Where to hide in contemporary China? Children’s online space

Between September 22 and 25 I participated in the first ‘Cultural Typhoon in Europe’ (the original Cultural Typhoon flew over from Japan, activating artists, academics, and activists to work together on different ideas; here a discussion of this year’s typhoon). As the conference theme was ‘creative production of place and space in East Asia’ I thought that this would be a good way to start on a next sub-subject in my digital China theme where I want to focus on the use and appropriation of online space by children.

Children need secrets. They also need time in order to occupy space and claim it their own. While creating space of their own works fairly well in rural environments, urban areas that are dominated by a dense conglomeration of adults, their consumption and their transport space pose some more complications for children to transform into space of their own. Even more complicated are places of mass education. Originally adult-centered, Lefebvre’s work about how social space is used receives increasing attention in childhood studies, shifting the focus to space as an important aspect in understanding children’s lives. At the same time, the notion of space gets a digital twist, and children’s space is said to be found increasingly in their mobile phones or the internet.

In this presentation I explore what digital space for children means, embedded in the theory of Lefebvre’s production of space. The focus lies on the necessity for children to have secrets and space of their own. Adult forces against this claim to secrets and space of their own – not privacy – make use of educational institutions and the domination of spatial infrastructure in the internet and beyond, including surveillance. How can children possibly learn autonomy under these circumstances? Especially autonomous behavior on the internet.

Based on fieldwork in rural China about how children use space, websites created for children, and the global history of shrinking space, this presentation proposes to offer a glimpse into children’s hiding zones in China and explains why and how children should be left alone in the internet from time to time.

Inspired by Lefebvre, I attempted to apply the theory of the production of space, and I asked to remember the building activities of childhood, when children build their little caves in the living room or the corner of a house or in bushes outside; activities with which they practice autonomy. Based on this kind of autonomous space creations, I went to discuss the online context.

This study, I should note, moves in a quite opposite direction of what I tried before when I searched for voices of children in the internet, and the possibilities of children to be heard. Here I am interested in the idea to be neither heard nor seen but to be able to contemplate, experience autonomy, find and build one’s own limits, and be left alone, especially by adults. There is, needless to say, a huge difference in age concerning practices of autonomy offline and online. Furthermore, I expect girls and boys have different practices due to the gendering process while growing up. Empirical material consists blogs and games that are popular with 6-10 year olds.

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