Digital youth: risks and opportunities

This year’s Journal of Youth Studies Conference hosted a number of presenters who addressed youth and the digital world from a risk/opportunity perspective. Digital media, and in particular social networking platforms have proven to be opportune tools when contacting and communicating with youth, for example in youth work. (Look e.g. at these guidelines, which talk of “golden opportunities.) However, as Liesl Conradie in her presentation on “Unexpected online opportunities and risks: unsanctioned connections between young people and youth work practitioners on social network sites” has pointed out, there is a rather large grey zone as to how to properly handle online connections between young people and youth work practitioners. To be sure, there exist publications and reports about youth work and social networking, but in practice many of these new ways of ‘keeping in touch’ with youth are not yet regulated in professional and ethical guidelines concerning youth work. Should professionals become Facebook ‘friends’, and what does that mean for the practitioner/client relationship? How is information from networking platforms being used, and are young people aware of these potential uses? And once a case is closed: can one simply un-friend the people in question, or could that damage the respective person’s self-esteem?

There seems to be a delay between technological advancement on the one side, and policy responses on the other. Very often, we only see the ‘good intentions’ behind these new initiatives and detect the problems and dangers associated with them only when it’s already too late. Interestingly, the reactions to my own presentation about how the Chinese state intends to use ICT in order to govern the digital student (see my previous blog), showed that the message to take away for those without a particular research interest in China was that the Chinese case can make us more keenly aware of the ethical dilemmas arising from combining educational purposes (however defined) with social networking tools – something that we fail to see when remaining within our own value matrix. This could be called a nice example of how the ‘comparative gaze’ can make a difference.

The problem of using other people’s social networking information other than for social networking itself can also become an issue in our own research procedures, e.g. when we are using blog entries that might be compromising for their authors if they raise attention (such as from authorities). One paper on the exchange of information about steroids in the Swedish online forum Flashback dealt with the question of how much we, as researchers, are entitled to use (analyze, quote) these blogs (see the presenters’ book The Global Gym). They tackled this problem by giving the bloggers new names and translating their blogs into English, but still – are we really protecting these bloggers’ identities as we would protect our interviewees? Or should we assume that these people ‘knew what they were doing’ when they published their blogs in the first place? (See Nancy Walton’s nuanced research blog on Internet research ethics, Deibert’s and Crete-Nishihata’s article on the ethics of cyberspace research, and of course Eynon’s, Fry’s and Schroeder’s The Ethics of Internet Research.) These questions become vital also with regard to the Chinese context, where the political climate may change to the worse, while the Net doesn’t forget – and we still get access to blogs or other digital data that may be potentially risky for their creators.

Other presenters pointed to the risk of over-problematizing ICT with regard to children. For instance, Sara Bragg, in her paper on “Young people, schools, digital cultures and the ‘face to face'”, criticized the various moralizing risk discourses concerning ICT and children, such as youth becoming neuro-wired in worrying ways if using computers and the Internet too extensively. This is reminiscent both of more recent Swedish debates about optimal screen time for younger children and of the Chinese discourse on ‘Internet addiction’. Internet addiction has been established as a new clinical disorder particularly in China, where it is now treated for example in military-style boot camps. Bragg, in contrast, argues against the artificial separation of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media and maintains, drawing on Anthony Giddens, that we tend to disconnect the human and the technological. The ways in which schools continue to be hostile to everyday usage of digital media are not conducive for the child’s development of digital literacy skills.

Other presentations concerned reflexive (auto-)biographies when participants were confronted with their old Facebook profiles (Sian Lincoln and Brady Robards on “Editing the project of self: Sustained Facebook use and growing up online”). How are people managing risks when re-editing their lives on Facebook, e.g. when managing job prospects, past experiences, or personal relationships? The paper didn’t ask about political implications of these re-scripting processes – but one can easily add this dimension if one were to include studies on societies that are more subject to political manipulation and control. The ‘scroll-back’ approach looks interesting also from a methodological point of view – as does the method of ‘favorite things’ interviews, in which children were asked about their favorite objects – also providing insights into children’s digital lives (paper by Liam Berriman on “Curating Youth: Digital and Material Practices”). Finally, a paper by David Wästerfors and Kristofer Hansson on “Youth, disability and gaming engrossment” addressed participant cultures from a disability perspective: how do disability and gaming interact with one another? Very often, we tend to think of ‘normal bodies’ when doing research on the use of media. How can a shift of perspective in this regard yield new insights about using media, such as users changing, manipulating, or even re-inventing the ways in which computer games can be played?

As with all conferences nowadays, we can follow them in almost real-time on Twitter – whether reading all those comments leads to any new insights (let alone an idea of what the presentations were about) is another question. Thanks anyway to Ravinder Barn – who is involved in a very interesting project on mobile phone technology that helps promote positive engagement between youth workers and young people – for her positive comments on my paper 🙂

Twitter comment on my paper

Twitter comment on my paper

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University
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