Irene Mackintosh, Mhor Collective @irenewarnermack, PhD Student at the University of the West of Scotland
It’s always exciting when a new report comes out (or it is to me, but maybe I’m weird), with new statistics to pour over and thoughts to think, and so I was looking forward to reading the new Ofcom report: Children and parents: media use and attitudes report. As a parent (and practitioner) I’m always especially interested in anything that reflects discussions related to digital and how it impacts on family life.
The report makes fascinating reading. It highlights that half of ten year olds now own their own smartphone, and by age 15 almost all young people do (more on the ‘almost’ later). Another trend we’re seeing is that social media use amongst young people is diversifying and many young people engage with a range of different platforms: Facebook’s stronghold is no more. The report also highlights some advances in the ability of young people to apply critical skills, for instance, in understanding how vloggers make money through endorsements, although there are many other significant gaps in digital understanding discussed, such as identifying safe sources of information. It’s a constantly evolving landscape, where ‘digital inclusion’ no longer means just being able to turn on a device and use Google.
Meanwhile, parents, the report shows, are less likely than ever before to think the benefits of being online outweigh the risks. Parents feel less confident that they know enough to help keep their teenager safe online, and find it harder to monitor their media activities.
The report also mentions that particular groups of young people, and their parents, those in group ‘D/E (in other words, those who are struggling financially) are less likely to have access, connectivity and the skills they need to engage in the digital world, whereas those people in the more financially stable A/B are more likely to have all of the above and therefore to make the most of the online world.
So where does this bring us in the third sector?
Over the last few years, through our work with Mhor Collective and with our partners at SCVO, we have worked extensively with a whole host of charities who do fantastic work, offering holistic support for children and families in a range of person-centred settings. When we engage with these organisations, we sometimes find that, on occasion, digital becomes a wee bit of an ‘animated’ discussion with staff expressing concern about bringing digital into the mix at all when offering family support. After all, we are regularly confronted with the apparent negative impacts of digital on family life: reports darkly note the rise in device ownership, the amount of time young people spend in devices, and as practitioners, we worry a lot about the risk young people and families might be exposed to.
Sonia Livingstone highlights that this risk is, by and large, associated with the fact that ‘young people routinely occupy digital spaces in which both general and specifically ‘adult’ activities take place — sex, gambling, hate, aggression, self-harm, sale of inappropriate products (…) the platforms claim that they cannot tell who is a child (since many users are anonymous online or disguise their identity) and, thus, cannot treat them according to their evolving capacity or best interests. Meanwhile the state is struggling to regulate the platforms — often extremely powerful transnational organisations.’ (Livingstone, 2020).
This ‘adult’ space presents us with a conundrum. Surely it’s better just to avoid this space altogether in our work?
Supporting parents and carers who are supporting young people?
While the state struggles to regulate the platforms, many families also struggle to support children and young people with their online lives, as the Ofcom report shows. And, in particular, those families who are struggling in other areas of their lives are more likely to face a range of challenges related to online participation.
Carnegie UK note that ‘children living in households where there is real material need are far less likely to have access to technology than their peers’. The Child Poverty Action Group highlight that more than one in four children in the UK is growing up in poverty. The average monthly household bill in the UK for communication services (access, devices, subscriptions, mobiles) is currently £124.62 (Ofcom, 2018b). Carnegie UK suggests that we should compare this to the average monthly spend on a family food shop, which is £230.53 (Webb, 2017), noting that ‘for a family on a low income, who are prioritising their spending carefully, it is worth considering that the cost of an average level of digital provision in the home may be equivalent to two weeks of food on the table.’
But without access and without digital skills, the challenges increase: it becomes impossible to claim universal credit, or to access employment and education opportunities. Research continues to highlight deepening inequalities, where digital, instead of providing opportunity for all, serves only to mirror wider social inequalities, and where those with digital skills are more likely to secure better jobs, to have substantially more disposable income, be better educated, and those without such skills will become increasingly marginalised. Young people become increasingly isolated from peer groups, and from school led initiatives to implement digital work, such as the Highland-wide use of Chromebooks.
