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Written by Sonia Livingstone & Mariya Stoilova – CO:RE WP5 – Theories

Every time we begin to write something about children online, we have to choose our words. Shall we call them children or young people? Youth or adolescents? Teens or teenagers? Or perhaps just kids? “Children and young people” is the preferred term in British social policy (often summarised as CYP). Americans prefer “youth.” We chose “kids” for the EU Kids Online and Global Kids Online projects, to keep the titles short and clear, but children themselves don’t much like the term. Psychologists study “adolescents,” this term signalling a focus on biological maturation (and they see adolescence stretching from puberty into the mid-20s) while sociologists study “youth” or “young people,” these terms pointing to the social norms and structures that shape young people’s outcomes (and they include even those below puberty, which is itself a moving target). To organise their data collection and policy formation, the UN defines children as aged 0-17 and youth as 15-24, making the mid-teens an ambiguous time (which of course they are). Marketers prefer “teens” or “Gen Z” when targeting promotional messaging and, in relation to the online world, they talk of “digital natives” (a term that most academics deplore).

The concepts we choose are not neutral. They locate our thinking geographically, politically and within particular academic fields. They align us to certain theoretical perspectives and raise particular questions, while closing off others.

“Online” is also problematic. It still implies a deliberate act of using the internet (as in, “I’m going online for a bit” or “shall we ‘meet’ online?”), though children don’t always realise they are online when, say, using social media. Problematically it implies a binary opposition – treating as homogenous everything that’s digitally mediated, on the one hand, and everything that isn’t, or hasn’t been hitherto, on the other. Anyway, aren’t children constantly connected, always with a phone in their hand, ready to attend to a new notification? And even if we dispel this myth as media hype, aren’t we all online now in a more fundamental way, in our thoroughly digital societies? Our activities are being tracked by our devices as we walk the streets, our data are being processed even when we have left the website that collected it, and others may add to our online profile or digital footprint without our awareness. So shall we say – “kids online” or “children in a digital world” or “digital youth” or “the internet generation” or “iGen” or what? As danah boyd famously said, It’s Complicated. But again, the terms matter, signalling the scope and focus of the analysis along with a particular understanding of the relation between the digital (technologies, services, apps, networks, platforms, contents, etc.) and society.

In a European network, working in many languages, these difficulties are multiplied, and we are often unaware of the disciplinary baggage that our concepts bring with them. In the study of children online, we need many more concepts as well. Risk is a thorny one! Online opportunities sounds more positive, but what’s included? Well-being is a current buzzword, but can we define it?

In the CO:RE project, the LSE team is responsible for theory. So all these questions of theories and concepts are our current preoccupation. But importantly, our focus on theory is eminently practical, as explained below.

What is theory and what is it good for?

The notion of theory is much misunderstood, and contested even within the social sciences. Gabriel Abend sets out seven different meanings of the term! Perhaps useful here is how Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant demand of social scientists that they “learn how to translate highly abstract problems into thoroughly practical scientific operations” (p.221) just as one might learn a craft, a trade [1]. This is done not by creating a false polarity between theory and evidence (and mistaking rigidity for rigour), nor through fetishising particular concepts or, even the concept of “theory’ itself. Rather, he invites us to think relationally, comparatively, interlinking concepts and evidence, the particular and the general, the actual and the possible:

“To break with empiricist passivity, which does little more than ratify the preconstructions of common sense, without relapsing into the vacuous discourse of grand “theorizing,” requires not that you put forth grand and empty theoretical constructs but that you tackle a very concrete empirical case with the purpose of building a model (which need not take a mathematical or abstract form in order to be rigorous). You must link the pertinent data in such a manner that they function as a self-propelling program of research capable of generating systematic questions liable to be given systematic answers, in short, to yield a coherent system of relations which can be put to the test as such.” (p.233)

This is not to advocate middle-range theory, however, but a reflexive and critical social science. We must embrace radical doubt, Bourdieu and Wacquant argue, since “the preconstructed is everywhere. The sociologist is literally beleaguered by it, as everybody is” (p.235). Like a fish in water, we must find a way to see the water, to critique its power, and to imagine how things could be otherwise. How? “To avoid becoming the object of the problems that you take as your object, you must retrace the history of the emergence of these problems” (p.238); you may even need to become “an outlaw.”

In relation to children online, there have been many fights over theory, concepts and evidence, as well as the politics and practical implications of knowledge. The “preconstructed” indeed bears down on us – often in the form of media panics about online risks, naughty children or bad parents, also via popular discourses of technological determinism (and the desire to blame technology for state or corporate actions). The semantic games with which we began this blog post illustrate the importance of comparing perspectives, contesting assumptions, and contextualising claims. In short, in researching children online, we need theory, and a reflexive and historical mindset, among other things. But we don’t need “Theory” as an object of fetish or fear, divorced from the world of observation, experience and power.

CO:RE Meeting in Brussels

Key sources for key concepts

CO:RE Meeting in Brussels

In the CO:RE project, our task is to build a theory toolkit for European researchers and research users of children online. To do this, we are undertaking a series of consultations – of different kinds, with different constituencies, and with multiple outputs over the coming years. We’re not exactly crowd-sourcing the toolkit, but certainly we want to encompass the knowledge of our community of scholars and stakeholders, and also we want to test the outputs as they emerge on that community – on you!

We began with members of the CO:RE network, when we first met at the kick-off meeting in Brussels, January 2020. In a workshop-style brainstorming, we asked our colleagues to identify the key concepts related to children’s use of digital technologies. We then arranged and systematised these concepts, identifying key conceptual areas. These concept areas were reviewed during follow-up project update meetings, expanded and defined resulting in nine final key areas (see diagram).

We organised an online consultation inviting members of the CO:RE network and selected experts on children’s internet use from different subfields to map relevant theories, concepts, disciplines, and identify priorities and resources in each of the nine areas. The aim of the consultation was to identify the range of disciplinary perspectives relevant to understanding the technological transformations now reconfiguring the lives of children and young people, together with their main contributions and points of mutual difference which can inform the development of CO:RE Theory Toolkit.

We would like to thank all the experts who contributed to the consultation and helped us create the conceptual and theoretical map with an annotated bibliography.

An annotated bibliography

Our annotated bibliography is a work in progress. Necessarily it will continue to change, as we debate the contents and add new sources, perhaps even new concepts. For now, it is designed to answer these questions:

  • If someone were beginning research on X (say, well-being, or risk) in relation to children online, what should they be sure to read? What theories or approaches might they find particularly promising?
  • What sources have CO:RE members themselves found insightful in guiding their thinking on key concepts? And why – does it raise interesting new research questions?

We’re not trying to replace the social science library in producing this annotated bibliography. Nor to dictate any ‘correct’ or ‘ideal’ way to research children online. We’re just offering a road map to get started, and some interesting directions to pursue. Enjoy the journey!


[1] Bourdieu P. & Wacquant, L. (1992). Handing down a trade. Invitation to reflexive sociology (p. 218-260). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Header image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

1 Comment

  1. Please consider our book, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World (Oxford University Press) as a resource.

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