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How can sociological research into young people’s digital lives help shape policy?

Published on
26 Nov 2018
Written by
Huw C. Davies

Yesterday, for the British Sociological Association’s Presidential Event, in the famous Churchill Room in Whitehall, I had the pleasure of addressing an audience of colleagues who have invested in digital sociology and policy officials with an interest its potential to inform their work . I spoke after Professor Sonia Livingstone on the theme of ‘Youth Futures’.  I began by saying to the policy officials who were present, particular those from the Department of Media Culture and Sport, that there are many reasons why sociologists study young people’s digital practices. In the ten minutes available to me, I focussed on just two motivations. Firstly, researching young people, and teenagers in particular, can help us anticipate the future of media consumption. Secondly, teens react creatively to subvert attempts to control and regulate them, so researching this creativity can help produce better policy.

To illustrate the first reason, recent survey data from Ofcom (2017) tells us that 74% of 12-15 year olds still have a Facebook account. But my colleagues and I at the OII found that teenagers ‘friend’ their parents and pretend to be on Facebook to give their parents the illusion of oversight. This allows them to be themselves, on other platforms, away from adult surveillance. During our qualitative evidence gathering we couldn’t find any teenagers with anything positive to say about the platform. All the indications are, Facebook as it aspires to be, a vibrant social & information network, has lost young people in UK.

Ofcom data also shows smartphones and tablets are now our default connection devices. To explore their digital landscape, during our research we asked teenagers to draw a picture of what they think the physical Internet looks like and how data travels around it.  A graphical representation of the World Wide Web and Internet is a tall order: we just wanted to know how it exists in their imagination.  I showed the audience a small but typical sample of their drawings: they were mostly drawings of screens, apps, and corporate logos. A few young people drew globes with intersecting lines going around it. Overall, these drawings illustrate what’s called the ‘appification’ of the web that Zittrain predicted in 2008.  Most teens now access the web through apps, walled gardens or channels, that monetise their data and the information they produce. Many, if not the vast majority, of teens have no idea what the physical Internet is nor any concept of what we mean by the open web. Nor do they know that the tech giants are eating all competition, so teenagers don’t know, for example that Facebook owns Instagram or that Google owns YouTube. This is important for debates about the Internet’s future. For example, in the future who will defend net-neutrality? And, this also has implications for the digital economy; the appified web isn’t a space conducive to experimentation innovation.

As an aside to this talk’s central theme, I told the audience my colleagues and I have also witnessed some young people, particularly middle class and or academically conscientious teenagers, using social norms to distance themselves from screen “addicts”. This possibly introduces a new form advantage or cultural capital that contributes to academic success.

Alternatively teens, particularly those dissatisfied with console gaming, are increasingly getting in the joys of pc gaming. It is difficult to give numbers on this because it is an under-researched and difficult to research area but pc gaming, for some, can and does lead to deep incursions into tech subcultures including the encrypted Tor network or what’s more often called the dark web. To the uninitiated, is surprisingly visible on the open web. During our research, I met one young man who had been excluded from his school because he had hacked its system by following instructional videos on YouTube. These subcultures are introducing an increasingly significant group of teens to a whole new world of risky activities that are almost impossible to regulate. For these teens, everything from learning how to get past parental controls and filters to learning to use a Virtual Private Network to make their location impossible to identify and the ability to access the markets for illegal drugs, ransomware, hacking kits and hacked data is at their fingertips. I illustrated this by showing the audience a handy guide to accessing one of the dark web’s leading markets; the Dream Market. However, many teens aren’t, of course, as savvy as they think they are. So, they are also being introduced to many more situations where they can be easily scammed and exploited. Some VPNs for example harvest personal data.

I’ve also noticed many tech-immersed young people increasingly engaging with what’s know as the IDW or intellectual dark web but that’s a whole other talk about taking the ‘the red pill’, ‘edgelords’, and social networks for conspiracy theorists and extremists strategizing to destroy the shared reality that we’re currently clinging to in UK.

This research shows, policy makers need to ask what type of future do we want?

One defined by relatively passive consumers accessing the web through commercial apps powered by advertising revenue or do we want innovation and enterprise. If it’s the latter some enterprising teens are innovating already beyond the reach of any mainstream regulatory instruments and in ways we may not like. Addressing these issues requires two shifts in thinking: to firstly breakdown taboos and mystification of technologies we now frame as transgressive and problematic (work with reality as it is, not what we want it to be). And secondly in the way we split subjects into discrete entities for study and commentary, we need to stop pretending technologies and societies and our ideologies are separate, so that when technology is mobilised in ways we didn’t anticipate (as illustrated here) we are not always on the back foot, frantically trying to catch-up after the ‘disruption’ happens.

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