The importance of the new book – Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift – cannot be exaggerated. It provides the scholarship we adults need to make the pivot of the 21st century: away from dictating to young people and toward partnering with them as we all figure out life in this ever more digitally powered world.
It’s also a wakeup call. “Control Shift” is an economical, cleverly keyboard-y reference to the “control paradigm” that the authors say (and I agree) has come to define digital safety, inclusion and citizenship, the three main topics their book addresses.
The shift is crucial now, as…
- The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is now starting its fourth decade
- The Committee upholding it is about to issue the first “General Comment” on youth digital rights (see this about that)
- Young people now represent a third of the world’s 4.4 billion Internet users – and counting!
The youngest generation (the one called “Alpha”) cannot, hopefully will not, grow up under the conditions described in 2012 by Canada’s premier digital and media literacy organization, MediaSmarts, in its study “Talking to Youth & Parents About Life Online”:
“The parents we spoke with were beleaguered by fear of danger and exhausted from the burden of constant vigilance,” wrote the organization’s then co-director Jane Tallim. “Although the exact nature of that danger is poorly defined, many parents told us that surveillance is now equated with good parenting, and that the days of trusting their children and providing them with space to explore the world and make mistakes are long gone.”
I’d certainly seen this happening in the US and other countries in the 15 years I’d been writing about research and practice around youth and digital media. So my heart sank when I saw that the perception was spreading, backed by research. And now – as smartphones have become kids’ main tool for play, work and hanging out with friends, 84% of US teens use them and “screen time” has become a household word – the situation certainly hasn’t improved.
“We’re letting our fear and our skepticism about these devices hold us back from realizing their potential in our children’s lives,” said Sara DeWitt of PBS Kids in a TED Talk, “3 Fears About Screen Time – and Why They’re Not True” that, as of this writing, has gotten more than 1.6 million views.
How did we get here?
During the first 20 years of Internet safety, we’ve developed “a policy and practice environment that turns upon deficit framing of ‘young people’,” the authors of Control Shift write, and “has been strongly focused on risks, harms and forms of behaviour change that misrecognize, dismiss or demonize young people’s digital practices and the meanings they attach to them.” Note the term “deficit framing” (defining people by their problems or limitations) – is that how we want to define our children? This begins to explain the MediaSmarts findings.
Through the well-worn lens of our very risk-conscious culture – what the authors call “the risk society” – teens have come to be characterized as either at risk (potential victims) or risky (potential perpetrators), the authors write. They have three, maybe four, counts against them (reasons for “needing” to be objects of control). They 1) are “aligned with the future” (a particularly unknown and risky one right now), 2) are a “risk population” and 3) are stuck in a limbo-like place between child and adult and so are treated with ambivalence as being both at risk and risky at the same time. I’d add a 4th: our uneasiness about all things digital (as in headlines about how smartphones might be “destroying a generation”).
“These concerns both fuel and are fuelled by an adult-centred logic of control, which we label ‘the control paradigm’,” write the authors. This atmosphere that had developed around children + digital media was objectifying them, creating a facile view of young tech users as merely subjects of either (our) protection or (adult or peer) victimization. Thus our singular focus on safeguards that are external to a child: rules, laws and “parental controls” that block, monitor, restrict – in essence, surveillance and control. Little to no emphasis was placed on helping children develop their own inner resources, such as resilience, empathy, social skills, ethics, media literacy, digital literacy and the inner guidance system or moral compass that’s as preventative as resilience is protective in adversity.
There’s a growing body of scholarship alerting us to aspects of the control paradigm and its backstory. In a 2010 paper and talk, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, called out the paradigm’s alarmism by coining the term “juvenoia,” which he defined as “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change [including the Internet] on youth.”
In his 2016 book Framing Internet Safety: The Governance of Youth Online, Prof. Nathan Fisk at the University of South Florida, described how that alarmism helped shape the paradigm, writing that “it is through the mobilization of seemingly ‘online’ threats that the governing potentials of information technologies are explored, allowing for the everyday lives of youth to be further monitored and policed. As each youth Internet safety ‘panic’ becomes conceptually possible, so too do mechanisms for leveraging information technologies to surveil and modulate the social lives of youth.”
And in the just-published book Child Protection and Safeguarding Technologies: Appropriate or Excessive ‘Solutions’ to Social Problems?, researchers Andy Phippen and Maggie Brennan in the UK and Irish Republic, ask “whether we are sleepwalking into an environment that is more concerned with control and achieving [young people’s] docility rather than safety.” They challenge widespread assumptions among policymakers in the UK that social problems can be solved by technology and social media companies.
Many other scholars – especially the researchers of EU Kids Online and now Global Kids Online – have pointed to the need for more mentoring and less monitoring and control in working with our digital age children.
Importantly, continuing that positive momentum, starting with a special issue of the journal Media & Society in 2017, Sonia Livingstone and Amanda Third (lead author of Control Shift), and now Phippen and Brennan, are consciously placing youth online safety within the framework of young people’s rights, where it belongs. Because it is within this framework that adults can uphold children’s rights of protection in balance with their rights of participation and provision (e.g., digital, media and social literacy education). The balance is between their positive freedoms and their negative freedoms, actually:
“In thinking about rights of protection versus rights of participation, it is helpful to analogize ‘positive and negative freedoms,’ whereby protection rights are akin to negative freedoms (freedom from) and participation to positive freedoms (freedom and ability to),” researcher Tijana Milosevic writes in her book Protecting Children Online?, citing Prof. Sonia Livingstone.
