CO:RE Blog

Written by Sonia Livingstone & Mariya Stoilova – CO:RE WP5 – Theories; follow-up to the CO:RE Theories Webinar “Understanding children’s well-being in a digital world”, on Friday, 29 May 2020.

Well-being has become a bit of a buzzword, but what is it? How does it relate to cognate terms like happiness, health or quality of life? Is it a feature of an individual or a society, and what does it depend on?

Trying to improve children’s well-being may seem a bit like chasing rainbows – a captivating yet elusive vision that always remains beyond our reach. The idea of well-being refers to outcomes from psychology, health, economics, among other disciplines. Yet as each discipline offers its own insights, and solutions to achieve it, this may not result in consensus.

Hoping to identify a solid foundation for conceptualising and measuring well-being, we invited four speakers from different disciplines to explore and contrast approaches to well-being across the social sciences. As we seek to understand and improve children’s well-being in a digital world, what research can we learn from, and what further work is needed?

Kicking off the discussion, Sonia Livingstone, a Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), argued that we refer to well-being as an ambition society should have for its children, a vision of a better future. We look for improvements in well-being to assess the success or failure of policy interventions.

In a digital world it is hoped that, if we can manage children’s internet access, strengthen their digital skills and literacies, enhance their online opportunities and minimise or mitigate any risks, and guide parents, teachers and others to support children’s digital experiences in constructive ways – then children’s well-being in a digital world will result. But perhaps children’s well-being in a digital world depends on lots of other things as well?

How does well-being relate to happiness, health or quality of life?

A psychologist’s perspective

As David Šmahel, a Professor of Psychology at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) argued that well-being is an interdisciplinary term spanning physical, psychological and social dimensions.  Cognitive and economic aspects could also be added to its many definitions. Well-being can be defined by its absence (anxiety, stress, physical abuse, peer problems) as well as presence (happiness, self-esteem, good health). The relation between technology and well-being depends on multiple factors at the individual level (age, gender, skills), social level (peers, family, educators), and country level (technology provision, culture, media), for these all shape how children engage with the online environment (encountering risks and opportunities).

“Do we need agreement on what well-being is across the different disciplines and different types of research? My answer would be no! It is more important to think about well-being contextually, in relation to children’s everyday lives and the issues we are studying” (David Šmahel)

Well-being is complex and multidimensional, opening up many possible directions for research. So it is not necessary to reach agreement about it. What is important is to examine diverse hypotheses about the short-term and long-term effects of technology use on children’s well-being.

Relating well-being to mental health:

A psychiatrist’s perspective

Many of us think of well-being as the presence or absence of mental health problems, suggested Dr Richard Graham, a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist. Yet well-being is much more. Conceptualising it in relation to flourishing (Keys, 2005) allows for consideration of personal growth, autonomy, positive social functioning – and this highlights questions of child development of interest to child psychiatry. Although positive psychology can be hard to apply during a crisis or for vulnerable groups, incorporating self-help and resilience can give us a long-term perspective on well-being.

We may need different measures of well-being for the different stages of child development. However, childhood and adolescence is hugely influential for what happens later in life. A good measure that links young people’s digital lives to well-being could be used to support their problem-solving and shift away from the narrow focus on screen time.

“Someone’s digital life is like their fingerprint – you need to understand their life and opportunities and whether use of technologies is disrupting that. In mental health, this sometimes takes you away from opportunities for development and enhancing well-being.” (Richard Graham)

How does well-being depend on the context we live in?

A perspective from social policy

Kitty Stewart, an Associate Professor of Social Policy at LSE, focused on how socio-economic inequalities affect well-being. She argued for a conception of well-being that includes having enough to eat, warm housing, appropriate shoes and clothes to go out in. It also includes the opportunity to play and enjoy being a child, to be included as a part of society doing the things that other children are doing, to be loved and appreciated, and to have the opportunity to develop one’s talents and abilities. Poverty makes a difference to all of these.

“The level of family resources clearly really shapes the level of digital access that is available to children. It has been really interesting to see this play out during the current lockdown and the closure of schools and the huge inequalities in the type of replacement schooling that children are experiencing.” (Kitty Stewart)

Poverty is damaging, first, because of its negative effects on parents’ stress, anxiety, and depression in families. Second, poverty can prevent parents from providing the scaffolding needed to support children’s safe and beneficial use of technologies. Thus poverty can be linked to children’s overexposure or problematic exposure to technologies.

Do children have the right to well-being?

A child rights perspective

While it may seem obvious to link well-being to children’s rights, this is problematic, both because children may experience well-being when their rights are infringed and because realising their rights may not necessarily result in well-being. Thus argued Laura Lundy, Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast. Children’s human rights do not address joy, flourishing, being loved – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is concerned with the minimal requirements to be met by the State, not everything that society may wish for its children.

Nonetheless, in seeking to realise children’s rights according to the UNCRC, it is important that we have a good understanding of what is beneficial for children, including in relation to the digital environment.

“Children currently do not have the right to access the digital environment unless it impacts on the enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to access education on an equal basis… If the UNCRC was being drafted today and if children were involved as they should have been, it would be deemed sufficiently in children’s interest.” (Laura Lundy)

In developing an understanding of children’s well-being in relation to the digital environment, it is important to include children’s participation, so that the concepts and measures used are informed by children’s experiences and voices, recognising their right to be heard.

Some conclusions

Some noteworthy points that we might all agree on emerged from this multidisciplinary conversation:

  • Improving children’s well-being in a digital world concerns not only the digital but all the conditions of children’s lives.
  • Children have the right to be heard when state and non-state actors are designing the digital environment in which they also participate and which is, increasingly, vital to the realisation of all their rights.
  • It is important to consider well-being in relation to the different stages of child development – or, in a child rights language, according to their evolving capacity. Society should prioritise well-being from early childhood onwards as this has important long-term effects on what happens later in life.
  • Well-being consists of positive and negative aspects – we need to consider both to understand children’s outcomes from technology use. Conceiving of technology and well-being purely in terms of risk reduction offers only a partial view and we need also to understand how use of technologies can offer opportunities for learning, participation, entertainment.

Well-being is undoubtedly hard to pin down, but it is definitely worth chasing. So, let’s keep chasing rainbows!

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Speaker presentations

Event details and speaker biographies 

Annotated bibliography: well-being

Understanding children online: Theories, concepts, debates (blog)

The role of digital technologies in relation to children’s well-being: key questions on theories answered (blog)

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