Dr Amanda Third of the University of Western Sydney in Australia sheds light on her research into digital issues and the impact new technologies are having on children, explaining the challenges societies face as children are exposed to new technologies and how to respect children’s needs while also keeping them safe, in an interview with Conference Chair Professor Baden Offord at The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies 2015.
Professor Baden Offord: My name is Baden Offord and I’m the Chair of The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies and The Asian Conference on Asian Studies being held here in Kobe, Japan, in 2015. The theme of this year’s conference is on human rights, justice media and culture. One of the featured speakers of the conference is Professor Amanda Third. Professor Third is a Principal Research Fellow in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney in Australia. Professor Third’s speech at the conference was on the very important topic of children’s rights in the digital age. Welcome, Dr Third.
Dr Amanda Third: Thanks, Baden. It’s really fantastic to be here.
Professor Baden Offord: Would you first of all start by letting us know how you actually got into your academic career.
Dr Amanda Third: Sure. Well, I studied in cultural studies and most of my work has focused around what we might think of as liminal figures. So my first book was about the figure of the female terrorist in the in the ’60s and ’70s in the US and now I’m working on the figure of the child. I’ve been looking for the last seven years or so at the ways that young people use technology in their everyday lives and that’s led me to my current interest in how we might leverage technology to support children’s rights in the digital age.
Professor Baden Offord: So how important actually are digital issues regarding children and their lives?
Dr Amanda Third: Well, as you would know, Baden, digital technologies are very much a part of children’s everyday lives increasingly. Around the world, of course, there are still a number of places where children’s access to technology is impeded by the costs of infrastructure and and data plans and hardware and so on, but, increasingly, you know, technology is becoming a part of children’s lives everywhere. I guess what we know is that children’s digital practices do come with a certain level of risk, but if we can work with children to better understand their digital practices, then we can also leverage the benefits of connectivity for children around the world.
Professor Baden Offord: In your actual presentation you talked a little bit about the challenges that are faced presently around the world and you’re doing… its part of a bigger research project, isn’t it?
“What we wanted to really do was to activate children’s voices and make them part of these really important conversations that are taking place about their rights in the digital age.”
Dr Amanda Third: Yes, that’s right. So i’ve been working with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, which is a multi-sector kind of interdisciplinary research entity that’s conducting research to enable us to leverage the benefits of connectivity for young people’s mental health and well-being. And one of the big projects that we’re undertaking as part of this research entity is this project around children’s rights in the digital age. So we conducted a study last year in the lead-up to a day of general discussion that was being held by the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child in Geneva, and what the Committee wanted to do was to think about how to update the Convention for the Rights of the Child to meet the demands of the digital age. So we developed a methodology, which was basically a methodology that we could send out to partner organisations around the world to get them to work with young people in a workshop setting to generate content about their experiences of their rights in the digital age. Then what we did was… 17 partner organisations from around the world worked with 148 children who spoke eight different languages. They sent the content back to us and we analyzed it and we made a short film, which is available online, and we wrote a report and we presented the findings to the opening plenary of the day of general discussion. I think that was a really great thing to be part of because I think what we wanted to really do was to activate children’s voices and make them part of these really important conversations that are taking place about their rights in the digital age.
Professor Baden Offord: Very interesting. I mean, this is… your speech took place in a cultural studies conference and I’m just wondering, for example, in relation to children’s rights, how you see the place of culture as a… environment for understanding digital issues and children?
Dr Amanda Third: …Increasingly, we can’t think “culture” without also thinking about how technology is embedded in the processes of of producing and consuming and making sense of cultural products, right? …Increasingly for young people, what they say to us is that that these these technologies are a really deep and meaningful part of their their everyday lives. I guess they’re part of the ways that they think about themselves as children, they’re a really important… tool for connecting with others and better understanding their world and also… a medium for changing their world and taking action. I think this is what we were really keen to get at in this project.
Professor Baden Offord: There’s a lot of concern at the moment around children’s rights generally and particularly around the protection of children. Does that actually figure in the research that you’re doing?