Prescription for the paradigm
Continuing this welcome trend of treating children as multi-dimensional human beings with a full spectrum of rights and interests, the authors of Control Shift propose a simple antidote to the control paradigm: Partner with young people in developing the education and safeguards that are meaningful to them and relevant to how they use tech and media.
In their qualitative research, the authors not only spent time with young people in the physical, or offline, contexts of their everyday lives. They also dropped into the intersections of life and media – to see how teens’ perceptions and experiences with media lined up with adult ones, if they did at all. We see an example of how important this is in Spark Change: Making Your Mark in a Digital World, a new book co-authored by 12-year-old activist Olivia Van Ledtje and her educator mother Cynthia Merrill. After hearing Olivia’s story of having been bullied in 1st and 2nd grades, a teacher asked her, “What’s worse – bullying in real life or bullying online?” Olivia’s answer was, “It’s all real life. It feels terrible to be bullied no matter where it happens.” A logical response, but the teacher saw “digital” as different; the child’s perspective is crucial to understanding her experience – in order for adults to know whether a response is needed and, if so, what sort of response. Nobody’s being blamed, here, we just don’t know, maybe can’t know. The control paradigm seems to have snuck up on us – as Brennan and Phippen put it, we sleepwalked into it. Thus this important wakeup call.
Why is this shift so urgent?
Besides the reasons I offered at the top, why is the shift so critical? If we want Internet safety and digital citizenship education to be useful to our children going forward, it cannot continue to be about our perceptions and fears. As we all know, it’s too easy for them to get information and support that they feel is relevant to them just about anywhere else. So here’s the opportunity:
- Do we want to provide our children with an education that’s relevant to them – so that it makes sense to them and they’ll act on it as appropriately as possible? Then we need to listen to them more than to our fears for and about them.
- Do we want to discover new needs and iterate their safety and literacy education so that it maps to their actual needs as they and the tech and media they use evolve? Then we need to sync up with them often, trying out the kind of fear-free and judgment-free curiosity that researchers have, so we can find out how their needs change as they and their technologies do.
- Do we want to uphold our children’s rights of participation (including expression, conscience and association), provision (including literacy, safety and citizenship education), as well as protection? Then we might consider putting a children’s rights framework around digital safety and citizenship.
- Do we want to show our children the respect that we expect from them, in other words demonstrate that their interests are as important to us as ours are? Then we can model for them this value that grounds civil discourse and good governance.
- Do we want to allow them the agency they need to develop resilience (which doesn’t happen without some exposure to risk) and their other developmental imperatives, such as risk assessment, identity exploration and finding their feet, their place in the world (see the last paragraph of this post about what Olivia Van Ledtje learned about turangawaewae, a teaching of the Maori people). Then we can consciously honor their agency and interests, and reject the control paradigm and its default framing of digital citizenship as behavior management.
Finally, thinking beyond the digital for a moment to society – to tumultuous times in many societies, where it seems that the very future of civil discourse and democracy is at stake. Do we really want to raise Generation Alpha, those born after 2010, on the message that control and surveillance are how we keep people safe – in other words, clip their citizenship wings by teaching compliance and dependence? Then join me and the authors of Control Shift in seeing the control paradigm for what it is – a much greater harm to our children than anything digital.
“Each generation…adds to the knowledge and expertise of the previous ones,” writes professor, author and child psychologist Alison Gopnik at University of California, Berkeley. Let’s heed Control Shift’s wake-up call, shift and accelerate out of the control paradigm and consult our children’s knowledge and expertise for their benefit, ours and that of future generations.
- “Over-Blocking’ Online Harms May Infringe Children’s Rights, Digital Literacy Is the Answer”: a review at Forbes.com by author Andy Robertson of Phippen and Brennan’s book mentioned above
- “The Promise of Adolescence” from the National Academies with recommendations for the US”s education, healthcare, child welfare, and justice systems
- In The Gardener and the Carpenter, psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik at University of California, Berkeley, writes, “These questions about technology exemplify the fundamental tension between tradition and innovation [where children are our innovators]…. The puzzle is how to provide children with the rich, stable, secure context they need to grow up without expecting that we can or should be able to control how they turn out…. The shift to new technologies and cultures wouldn’t be possible if caregivers didn’t pass on their own discoveries, traditions, skills and values to their children even if they can’t and shouldn’t expect that children will simply replicate those traditions. As caregivers, we give children a structured, stable environment, and that’s exactly what allows them to be variable random, unpredictable, and messy. We give them a world to re-create. In much the same way, it’s precisely because we work so hard to pass on our traditions and skills, cultural institutions and values, that our children are able to transform them into institutions and values fit for their own time.”
- “The Data in our Faces,” by Veronica Barassi, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths University London
- Youth-Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) at the University of California, BerkeleyThe site explains that it’s youth development + community development that has social justice principles and trains young people to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities and the institutions intended to serve them.”
- Speaking of surveillance, “Gaggle Knows Everything About Teens And Kids In School,” in which Buzzfeed reports that Gaggle student monitoring service for schools “is subjecting young lives to relentless inspection and charging the schools that use it upward of $60,000. And it’s not at all clear whether Gaggle is as effective in saving lives as it claims, or that its brand of relentless surveillance is without long-term consequences for the students it promises to protect.”
- In University of Rhode Island media literacy educator Renee Hobbs’s keynote on algorithms and media literacy ed, she talks about Hegel’s “dialectic of empowerment and protection: knowing is an action. It requires heightened self-awareness and reflection.”