Kids Are Fine Online
A DISCUSSION OFThe Kids Are Online—and Alright
Are the kids alright? I welcome Camille Crittenden’s article, “The Kids Are Online—and Alright” (Issues, Fall 2019), as it explains to an often panicky and increasingly dystopia-minded public that children and young people are alright in a digital world.
Nonetheless, it is hard to point to robust social science evidence that permits us confidently to weigh overall the risks versus opportunities of internet use. Children differ, as do their circumstances, and as do the values that parents and the wider society place on the multiple outcomes of internet use. Moreover, contexts are crucial. For the child who has run about all day, a couple of hours streaming video may provide vital downtime, but for the child avoiding physical activity, or lacking access to safe outside play spaces, extended video viewing may compound a preexisting problem.
No wonder that social scientists are recognizing that what matters is less the time spent online than the nature of online contents and how children engage with them. Crittenden highlights the benefits of internet access for children’s reproductive and mental health, professional development and economic security, and civic engagement. But our Global Kids Online research shows that only a minority of children really attain these.
Through the metaphor of the “ladder of online participation,” we have called on adult society to celebrate not only the beneficial outcomes identified by Crittenden but all the steps of the ladder. This means supporting rather than deploring children’s mundane game playing, chatting, image sharing, and video viewing online because it is precisely thus that they take the first steps toward gaining the skills and efficacy needed for more advanced health, civic, and workplace benefits.
With this in mind, I am puzzled by Crittenden’s focus on provision of broadband to the exclusion of other dimensions of digital inclusion. Surely meaningful access—which enables children to develop in a digital world to their full potential– requires not just broadband but also safe spaces for using technology, diverse service provision, media literacy education, constructive parental and educator support, and more.
However, I do appreciate Crittenden’s effort to reveal the confounding and contextual factors that undermine the temptation to blame the internet for children’s difficulties. But it would be a mistake to counter such a naïve inference by simply asserting that the kids are alright. For many are not: some are excluded or abused or living in extreme situations, and many struggle with academic and peer pressures, family tensions, or an uncertain future. Though undoubtedly use of the internet intensifies the opportunities—and risks—that children experience, it is the deeper issues of socioeconomic inequality, discrimination, and violence, among other factors, that have long blighted children’s lives and doubtless will continue to do so.
Department of Media and Communications
London School of Economics and Political Science