“Whilst we need to be supporting children to stay safe online we also actually need to be opening up spaces where they can really begin to generate their own ways of talking about and understanding digital practice.”
Dr Amanda Third: Yes, it does. So I think one of the things that we have to be clear about is that children are exposed to a new range of risks when they go online and so really, you know, we can’t think about leveraging the benefits of of children’s digital practices without also thinking about the issues associated with cyber safety. But I guess what the research project has showed us really compellingly is that children around the world – when you ask them to envisage what the opportunities are that are associated with engaging online they have a really difficult time articulating what those opportunities are, what the benefits are of their digital practices. And what – by contrast – happens when you ask them what are the risks then they can recount a litany of risks that they might face online, often in quite a lot of detail. So what emerged from the project that we conducted was that a risk and safety paradigm really dominates the ways that children and young people are thinking about their digital practices and that this is potentially limiting their ability to understand the opportunities that are made available to them when they’re engaging online. So that’s… a big issue. So, if you like, one of the objectives of the study is to highlight for practitioners and policymakers in particular that whilst we need to be supporting children to stay safe online we also actually need to be opening up spaces where they can really begin to generate their own ways of talking about and understanding digital practice.
Professor Baden Offord: So, in a sense, when you talk about wellbeing for children, that’s not just their safety, it’s about enabling them to have a voice online and have an actual capacity to be able to negotiate that online world.
Dr Amanda Third: That’s exactly right, Baden. So well-being in this setting is not about simply being protected from harm, it’s about opening up opportunities for children and young people to think the world in the ways that makes sense to them.
Professor Baden Offord: And do you find there’s much difference between cultures? Because you said this is part of a larger study – is it quite an interesting kind of range of differences?
“Children have these really fantastic ways of working around the limitations of the technologies that they’re using.”
Dr Amanda Third: Absolutely. I mean, we talk about children as if it’s a monolithic category but of course it’s a cultural construct and… the UN works with this definition that a child is anyone between zero and 18 and, of course, there’s a lot of diversity within that category. So I think what was really interesting is that there are very big differences between the ways that children around the globe are accessing technology. Some of them have access – very regular, stable, quality access – to the best technologies the world has to offer, and other children are still working with analog phones, patchy networks, etc., etc. But what was really incredible about the study is that it doesn’t matter… obviously, the more access we can give children and the better quality access we can give them the better, but children have these really fantastic ways of working around the limitations of the technologies that they’re using.
Professor Baden Offord: They’re pretty savvy.
Dr Amanda Third: They are. So kids who are using SMS – you know, analog SMS messaging – are doing amazing things with it. There’s this really great initiative called the You Report which is running in Uganda, and basically it’s an HIV health and… sexual health awareness kind of initiative that’s completely run by young people, and young people can text in questions, which are often difficult questions about their sexual health that they can’t ask adults because there are taboos around that kind of conversation – so they text in their questions and then they get real-time answers. This has been a really fantastic mechanism for improving HIV education.
Professor Baden Offord: And obviously an example of well-being too, and education and self-education…
Dr Amanda Third: That’s right. But I think the point being that this is very basic technology that they’re using, but they’re using it in highly creative and inventive and very impactful ways.
Professor Baden Offord: So where do you see this heading in the future in terms of your research?
Dr Amanda Third: …We had to complete this project in a very short timeline, and for that reason we encountered lots of challenges. We’re about to enter into Phase Two of the project, which is going to take the learnings from the last phase. We’re going to build an online community where children can be contributing digital content – or indeed, you know, old-fashioned content like drawings and poetry and whatever – about their experiences of their rights in the digital age. We’ll set them a series of challenges over a six-month period and we’re hoping to leverage a lot of participation from children around the world to see if we can deepen our understanding of what their rights mean to them today, and then to… support children to take those insights forward to policymakers and practitioners.
Professor Baden Offord: Thank you very much for joining us today to talk about this really important subject.
Image | IAFOR Media
Dr Amanda Third gave a Featured Presentation on “Children’s Rights in the Digital Age – Thinking Human Rights Beyond Citizenship and the Nation-State” at The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies 2015 in Kobe, Japan.