Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Children of the internet

Ben Casbon

Response paper covering material from:

Livingstone, S. (2003). Children’s use of the internet: Reflections on the emerging research agenda. New Media & Society, 5(2), 147-166.

A relevant question for any child nowadays is “Do you know your way around the internet?” As ambiguous a question as that is, the underlying meaning is unmistakable. The internet is practically inescapable in an adult’s life, with more and more organizations choosing to communicate through that medium. What is often overlooked, however, is that children have a much stronger connection with the internet. Sonia Livingstone quotes a UK survey amount 7-16 year olds. 75 percent of the children surveyed have used the internet, which is a stark contrast to adult statistic of 38 percent.

Children’s exposure to information and computer technology is almost inevitable, yet it has not been studied in any way commensurate with its level of adoption by the younger echelons of society. First among many questions that the author asks is ‘How to children use computers’? Computers are neither inherently serious nor are they frivolous, but they can become either in the hands of a child. A researcher cannot merely survey the content generated on the internet for children and assume that they are viewing it or interacting with it, nor do they have a ready stash of information about what children view online.

The internet can be a dangerous place, as the author acknowledges. Much of the research into how children use computers has been driven by policy imperatives, which attempt to prescribe a formula for ingesting the good parts of the web and passing over the bad.

“Do you use the internet to communicate with other people?” is another relevant question that researchers ask. Are technophobic fears of isolated pale-skinned social networking homebodies justified, or are they merely insisting on tin cans in the age of phones? Again, few researchers have illuminated this informational void. While little can be said authoritatively, it seems that children are adept at synthesizing their real life and their virtual existence. It seems that the children of the internet do use the internet to keep tabs on their local comrades more than establishing friendships with people at a distance.

An interesting consequence of this internet age is the ability for children to form their identity in an a-physical way. Little is known about the potential consequences of the ready available of anonymity of the internet or access to a wealth of inexpert enthusiasts.

Parents hook up the internet for their kids. The grand notion in many parents minds doubtless is, that their action of providing internet access to their kids will greatly further their education. Does it? Do children use the internet at home to self educate, or do they use it entertain themselves. It may be reasonably asked at some points if there is a difference. Should the free-form learning on the internet in a home environment spread to the school environment, or should the rigors and strict oversight flow from the school to the home? At this point, it is still a valid question if the internet actually DOES enhance a child’s education.

Because it is a ‘free’ environment, ICT access at home can often be inhibited by people with less than pure motives at heart. Parents may feel threatened and restrict access, or sisters and brothers may cut each other out. The effect of NOT being on the internet has not yet been quantified, yet it seems without doubt that such a thing would be harmful to a developing child. I

As previously mentioned, the internet can be a dangerous place. While this article explores many unknowns in the research, it is clear that children have access to pornography over the internet. While exposure to pornography at a young age is perhaps harmful, the potential for sexual harm is much greater. An alarming increase in the number of sexual predators online has led to even greater concern about who children contact and communicate with over the internet. But, the author questions if merely the potential for harm exist, or if these result in actual severe damage down the road.

How do you even begin to study children’s use of the internet? Do you ask their parents, or do you observe them directly? Do you do quantitative research or qualitative? The author cites three broad assumptions to guide further research:

1. Children set patterns on the internet. They figure out their own path and then follow it, thus it makes sense to make your study child-centric, as opposed to obsessing about the media itself.

2. Children interact with the internet “in day’s work.” Internet use occurs within the child’s everyday life and should be studied as such. If the researcher were to study the children’s interaction with the internet as a fascinating adventure in wonderland, that would neither do justice to the experience nor would it produce an accurate understanding.

3. Do not assume that new technology/media will replace old media. While old media may be replaced, often it will be transformed or integrated with the already existing world that the child lives in. Radio stations have web sites, and web sites have radio stations.

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