Child's play?

Caroline Bassett looks at how Sonia Livingstone's book Young People and New Media opens up the subject of how children interact...

Caroline Bassett looks at how Sonia Livingstone's book Young People and New Media opens up the subject of how children interact with media technologies.

London School of Economics researcher Sonia Livingstone, whose book on children and new media has recently been published by Sage, found inspiration for her research through watching her own children's media use and listening to their descriptions of what they were doing, as well as interviewing other people's children about their use and understanding of new media in the UK. The results of her research make fascinating reading, cutting through some of the assumptions
that society tends to make about children's media use.

Influentially speaking
Why is it important to look at how children interact with new media? Livingstone offers two overriding justifications for her research. The first being that however you measure it - in financial terms, in terms of the organisation of the household, in terms of time spent using it - the media is undoubtedly playing an ever greater role in people's lives, children's in particular.

The second justification is that new media are extending their influence over children's lives - increasingly, kids see the world, grasp it and engage with it by way of media technologies.

In these contexts, research into children and young people's use of new media is clearly very important and there is surprisingly little grounded, informed research about it. All too often, newspapers, magazines and the various gaggles of pundits and experts to be found in education, computing and sociology presume (1) that they know what children are actually doing with new media, (2) what the media is 'doing' to children and (3) what should be done about it. This kind of commentary is problematic because it is superficial.

A new wave of crime
Public concerns about children's use of new media resurfaces time and again, focused around issues such as computer addiction, the Net and child abuse, and the question of violence. Much of the debate, however, is conducted in terms that don't take us far. The splat-bang rhetoric of the computer game is mirrored in the tabloid headlines denouncing Net porn, Net stalking, video violence and mobile phone-inspired street crime among school kids.

This kind of condemnation or generalisation is, of course, not new. Moral panics around new media forms began with the 'penny dreadfuls' in the Victorian era, as researchers have pointed out. What we are now seeing around new media is a more or less standard reaction, historically speaking. But that doesn't mean it is helpful.

Part of what Livingstone's book does is offer a sustained corrective to this kind of moral panic and media hype. It also provides a corrective to the 'truths' about children and media offered by another group that speaks with some authority - parents.

Parents assume they understand what (their) children do with media. After all, they see them watching TV and using mobiles and understand how far family life is dispersed into separate rooms of the house by the multiplication of TVs, the rise of mobile phones, the arrival of always-on Internet and the increasing integration of school and homework.

Despite this, Livingstone's research begins with the premise that parents cannot truly see the media through their children's eyes. Why? Because parents project their own wishes, desires, fantasies and childhood memories onto their understanding of how their children use new media.

Consequently, the descriptions parents can offer of their children's media use are valid, but they do not tell the whole story. Moreover, they certainly do not tell the story from the child's point of view. But it is the parents' account that tends to be accorded greater authority than the child's. It is this neglect of children's own voices that Livingstone's book sets out to address and for this reason it is based not only on archival material, but also on qualitative research into the experiences of children and young people.

From the horse's mouth
The book explores how new media technologies are integrated into home routines. It asks how children feel about domestic leisure and media activities, how much time the activities take up, how children understand the boundaries of public and private space - and how that might be changed through the availability of the Internet, mobiles and the TV in the bedroom.

The contemporary landscape of childhood revealed through Livingstone's work is a landscape partly constituted by the media, and it is a far more complex and ambiguous place than we might expect. The intention is to provide a baseline chart of new media and childhood today, at a time of transformation - a chart that might be returned to in the future so that we can see what has changed, rather than having to rely on our - unreliable - adult memories.

Children are increasingly seeing and being seen through new media technologies. They are heard far more rarely - often only when their childhood has ended. Livingstone works on the basis that this recollected experience doesn't equate to a child's eye view. Looking back on it, we could all work the video and win at Space Invaders at the age of six (five, four, three). The question is, what we did at the time and how we understood it
This was last published in July 2002

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