The “Parenting for a Digital Future” blog has tried to capture the diversity of families’ experiences with the internet around the world by including reflections on fieldwork conducted in many different countries. In this post, Sonia Livingstone, Dafna Lemish and Sun Sun Lim highlight what they learned from working with researchers from several continents to understand the emerging nature of children’s digital opportunities globally. Sonia is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, and is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. Dafna is Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department of Radio,Television, and Digital Media at Southern Illinois University. Sun Sun is a professor and head of Humanities and Social Sciences at Singapore University of Technology and Design. [Header image credit: A. Cohn, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

What do we mean when we speak of educational opportunities provided by children’s digital engagement? And how do the answers vary across different countries and cultural contexts?

Working with colleagues from very diverse contexts,[i] we recently reviewed the latest international research on whether and how digital opportunities, as they become available even in middle- and low-income countries, may benefit children (or not). Recognising that optimistic promises about new opportunities to communicate, learn and participate are made to justify provision of digital resources and internet access to children globally, we wondered if these are bearing fruit. And knowing that these promises are countered by concerns about the online risk of harm to children made us wonder if the costs are just too great for policy makers – and parents – to contemplate.

We were glad to find some evidence that children around the world do benefit from new digital opportunities, though it is important to stress that the meanings and consequences depend on their very different contexts of their lives. It was salutary to discover, though, that establishing the benefits of new technologies is harder than one might wish, and more research, ideally conducted longitudinally – to follow children over some years – is really needed.

  • For example, Chile has tried hard to improve access to digital technologies, with nearly half of all homes now connected to the internet; yet few students achieve the advanced skill levels needed to capitalize on this access.

But we found plenty of evidence of problems too. Some problems (notably, the risk of harm) are linked to gaining digital access. Many other problems (notably, of multiple forms of exclusion and huge levels of inequality) are linked to the difficulties children face in poorer countries in gaining access to the internet and to the skills and resources vital to underpin hoped-for benefits.

  • For example, in township schools in Gauteng, South Africa, one tablet per child is being provided as part of a “conversion to a full digital learning and teaching platform” or “smart paperless classrooms,” in spite of the lack of acceptable sanitation – toilets and clean water – available to schoolchildren.

Thus it is vital to recognize that digital technologies are often introduced in contexts where considerable existing inequalities already exist, for these can be inadvertently exacerbated, for example by locating an intervention in (often wealthier) urban rather than rural (poorer) regions, or letting children choose to participate (and discovering later that more boys volunteer).

Also problematic, we found that the effort to navigate between these risks and opportunities, so that children enjoy the benefits of the digital age, is impeded by anxieties felt by policy makers, parents and the public—often fuelled by the media panics that typically accompany any technological innovation, tending to result in overprotective responses that can undermine children’s digital opportunities, learning and participation.

All of this highlights the importance of grounding any claims about digital opportunities in children’s specific cultural contexts, taking into account local values, practices, and expectations for the use of technologies. We found a wide variety of interpretations for what educational opportunities might mean, e.g., that digital technologies serve as tools to enhance learning; prepare children for the workforce to enhance their future employability; facilitate the inclusion of communities of marginalized youth; etc.

  • For example, in several Arab societies, the internet is simultaneously heralded as a liberating educational and participatory tool, and feared as culturally/socially corrupting.

Different societies have different goals and may try to implement them differently. Indeed, one somewhat ironic finding is that while researchers in poorer countries are seeking ways to increase equality in children’s access to digital technologies and educational resources, those in wealthy countries are seeking ways to manage or reduce children’s screen time (even though, for example, a recent US survey finds no increase in children’s screen time from 2011-2017), as well as their exposure to commercial content, and the dangers posed by technologies to their privacy and agency.

Thus in wealthier countries, new concerns arise that the use of digital technologies in educational systems will intensify the existing academic pressures on children in some technologically advanced societies; that technologies will be used for excessive testing and invasion of students’ privacy; that educational systems will rely even more on data and metrics for policy making at the expense of other considerations; that use of digital technologies will bring risks that outweigh the opportunities; and that the socioeconomic and digital divide between populations will grow, rather than shrink.

  • For example, in parts of metropolitan, technologically advanced East, South and Southeast Asia, in-school and after-school virtual learning and online coordination of academic activities are further intensifying the already-considerable academic pressures on children in middle-class households, with the potential to adversely affect parent–child relationships.

Our review, just published in the journal Pediatrics, is part of a larger inquiry coordinated by the interdisciplinary non-profit, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, resulting in a multi-authored special supplement of the journal, available online and packed with insights and findings from an impressive array of child development and media experts. In launching the supplement, Institute founder Dr Pam Hurst-Della Pietra also observes the pressing gaps in knowledge, noting that “We can’t wait a generation to learn the impacts of a technological revolution that’s happening as we speak.”

As we wait for more research to emerge, we end with suggestions concerning the fast-changing role and responsibility of parents in the digital age:

  1. It is important for organisations representing parents to collaborate with other stakeholders who are gaining expertise in part of the overall puzzle of maximizing children’s digital opportunities—including educators, policy makers, media organizations, medical professions, international organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF, and local NGOs.
  2. It is critical not to prioritize children’s online protection against risk of harm to the detriment of their participation, or the reverse: reaching an appropriate balance should be achieved by considering the needs of each individual child, their family context, parental values and the available alternative cultural resources; and by consulting with children themselves.
  3. It is vital to ensure that providing digital opportunities does not expand the disparity and inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots,” both within the family (e.g., boys versus girls; older versus younger children; able children versus children with disabilities and special needs) and within their peer groups.

Notes


[i] We thank our co-authors: Monica Bulger, Data and Society Research Institute, USA; Patricio Cabello, Tania Cabello and Magdalena Claro, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile; Joe Khalil, Northwestern University in Qatar; Kristiina Kumpulainen, University of Helsinki, Finland; Usha S. Nayar Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India; Priya Nayar, University of Cologne, Germany; Jonghwi Park and Maria Melizza Tan, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Thailand; Jeanne Prinsloo, Rhodes University, South Africa; and Bu Wei, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.