International Perspectives: Children connected to mobile digital technologies – Researching beyond access
06 Feb, 2023
I have been researching uses, practices and policies of media and digital technologies in Argentina for the last 20 years, and I am particularly concerned about how to understand children and mobile technologies, mostly because I find that public discourses about childhood and ICT can be quite contradictory.
My field of research is mostly focused on youth and secondary schooling, so I work with young kids who were born in the digital age and for whom mobile devices and internet are part of their everyday lives, even when the experiences and practices are deeply conditioned by inequalities (gender, income, access, quality). These kids became acquainted with audiovisual media through YouTube and belong to a generation for whom this platform is synonymous with television, as Cunningham and Craig describe (2020). They also manage multiple devices for entertainment purposes, in many cases accessing content that I would never know if it wasn’t for my intention of asking what they watch and how they get to know those contents. These dynamics made me inquire about kids’ uses and practices with mobile connected media: how do they get into mobile connected media? What are the apps and contents they most use? How do they access the devices and when do they consider that a device belongs to them? Where and how do adults emerge in this relationship? Which are the most common fears and expectations about childhood and digital technologies?
In Argentina, one of the most connected countries in Latin America, internet access and uses is measured from the age of four by the National Institute of Statistics and Census. By 2021, 86.9% of children from four to 12 years old used the internet and 73% used a mobile phone. Though this survey does not contemplate data about how those technologies are used, it gives a general picture of a highly connected childhood and youth.
In my research, I usually observe scenes that involve young children and mobile technologies, and regularly interview adults who would prefer to unplug kids but surrender to the practicalities of giving them mobile devices. Some scenes keep repeating in different landscapes: a mother with a toddler watching videos from the mobile phone while on the subway or the bus; a family peacefully eating at a restaurant while the children are with a mobile or a tablet; kids in cars that demand first and foremost a cell phone for playing music or watching videos. While pediatricians and ophthalmologists seek to alert adults and provide advice to regulate screen use time for early childhood, mobile digital technologies have also expanded into this realm, and it is very actively used in terms of content, access, and practices.
I participate in the international RED Project (Reconfigurations of Educational in/Equality in a Digital world) along with other countries in which we research about digitalization of education. My fieldwork takes place in four secondary schools in the City of Buenos Aires from very different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is remarkable that in these schools there is no student without a mobile phone, which they use for personal or school purposes. In interviews, students report that they have been using mobile phones “since ever” (it was there when they were born) but could have their own by the age of 10. While this is not surprising in a highly, though unequally, connected country, it raises questions about how young children begin their bond with mobile phones, the main activities phones are used for, and what kinds of roles parents, teachers, and other adults play in these interactions.
At the domestic level, the access is mediated by parents or other adults that usually lend their phones to the kids to play with or provide them with old devices. In most of the cases the first phone is inherited from a parent, a grandparent, or an older sibling. The purchase of the first individual mobile usually happens when kids leave primary school and go into secondary school, at 12-13 years old. Mobile technology uses imply a series of internal negotiations: from limiting hours of time on screen– including or excluding television- to using mobile devices as an exchange currency (e.g.: if you misbehave, you won’t have the tablet).
At the school level, there is a national curriculum for digital technologies and robotics that include the first years of schooling. Some provinces promote ICT integration and robotics from kindergarten onwards, with programs that use mobile phones with apps for skills development and digital citizenship education. Other schools, mostly from the private sector, try to prevent early uses of ICT and promote themselves as tech-free kindergartens. However, there is an integration from below in schools, as Inés Dussel pointed out referring to how digital technologies shape everyday school life.
Beyond the concerns about time on screen and the fears adults have about children’s internet uses, what I find particularly interesting is to research what kids actually watch and do with digital devices, how they get to know those contents, and what is important for them about those contents. Also, it is important to inquire about what media specialist and blogger Natalí Schejtman discusses about the risk of algorithmic childhoods, in which every click might render a commercial outcome. That is why it is interesting to move away from the digital fears vs digital powers perspective, and think about how mobile digital technologies are shaping children’s everyday lives and experiences with culture.
This opens a door for further research: we know kids are connected and that they are the preeminent users of video platforms as YouTube and TikTok. We know much less about how they develop preferences and create their menus of content, how they talk about what they consume and to whom, and how these practices dialogue with other forms of cultural consumption and participation. During 2023, I will conduct research for the first time in preschools about different approaches to ICT to try to explore some of the questions I shared in this post. Most of all, I intend to understand the variety of ways kids use ICTs, the ones that are proposed by schools and the effects of datafication in children’s media practices.
Cunningham, S. and Craig, D. (2020) Global social media entertainment. In Shimpach, S. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Global Television (pp. 49-59). New York: Routledge.
Dussel, I. (2018). The digital classroom. A historical consideration on the redesigning of the contexts of learning. In: Grosvenor, I. & L. Rosen Rasmussen (eds), Making Education: Material School Design and Educational Governance (173-196). New York, Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-97019-6_9
 The provinces of La Rioja (north west of the country) and Misiones (north east, limiting with Brazil and Paraguay) develop ICT integration programs including kindergarten. La Rioja promotes the uses of mobile phones for learning literacy. Misiones has a large ICT and robotics policy, with a school for 8-12 years kids focused into maker culture. In 2018, a national curriculum for digital education, programming and robotics was developed. Educ.Ar is the national portal for resources and curricular orientations and the national plan that provides computers and connectivity to schools and students is Conectar Igualdad. This plan was launched in 2010 and re-launched in 2022, adding the development of virtual classrooms.
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