My notes on Facer, K., & Furlong, R. (2001). Beyond the myth of the’cyberkid’: Young people at the margins of the information revolution. Journal of youth studies, 4(4), 451-469.
In this paper from 2011, Facer and Furlong consider how the assumed digital competence of young people has led them to figure much less heavily in concerns about digital inequality. Schemes were emerging to ensure internet access through public terminals and subsidise computers for those who can’t afford them but these were aimed primarily at at an adult population that was underskilled and deprived of access. Even if the term ‘cyber kid’ they analyse may have passed from use, the series of associations expressed within it feel extremely familiar. From pg 452:
Young people, it is popularly assumed, are part of the new ‘digital generation of cyberkids’, ‘children are at the epicenter of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world’ (Katz, 1996). The ‘cyberkid’ myth derives from diverse sources: in science ction, notably Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, the term ‘cyborg’ was originated to suggest the fusion between human and machine; more recently, commentators have argued that the ‘cyber’ derives from the Greek ‘kubernan’ or navigator, suggesting that the cyborg signi es full human mastery of technology (Oehlert, 2000). The term ‘cyberkid’, rather than cyborg, however, emphasizes the element of youth in the equation and derives from a long-stand- ing association between ‘youth’ and ‘the future’. Young people, like technolo- gies, are constructed within current popular discourse as the natural inheritors of future societies, and young people’s mastery of technologies is read off as inevitable through a process of con ation of these two ‘future trajectories’ (see Sefton-Green (1998) for a further discussion of this association). The cyberkid myth, then, derives both from future visions of technology–human relations and from long-standing discursive constructions of the role of children in society, generating a ‘shorthand’ for the relationship between children and technology. While the term ‘cyberkid’ is used predominantly within academic discourse, the associations between children, mastery of technology and the future in popular discussions of the ‘information revolution’ can be named the ‘cyberkid myth’.
These are reinforced through the contrast between young people’s assumed enthusiasm for computers and old people’s assumed fear. But this is orientated towards compelling adults to learn and engage, with computers otherwise being framed as a threat to young people. To appropriate computing technology easily is seen as a potent means to accumulate cultural capital. But conversely there is a prevalent fear that to appropriate it too readily undermines the quarantine of childhood from adult life, exposing young people to all manner of threats. The spectre of the ‘cyber kid’ is “a double-edged sword, both the promise of the future and a threat to the security of young people” (pg 453). This is reinforced by academics trends preoccupied on the one hand with the confident adoption of digital technology by young people and their creative uses of it, on the other hand forms of addition, compulsion and harm which young people come to through their use of computing technology. This reflects a broader tendency for youth culture to be banished from public consciousness, described on pg 453:
Namely, that youth cultures are rarely represented within wider popular culture, that their emergence into popular consciousness occurs only when their presence ‘erupts’ into visibility through events such as riots, raves, criminality or other challenges to the stability of everyday life, or when the wider culture is undergoing a significant period of transformation and accordingly invests its hopes and aspirations into the promise of future stability, a future heavily dependent on the role of the children now growing up in its midst.
Unfortunately, researchers ask questions which entail “an engagement only with those children who are thought to be spearheading a spectacular information revolution” (pg 453). In this paper, the young people who are actively dissociating and/or struggling with digital technology are brought to the fore, as figures who tend to be rendered invisible in academic research and popular culture due to the trends described above. They describe this tendency in terms of a deficit or essentialist model, relating young people to a grand narrative of the digital revolution and erasing the meaning which digital technology has for them in their lives and the uses to which they seek to put it or don’t.
Defining a lack of access is more complex than it might seem to be. Having equipment at home doesn’t mean children meaningfully have access to it. It says nothing about the conditions in which confidence with technology can be acquired. Furthermore, competition within the family means what access and expertise is available may be unevenly distributed. The project their findings are from is described on pg 455:
The project included a large-scale survey of the computer use of 855 children in southwest England and South Wales in eight schools (all children were aged between 9 and 14 years at the start of the project), and 18 case studies over an 18-month period of children who were using computers on a regular basis at home [….] On the basis of analysis of 855 questionnaire responses, 46 children were asked to participate in group interviews lasting approximately 1 hour in school. Within this sample, children reporting that they ‘disliked’ computers formed 50 per cent of the interviewees (of whom one-half had access to a computer at home); children reporting that they ‘loved’ computers but did not have access at home formed the remaining 50 per cent of the interviewees.