The Ofcom report notes that parents are also concerned that their own digital skills are insufficient, and that this impacts on their ability to help. This brilliant Ted Talk by Sonia Livingstone explains that ‘what parents want are practical steps they can take to shape their digital lives positively’ : not, as many sources would suggest, to constantly police, restrict and minimise access. We find a similar concern across the third sector: that staff in support roles, and also those involved in caring for looked after children, are concerned about their own digital skills, and how their perceived level of knowledge and ability might impact on those they care for.
Young people, too, are vocal about their needs in the online world and highlight the numerous opportunities and benefits the internet affords. There’s the obvious educational element, but social and emotional support is of significant importance: Carnegie UK Trust note that ‘Digital tools can provide a vital gateway for many young people to express their identity. More than a quarter (27%) of young people aged 12 to 15 report feeling more able to be themselves online. For vulnerable young people who feel isolated from their immediate peer group, finding online communities of support can be a lifeline.’
We should, as a sector, take heed of the commitments of the 5 Rights Foundation, articulated in the video below by Young Scot, highlighting the digital rights of young people, including: The Right to Remove, The Right to Know, The Right to Safety and Support, The Right to Conscious and Informed Use and The Right to Digital Literacy, and embed these rights into our work in family support.
It is also important to challenge the widespread assumption that young people are all ‘digital natives’: there remains a substantial amount of young people who are offline, and, again, these young people are likely to already be facing significant challenges, and disadvantaged in other areas of their lives. Carnegie UK Trust highlight in particular the following groups of vulnerable young people who are more likely to face digital inequality both in terms of access and skills: looked after children, children at risk of homelessness, children with special educational needs, young carers. All groups supported extensively by the third sector. We therefore have a duty of digital care.
So what can we do to support families in the digital space?
Sonia Livingstone’s Medium article suggest that, in order for young people to be fully engaged in the digital space, and to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the internet, we might, as a society, consider implementation of the following actions:
- Invest in education to teach children and parents/caregivers the critical knowledge and skills they need to operate as agents and rights holders in relation to the digital environment
- Ensure that state actions regarding the digital environment are underpinned by meaningful digital participation of young people
- Empower young people to take responsibility where they can, for example by training and resourcing young ambassadors and peer mentors to support and help others in digital spaces.
- Build expertise into digital matters into all state provision for children, including training the children’s workforce
Such actions encourage the development of digital resilience and digital understanding, ensuring both skills and participation.
And so, within the third sector, there are actions here for us (there always are!). Our organisations can be part of the solution, offering unique opportunities to explore with families the skills and critical knowledge they need to navigate the online world. We can seek out training opportunities ourselves to develop our own digital skills, such as the CEOP ambassador programme, so that we can cascade and share them in our different support settings, or explore new online learning platforms such as FutureLearn which has loads of great courses from An Introduction to Cyber Security to Setting Up a Coding Club . We can experiment ourselves with different digital tools such as Internet Matters , Parent Info and Common Sense Media which offer lots of information and advice to help families make informed decisions. We can also get to grips ourselves with parental settings on mobile devices. We can share games, or have a go geocaching outside. We can try and understand the appeal of TikTok and Snapchat, as creative, connecting tools which bring young people together.
Perhaps most importantly, we can empower families to work together, to share positive and negative stories of digital and to learn more, and explore more together, opening discussions and supporting young people in becoming ‘digital citizens’.
After all, parenting in the digital age is just that: parenting. None of us are experts, and we don’t need to be digital experts either.
*All* the blogs over here at Parenting for a Digital Future !
Switched On, A Carnegie UK Trust Report of key issues related to digital inclusion, with a particular focus on children and young people.
Not Without Me, A Carnegie UK Trust Report which explores the issues of digital exclusion amongst vulnerable young people.