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Sonia Livingstone talk

Sonia Livingstone

Most of the photos of the speakers and performers attached to these live blog posts were taken by James Millar at the rehearsals yesterday. Sonia could only join us today, so this is her own shot.

This second session is about how technology is changing and how it is changing us for better or worse. Sonia is a social psychologist, and researches how children engage with the media environment. She conducts surveys, interviews children, and observes how children engage with the media in homes and schools.

When she was a girl, TV had three channels and bedrooms were for sleeping in, but she could go out and play without her mother knowing where she was. Nowadays children have much more access to IT gadgets, but are they happier?

We need to think about the balance between the risks and the opportunities, and we perhaps need to give more thought to developing the benefits of technology.

Research into what upsets children on the internet shows the range of risks: websites for porn, violence, race hate, self harm. Children often know about these first, and they escape regulatory oversight. A national study shows that 4 in 10 children see hate messages, sexual messages, porn, nasty messages, pro-anorexia messages. There have been changes over time, but no clear trends. Not all children who encounter the risks are not necessarily upset by them. So 1 in 7 say that something online has upset them in the last year.

It’s hard not to fear for our children when we see headlines about Facebook bullies and online blackmail. But we need to find a balance, and not necessarily react by imposing more restrictions. Societies have been worried about the invention of every new technology, including Socrates about writing! 

Children who have difficulties at home also tend to have difficulties online. Even since the internet, there have been no changes in the problems, but the internet makes it more visible. The internet is generally not the problem; people are. But there are still some issues.

We are always on. The plethora of communications choices – online or offline, public or private, anonymous or idenitified – is a preoccupation. Everything online leaves a trace. Posts can be edited, shared, search and found. They can go viral, and problems escalate quickly. The platforms continually change, being updated by commerce looking for business, governments looking to shape education and work, technologists looking to make new connections.

The opportunities are positively correlated wth risks: more opportunities bring more risks, and vice versa, just like the wider world. So restricting opportunities restricts risks, and hence the development of children’s resilience. There are between-the-lines dramas between the risks and the opportunities. For example, children like to make new friends; we worry about them meeting strangers.

There are organisations looking at redesigning the internet to better serve the needs of our children. We need to be listening to children, and can’t assume they react to the internet in the same ways that we do. It’s important to them that we don’t over-react to their problems.

The internet has great benefits; the world of information at our fingertips. But the top 10 sites that children visit are the likes of Google, Youtube, BBC, Facebook, Yahoo and Disney, which tend to be a bit branded and/or targeted at adults. Creative and participatory chances are not in their grasp. Can anyone think of 10 great websites for children, as you could think of 10 great books for children? Can we explore a journey of possibilities, rather than lock children into walled gardens? Yet nowadays we’re not good at letting children outdoors or even walk to school alone. So children tend to take their acting out online.

Of course, the internet is here to stay, but can we make it a place where children can explore and create?