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Sonia Livingstone

October 10th, 2018

Six myths about children in the digital age

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sonia Livingstone

October 10th, 2018

Six myths about children in the digital age

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Today Sonia Livingstone is presenting on the panel at the Digital Families 2018 conference discussing the future for young people online – risks, opportunities and resilience. In this post Sonia talks about some of the myths about children in a digital age. Sonia Livingstone is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. [Header image credit: W. Vota, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg]

Every age has its myths. Myths are often equated with falsehood, but their very persistence reveals society’s deeper commitment to particular values. Some myths in the digital age are remarkably hard to shake, even though evidence from research and experience often contradicts them. Here are my top myths about children in the digital age.

  1. Children are ‘digital natives’ and know it all.
  2. Parents are ‘digital immigrants’ and don’t know anything.

These are linked, a reversal of the generational power hierarchy between adults and children that has held sway throughout history. It fascinates many that, seemingly only now, in the digital age, do children know more than adults, so that adults could – and perhaps should – learn from them.

But the evidence suggests that children are often the most confident and experimental online, but that doesn’t mean they understand the internet or how and why people act online better than their parents do.

Rather, both children and parents vary hugely in what they know and many children turn to their parents for trustworthy guidance, just as many parents do their best to provide it.

Professor Sonia Livingstone speaking at the Digital Families 2018 conference on 10 October. Taken by @ReasonDigital
  1. Time with media is time wasted compared with ‘real’ conversation or playing outside.
  2. Parents’ role is to monitor, restrict and ban because digital risks greatly outweigh digital opportunities.

These together underpin the popular screen time discourse which expresses our anxieties about social change. It’s never quite clear in all the advice to parenting whether the screen time ‘rules’ (no screens for infants, no more than two hours per day, etc.) are motivated by the view that the non-digital world is more ‘real’ and thus ‘better’ (myth 3) or, contradicting this, if the online world is too real and thus ‘worse’ (myth 4).

Here the evidence is weak and confusing. For example, it has not been shown that more screen time results in more childhood harm. It is clear that conversation and free play are good, but unclear that these are always best done in the physical rather than virtual world.

It does appear that if we restrict children online, this makes them safer but it also leads to conflict and to evasion. So this is not to deny the risk of harm from internet use but, rather, to say: it’s not so simple as to restrict and ban – because restrictions don’t necessarily make for safety, but they do undermine the opportunities.

  1. Children don’t care about their privacy online.
  2. Media literacy is THE answer to the problems of the digital age.

These are also linked, contradicting the view of children as knowing it all (myth 1) and adults knowing little (myth 2) by claiming instead how much we have to teach children. If we could make kids care about their privacy, then they wouldn’t give their data away or put themselves at risk. If society could educate children, maybe everyone, about how the digital media really work and their problems, then there’d be no need to regulate the internet, thereby avoiding unwarranted interference in digital or market freedoms.

The evidence here is that children do care about interpersonal privacy – but they also want to be part of the group and to share according to its norms. They care less about companies gaining access to their data because they know less about it. But knowing might not change behaviour nonetheless, because those companies force a binary choice – give us your data or don’t use the service. Education isn’t what will make the difference in this situation.

If myths persist because they represent our deepest hopes and fears, then I might conclude that what we really worry about is that:

  • Adult knowledge is losing its value and authority.
  • Children’s lives – their values and wellbeing – are getting worse.
  • We can’t change the world so let’s try to improve the individual.

Now, there’s a debate worth having. It requires different kinds of evidence and argument. And it’s much more political.

Of course, the nature and uses of the internet matters greatly. But often when we think that’s what we’re arguing about, we’re missing the point, for our concerns about social change go deeper, as do our disagreements.

This text was originally published on the Parentzone website and has been re-posted with permission.

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.

About the author

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people. Her most recent book is The class: living and learning in the digital age (2016, with Julian Sefton-Green). Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.' Sonia Livingstone is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society for the Arts and fellow and past President of the International Communication Association (ICA). She has been visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen, Copenhagen, Harvard, Illinois, Milan, Oslo, Paris II, Pennsylvania, and Stockholm, and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She is on the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, is a member of the Internet Watch Foundation’s Ethics Committee, is an Expert Advisor to the Council of Europe, and was recently Special Advisor to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications, among other roles. Sonia has received many awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the University of Montreal, Université Panthéon Assas, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the University of the Basque Country, and the University of Copenhagen. She is currently leading the project Global Kids Online (with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and EU Kids Online), researching children’s understanding of digital privacy (funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office) and writing a book with Alicia Blum-Ross called ‘Parenting for a Digital Future (Oxford University Press), among other research, impact and writing projects. Sonia is chairing LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission in 2017-2018, and participates in the European Commission-funded research networks, DigiLitEY and MakEY. She runs a blog called www.parenting.digital and contributes to the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog. Follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S

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