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The University of Southampton
Web Science Institute

Challenging Orthodoxies in Digital Literacy: young people's practices online

Challenging Orthodoxies in Digital Literacy: young people’s practices online
Huw Davies PhD Poster


"We are told the Web is different from previous mass communication technologies because its technical affordances have created an informational “Wild West” (Reevell (2007)). We are also told, that by overestimating their ‘savvy’, we have abandoned many young people to the risks of this frontier beyond regulation (Hargittai, 2010) (Livingstone, 2007). Young people are therefore said to be vulnerable to untruths circulating on the Web such as health misinformation (Levin-Zamir, Lemish, & Gofin, 2011) (Hargittai & Young, 2012) and conspiracy theories (Millar, 2012). The advertised remedy for these problem populations of digitally illiterate youths is a programme of re-education.

I begin by examining these claims to show the way we have constructed and investigated this problem has shaped our claims about young people online. I argue in our drive to locate problem populations we have reduced young people’s relationship with the Web to a series of reductive summative judgments that blame the Web, young people or their socio-economic status or ethnicity for their lack of digital information literacy.

If we accept the current orthodoxy and then blame the Web we offer a technological determinist explanation of reality: technology produces misinformed populations. If we locate the problem solely with young people, as many researchers do, we evoke a legacy of bio-physiological conceptions of youth’s deficiencies. If we go further and attribute young people’s deficiencies to their parent’s occupation (the typical proxy in this research domain for socio-economic status) or their ethnicity then we reduce young people to unreflective victims of structural inequality.

I begin by conceptually distancing my research from positivistic methods such as tests and questionnaires that often confirm young people’s relatively powerless position in society (Morrow & Richards, 1996); particularly when these methods result in binary judgments such as ‘unskilled’ or ‘skilled’. I then conceive of young people’s status as a social construct that is mobilised by their sense of self while they behave as active agents negotiating their position in society. Similarly, I reconceptualise fixed categories of information, misinformation, and disinformation as dynamic and socially-produced. I then position this unstable form of information within Foucauldian descriptions of the relationship between informational truths and the production of power in our society.

I operationalise these new concepts of youth and information in this domain by using Mason’s (2011) facet methodology and mixed qualitative and digital ethnographic techniques. This combination of concepts of youth, information, and power, and my research methods, allowed me to investigate the multidirectional and situational environmental and social influences (including my research methods) on youth’s engagements with information on the Web.

My findings show that we cannot effectively isolate and implicate the Web, young people or their socio-economic status as explanations of why and how young people use the Web for information. In analysing the data I began by looking for a conceptual framework that would account for the entanglements of technology, people and society. This study identifies and analyses how young people’s web practices are defined by “the possibilities and impossibilities” (Bourdieu 1984, p100) that exist within young people’s educational fields and beyond. Although learning new skills is always important, the social context in which these skills are acquired and used is crucial. The social environment influences which skills are naturalised, incentivised, and rewarded.

This thesis focusses on this space where, buffeted by the various vested interests who are concerned about how the Web is being utilised; young people are exercising their agency and using the Web in ways that suit their purposes. My research has found young people are not free to use the Web as they please nor do they always consciously or critically reflect on their own practices, yet they do describe complex patterns of usage that help them explore their sense of self as well as society’s norms and values. My data shows young people’s Web usage emerges from the tensions between how they want to use the Web, how they have learnt to use it, how they have been taught to use it, how they have been allowed to use it and how these tensions are played-out in context of their contingent social reality.

Constructions of young people in relation to technology have important consequences. We no longer think young people know what they are doing so we are now looking for evidence to substantiate our intervention strategies. These findings suggest we need to rethink, again, what we mean in our narratives of justification when describe young people’s digital deficits and digital inequality otherwise these interventions could be ineffective or indeed counterproductive."

Huw Davies













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