Three themes emerged from the surveys and interviews: “issues of access”, “issues of relevance to day to day activities” and “the potential of formal educational contexts for reproducing anxieties and inequalities of access”. They found that while income was a significant factor in the likelihood of owning a computer, it was far from the sole determinant. The decision to buy a computer reflects a process of prioritisation which reflects a range of concerns of both adults and children, as well as past experiences and familiarity with computers e.g. if the primary focus was on entertaining the children, games consoles could do this more cheaply. Furthermore, those with access at home are more likely to take advantage of access elsewhere (e.g. at friends houses) while those without are less likely to do so.
Their findings were particularly interesting when it came to mismatches between the perceived functions of the computer and children’s own self conception e.g. it was perceived as indoor and sedentary in a way off putting for those who prioritised outdoor pursuits, or as a ‘friendship supplement’ necessary for those who had an active social life. This could even manifest as social sanction, with one girl describing being seen to voluntary use the library computer as ‘social suicide’. Competing discourses mean young people have to negotiate between their own pleasures, acceptable attitudes and adult interventions when it comes to computers.
Unstructured access to computers at lunchtime and in breaks seems to be taken up unevenly, with children who own computers being more likely to use them. This suggests computer access at school may be reflecting and amplifying inequalities, rather than mitigating them. The authors suggest that the ‘cyber kid’ myth may be reinforcing this by leaving teachers assuming that children’s natural enthusiasm will be sufficient to take advantage of unstructured time with the computer. It means those without access will feel excluded from the authoritative culture, those with inadequacies will feel they are not catered for within school and those who feel they are seen as outside the mainstream will construct themselves as such. The authors link these questions to the issue of what it means to be successfully young in an environment where digital technologies are increasingly ubiquitous. From pg 463:
Embedded at the heart of this debate is a debate on what it means to be ‘successfully young’ in the digital age. In exploring how low computer users express their attitudes towards computer use, it becomes clear that these competing constructions of the ‘cyberkid’ become a battleground on which they construct their de nitions of being ‘successfully young’.
This linkage of computing competence and suggests leaves some young people engage in face saving activity, distancing themselves from computing through the deployment of negative stereotypes towards those who are confident and familiar with the technology. This might include appropriate adult discourses of eye strain, internet addiction and social fragmentation to legitimate their distance. If you assume that giving access is sufficient to ensure engagement then you completely obscure the complexity of who is interested, confident, competent and willing to use computers amongst young people. They stress the importance of the banal in getting to grips with the complex reality of how young people orientate themselves towards technology. From pg 466:
The term ‘banality’ is used here to generate an engagement with the creative, productive, subversive and conformist day-to-day lives of young people, and to pre-empt a reactive and equally deterministic engagement only with young people who are seen to ‘reject’ the dominant values of digital youth cultures
This focus helps move beyond a focus on the creative achievements of early adopters on the one hand and the problems of the struggling and pathological on the other. It raises the question of how to conduct research with those who lack the spectacular aspects of technological use without merely assuming a deficit as a consequence. It also highlights how other modes of access to technologies (e.g. mobile consoles which those who avoided computers were often familiar with) might become important as points of access to the internet which should not be excluded from the classroom. This seems like a remarkably prescient point when read 18 years from publication when mobile phones have become ubiquitous. They argue that “debates on technological solutions to the digital divide need, therefore, to move away from generalizing statements about ‘access to technologies’ and towards more detailed engagement with the patterns of use of specified software environments” (pg 467) with the potential implications of the aforementioned desktop/mobile divide for capacity to produce and engage as well as to consume content being one such example.