Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part One)

I was proud that our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, (co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman) was selected to be one of the two launch titles for an exciting new book series being produced by the MacArthur Foundation and the New York University Press. As part of the launch of this series, I've been involved in a series of conversations with some of the other authors included in the series, including an event to be held next week at the London School of Economics. More details on that event next time. Here, I am joined by Julian Sefton-Green and Sonia Livingstone. Sefton-Green edits the series and co-authored with Livingstone the other launch title, The Class:Living and Learning in the Digital Age. They both are faculty at the London School of Economics.


What’s the series all about? Julian Sefton-Green writes:

May saw the launch of the first two books in a new series Connected Youth and Digital Futures. Building on research supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning initiative, it offers books about how the day-to-day lives and futures of young people are being reconfigured at the intersection of civil and political reform, transformation in employment and education, and the embedding of digital technologies across all domains of social and personal life.


We live in divisive and divided times where the futures that young people may inherit appear more fraught than in previous generations. As Western societies have become increasingly marketised, older forms of social contract - of conformity, working hard and aspiring high - can no longer fulfil the promises they appeared to offer:


  • Access to employment, housing and independent living has become increasingly competitive;
  • Generations are being lost from participation in conventional forms of civic activity and political action;
  • Traditional state institutions like schools and colleges seem more peripheral and excluding, and life pathways confused, complex and competitive;
  • Forms of social stratification seem to have become more acute as elites have reasserted their power and privilege.


All of these changes call into question the nature and purpose of learning in these uncertain times. At the same time, and somehow entangled with these changes, social life is increasingly mediated through forms of digital technology and the interpersonal and day-to-day life in neighbourhoods and communities have become increasingly surveilled and automated. Many of the claims advanced for the digital are now being tested around the world as institutions, families, and young people themselves negotiate, incorporate or transform in response to these changing possibilities.


In this blog post, the authors of the first two volumes in the series, By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age explain why they were motivated to write these books, what we think they achieve and in what ways their themes relate to each other and fulfil the aims of the series.


Henry Jenkins writes:


Our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, emerged from our participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Chaired by Joe Kahne, this multidisciplinary network brought together philosophers (Danielle Allen), educators (Howard Gardner) Political Scientists (Jennifer Earl, Cathy J. Cohen), youth advocates (Lissa Soep, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl), and technologists (Ethan Zuckerman), all committed to research or interventions intended to shed light on the political lives of American youth.

Over seven plus years of conversations, we evolved a shared conceptual vocabulary for discussing what we call participatory politics, characterized as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” Across diverse methodologies, the network was finding evidence that: “the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends or to engage with those who share one’s interests can and are being transferred to the political realm.”

The network’s survey, involving more than 3000 respondents, was finding some compelling insights about young people’s civic engagement.

  • More than half (56 percent) of those contacted had not been involved in politics in any form over the 12 months prior to the survey. But roughly 40-45 had involved in some form of participatory politics across this same period.
  • Contrary to claims that online political participation decreased “real world” political involvement, the survey found that those who engaged in politics via social media were twice as likely to vote as those who had not.
  • There was greater racial equality in terms of participation in online political actions than in more institutionalized forms of politics. 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian youth had participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months. By contrast, the difference in voting as of 2008 showed a gap of 25 percent between the most active youth (African-Americans at 52 percent) and the least active (Latino Youth at 27 percent).

Our research group’s task was to go behind these statistics and provide a portrait of what forms of participatory politics emerged when we looked at innovative organizations and networks that have been highly successful at getting young people involved in civic and political activities. We ended up selecting groups and networks organized around brands (Invisible Children), fan interests (Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters), faith-based communities (American Muslims), identity politics (DREAMers) and shared ideological and philosophical commitments (Students for Liberty), resulting in an ethnically and ideologically diverse mix of organizations.

In practice, each of these groups blurs the categories we initially proposed and we learned the most by looking at what these groups had in common. Altogether, we interviewed more than 200 young activists who shared with us their “civic paths” (that is, how they were invited into the political process) and the ways that media platforms and participatory practices have informed their activities.

Sonia Livingstone writes:

In parallel with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network work focused on political participation, described above, in the Connected Learning Research Network we have focused on learning opportunities, exploring whether and how “connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities,” as explained in the network’s research synthesis.

That report highlighted the case of 17-year-old Clarissa, an aspiring screenwriter whose friends introduced her to a role-playing site online where equally enthusiastic peers pooled their creative and critical resources to the point where Clarissa could use her new-found expertise to get into college. Relatedly, Mark Warschaeur and Tina Matuchniak wrote about how 14-year-old Max produced humorous videos and posted them on YouTube, gaining so much fan mail that his video aired on mainstream television. These and many other cases rightly serve to inspire adults and youth, tech developers and the public alike, as does the rise of young vloggers or the popularity of Minecraft communities. Yet these are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions, raising the question – how widespread are such activities, what everyday conditions support them and, more normatively, are these pathways that society wishes to prioritize for its youth?

While research suggests that connected learning opportunities arise when the sites of home, school and other locations for learning are connected and supported, our project was inspired by the observation that few studies based in schools refer to children’s lives at home. Even the idea of spending a year with “a class” evokes a curious fascination, suggesting a closed, intense, yet fragile world of school that adults, especially parents, generally do not see into. Equally, most studies of life at home rarely follow children outside it, tending towards a perception of the home as equally closed, especially from the teachers’ perspective. Of course young people are themselves the link across sites of living and learning, so we designed our research to follow them and get closer to their experiences and perspectives to trace their connections and disconnections.

To do this, we capitalized on our complementary expertise as researchers, each trying to pay attention to what the other found surprising. As we explain in the book, Sonia has spent much of her career with families at home, seeking to understand their media lives and exploring the dynamics of gender and generation in the home. Julian has spent much of his career with students and teachers at school, exploring the conditions by which media use at school and elsewhere could enable creativity and knowledge. Our project was designed to bridge these perspectives.

By spending a year with a class of 13 year olds – at school, at home, with their friends, and online, we could begin to unpack questions such as:

  • Do today’s youth have more opportunities than their parents?
  • As they build their own social and digital networks, does that offer new routes to learning and friendship?
  • How do they navigate opportunities for formal and informal learning in a digitally connected but fiercely competitive, highly individualized world?
  • What is expected of parents, and what do parents actually do, when bringing up their young teens in the digital age?

(More Next Time)

Sonia Livingstone is a full professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. She is author or editor of eighteen books and many academic articles and chapters. The past President of the International Communication Association, Sonia was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 ‘for services to children and child internet safety.’ Taking a comparative, critical and contextualised approach, Sonia’s research asks why and how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action, identity and communication rights. Her empirical work examines the opportunities and risks afforded by digital and online technologies, including for children and young people at home and school, for developments in media and digital literacies, and for audiences, publics and the public sphere more generally.

Julian Sefton-Green is an independent scholar working in Education and the Cultural and Creative Industries. He is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Media & Communication, LSE and a research associate at the University of Oslo working on projects in London and Oslo exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains. He has authored, co-authored or edited 12 volumes including: The International Handbook of Creative Learning (2011 Routledge); Learning at Not-School (2013, MIT Press); Learning and Literacy over Time (2014, Routledge). Recent volumes are The class: living and learning in the digital age (New York University Press 2016) and Learning Identities, Education and Community: young live in the cosmopolitan city (Cambridge University Press 2016).