples which show typical patterns of use. Where do you fall?

Like many, I have been inspired and excited by the spectacular case studies. Yet when I interview children, or in my survey, I was far more struck by how many use the internet in a far more mundane manner, underusing its potential hugely, and often unexcited by what it could do. It was this that led me to urge that we see children's literacy in the context of technological affordances and legibilities. But it also shows to me the value of combining and contrasting insights from qualitative and quantitative work. The spectacular cases, of course, point out what could be the future for many children. The mundane realities, however, force the question - whose fault is it that many children don't use the internet in ways that we, or they, consider very exciting or demanding? It also forces the question, what can be done, something I attend to throughout the book, as I'm keen that we don't fall back into a disappointment that blames children themselves.

As you note, there are "competing models" for thinking about what privacy means

in this new information environment. How are young people sorting through these

different models and making choices about their own disclosures of information?

There's been a fair amount of adult dismay at how young people disclose personal, even intimate information online. In the book, I suggest there are several reasons for this. First, adolescence is a time of experimentation with identity and relationships, and not only is the internet admirably well suited to this but the offline environment is increasingly restrictive, with supervising teachers and worried parents constantly looking over their shoulders.

Second, some of this disclosure is inadvertent - despite their pleasure in social networking, for instance, I found teenagers to struggle with the intricacies of privacy settings, partly because they are fearful of getting it wrong and partly because they are clumsily designed and ill-explained, with categories (e.g. top friends, everyone) that don't match the subtlety of youthful friendship categories.

Third, adults are dismayed because they don't share the same sensibilities as young people. I haven't interviewed anyone who doesn't care who knows what about them, but I've interviewed many who think no-one will be interested and so they worry less about what they post, or who take care over what parents or friends can see but are not interested in the responses of perfect strangers.

In other words, young people are operating with some slightly different conceptions of privacy, but certainly they want control over who knows what about them; it's just that they don't wish to hide everything, they can't always figure out how to reveal what to whom, and anyway they wish to experiment and take a few risks.

You reviewed the literature on youth and civic engagement. What did you find? What do you see as the major factors blocking young people from getting more involved in the adult world of politics?

I suggest here that some initiatives are motivated by the challenge of stimulating the alienated, while others assume young people to be already articulate and motivated but lacking structured opportunities to participate. Some aim to enable youth to realise their present rights while others focus instead on preparing them for their future responsibilities.

These diverse motives may result in some confusion in mode of address, target group and, especially, form of participation being encouraged. Children I interview often misinterpret the invitation to engage being held out to them (online and offline) - they can be suspicious of who is inviting them to engage, quickly disappointed that if they do engage, there's often little response or recognition, and they can be concerned that to engage politically may change their image among their peers, for politics is often seen as 'boring' not 'cool'.

In my survey, I found lots of instances where children and young people take the first step - visiting a civic website, signing a petition, showing an interest - but often these lead nowhere, and that seems to be because of the response from adult society. Hence, contrary to the popular discourses that blame young people for their apathy, lack of motivation or interest, I suggest that young people learn early that they are not listened to. Hoping that the internet can enable young people to 'have their say' thus misses the point, for they are not themselves listened to. This is a failure both of effective communication between young people and those who aim to engage them, and a failure of civic or political structures - of the social structures that sustain relations between established power and the polity.

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.

If you've enjoyed this interview, you can hear Sonia Livingstone live and in person this summer at the 2009 Conference of the National Association for Media Literacy Education

(NAMLE)to be held August 1-4 in Detroit, MI. Her keynote address for this biennial conference -- the nation's largest, oldest and most prestigious gathering of media literacy educators -- is scheduled for Monday, August 3 at 4:00 pm in the Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit.

The conference - four days of non-stop professional development on topics such as teaching critical thinking, gaming, media production, literacy, social networking and more! -- will feature more than sixty events, including keynotes, workshops, screenings, special interest caucuses and roundtable discussions. Among the special events are the launch of the new online Journal of Media Literacy Education, the Modern Media Makers (M3) production camp for high school students, and a celebration of the 50th

anniversary of Detroit's famous "Motown Sound."

The conference theme, "Bridging Literacies: Critical Connections in a Digital World" speaks to the educational challenges facing teachers, schools and administrators in helping young people prepare for living all their lives in a 21st century culture. Complete details and online registration are available here.