Growing up digital: a counterpoint

Growing up digital: a counterpoint

As a recent Marketing Week article highlights the growing expectations on media owners to take responsibility for kids’ online safety, Amaze’s own study suggests kids are far from digital victims.

In a recent Marketing Week article, Mindi Chalhal explored the relationship between the digital behaviour of young people and the growing pressure on content and service providers to help parents, teachers and children deal with online threats young people face. Those threats included pornography and sexual grooming, but also explored areas such as online advertising.

Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield was quoted as saying: “We want children to be confident creators and managers of their online time, this is one of the most pressing social issues of our time.”

I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that desire, but I would take some issue with the basic premise. Because if the results of our 5-year study are anything to go by, young people are already ‘confident creators and managers of their online time’; and they’re actively influencing the way they and all of us experience digital.

The Amaze Generation

It was Granada Television’s series of programmes, beginning with 7 Up, that got us thinking. If you could follow a group of young people over several years, what would you learn about their digital world?

The result was the Amaze Generation, a 5-year longitudinal study of a pool of digital natives, the first to have grown up in a world where every aspect of their communication, entertainment, social activity, private and school lives are entwined with technology.

What they told us challenged the conventional wisdom in issues ranging from ‘digital addiction’ to matters of safety.

Time spent online

Recent Ofcom data, reported in the Marketing Week article, indicated that “Children aged 5 to 15 spend around 15 hours each week online.”

Adding some nuance to that, the idea of being (almost) ‘always on’ was already an accepted norm with the Amaze Generation when the study began in 2011. The clear majority of our contributors (who at that point were aged between 10 and 15 years old) owned a mobile phone, and a third used it for more than three hours a day.

By the end of the study, spending 10 – 12 hours a day on their phones was seen as completely normal, and the smartphone has effectively become an additional limb. “It’s all day from when I wake up until I go to sleep, it’s always with me,” said one respondent.

However, the addictive nature of smartphones is not seen as a negative thing. Far from it, as this contributor explained:

“I would feel like I was missing out on something important without my phone, you feel like you want to be there in the moment.”

In the digital driving seat

The article explores measures designed to empower children and focuses in particular on 5Rights, an international initiative that lays out five principles of children’s digital rights. These include the right to easily edit or delete all content they have created.

Whilst having no argument with the 5Rights principles, the Amaze Generation study revealed not only that young people are already adept and in some cases compulsive content editors. It also demonstrated that where once-popular platforms change (Facebook) or diminish (Blackberry Messenger), they will adapt other platforms to offer the freedom, flexibility and privacy they require. Digital ‘rights’, it seems, are being asserted in a powerful, personal way every day.

Aware of the tension (and embarrassment potential) between their digital footprint and their current social media presence, the Amaze Generation edit timelines and delete online histories to create better, up to date impressions. As one contributor confessed: “People I’m going to uni with have been asking what my Instagram name is, so I don’t want them to see the bad pictures.”

The Amaze Generation are digital strategists and content editors – even if they don’t know it. They have learned to be extremely calculated in how they present their personal brands, creating strict strategies around how, when and where they are seen.

Socially safer?

Who children are talking to online is an oft cited concern for parents, and features prominently in the article. It once seemed an issue for the Amaze Generation too as the act of collecting friends and followers seemed to assume a greater importance than friendship itself.

But things have changed. There is still a drive for the validation of likes and retweets. Yet these sit separately from closed networks of true friends. As “getting to know someone fully [gets] a lot harder if you try to do it over social media”, so social media becomes a place for people who are already friends to share information. Meeting strangers online was simply not an issue for our Amaze Generation respondents, because profiles are by invitation only, and “Because I don’t want people I’m not really friends with … judging me.”

The safety paradox

The Marketing Week article examines safety online and highlights an O2/NSPCC study identifying a “human to human advice” deficit as a key factor.

The Amaze Generation suggest this is only part of the story. Safety, in a limited capacity, appears ingrained. So successfully have the messages of cyber bullying and sexual exploitation been received (often in human to human discussions with teachers or parents) that filters and security settings set up originally by parents have, in many cases, not been changed since. Privacy settings are easily articulated, even when not revisited for many years.

Yet the fact that our Amaze Generation have not experienced the predicted digital apocalypse has led some to question whether the profile given to safety was overstated.

“When I first started using Facebook I was very careful about what I put on, because there was a load of stuff at school, watch who you have on Facebook and all that, but now I am a bit more lenient.”

Is it possible that safety is now being compromised because of a perceived overstating of the case for safety?

Our study also indicated that the focus on higher profile safety elements has been at the expense of other issues. For all their awareness of social and sexual risks online, none of our respondents mentioned the sharing of personal information.

Don’t panic

If our study is anything to go by, young people can and are taking responsibility for their own online world. Arguably, they’re making a better fist of it than the rest of us.
The motivations may sometimes be skewed and their view of safety may be limited. But young people are editing content. They are seeking closed, safe networks of friends. And they do see and exploit the positive aspects of digital.

Content and service providers should, of course, always be looking to do more to protect all of us online – especially young people. But the Amaze Generation demonstrate that we can take some comfort in the fact that our young people are far from helpless digital victims.

You can read the Amaze Generation report and the Marketing Week article here.