Bond, E. (2013). Mobile phones, risk and responsibility: Understanding children’s perceptions. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(1), article 3. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2013-1-3
Mobile phones, risk and responsibility: Understanding children’s perceptions

Mobile phones, risk and responsibility: Understanding children’s perceptions

Emma Bond
School of Applied Social Sciences, University Campus Suffolk, Suffolk, United Kingdom

Abstract

This study explores children's perceptions of risk and mobile phones in their everyday lives. Technological developments associated with capitalist society are entwined with the risk discourse, but little account has previously been taken of children's views in social analyses of risk. Based on the accounts of thirty young people in the UK aged between 11 – 17 this study adopts a social constructivist perspective to offer a theoretical framework which explores how children themselves actually use mobile phone technologies and understand and manage risk in their everyday lives.

Implications of risk and mobile phones are reflected in current media discourse and contemporary public discussions. This research explores the relationship between young people's use of mobile phone technology and the wider theoretical debates about risk, technology and subjectivity. It provides insight into the social aspects of risk and mobile phones in contemporary childhoods.

The children in the research were reflexive in their understanding of risk and mobile phones and actively managed risk through their mobile phone use. Their accounts highlight the complex, multifarious relationships of the heterogeneous networks of the technical, the social and the natural that constitute children's everyday lives.

Keywords: mobile phones; children; risk; responsibility

doi: 10.5817/CP2013-1-3

Introduction

This article draws on data from a qualitative study on children’s perceptions of risk and mobile phones (see also Bond, 2010, 2011) to examine how children understand the relationship between risk and mobile phones in their everyday lives. The article examines the highly influential work of social analysis by Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990, 1991), who originally established the examination of risk at the centre of contemporary debate (Culpitt, 1999), proposing that an atmosphere of uncertainty in society is emerging – the ‘Risk Society’. The findings presented focus on reflexivity, responsibility and trust in relation to children’s perceptions of risk.

Children encounter a variety of risks online but, whilst ‘public anxiety focuses on pornography, bullying and stranger danger’, children themselves have other concerns (Livingstone, Haddon, Görzig, & Ólafsson, 2011, p. 3) but to date little research has focused on their views and experiences. Livingstone et al. (2011) observe how Internet use is increasingly individualised and mobile with 33% of children going online via a mobile phone or handheld device. The mobile phone has become an everyday technology, and Longhurst (2007) contends that the concept of everyday life is significant as there are complex interactions between living spaces and media lives which require research and understanding. Risk anxiety is central to the social construction of contemporary childhood (Scott, Jackson, & Backett-Milburn, 1998) and this study set out to explore how children understood and managed risk in relation to their mobile phones.

Childhood has recently attracted much attention within social science and there has been a tremendous increase in interest in the study of children and young people (James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998). This research explored children’s perceptions of risk and mobile phones and contributes to knowledge and understanding in the field of sociology of childhood and socio-technical studies. Previous research on childhood and risk supports many aspects of Beck’s (1992) ‘risk society’ thesis as parents and children conceptualise risk within public and private spheres (Hood, Kelley, Mayall, Oakley, & Morrell, 1996); children are reflexive in their conceptualisations of risk (Harden, 2000) and through risk management or risk-taking behaviours achieve identity as individuals and as members of cultural groups (Green, 1997a). The mobile phone has become embedded in children’s social worlds in late modernity and the research presented here explored the unique viewpoints of contemporary young people in relation to the social changes associated with the rapid development of mobile phone use in their everyday lives.

The concept of risk is directly bound to reflexive modernization becoming increasingly individualized and this structural change resulting in further uncertainty (Beck, 1992). Giddens (1991) proposes that institutionally structured risk environments, with rapidly developing and often contradictory specialised knowledge portrayed through media channels, contribute to the risk society and the notion of risk becomes central to society and to individuals as they reflexively construct their own life biographies:

The point /…/ is not that day to day life is inherently more risky than was the case in prior eras. It is rather that, in conditions of modernity, for lay actors as well as for experts in specific fields, thinking in terms of risk and risk assessment is a more or less ever-present exercise, of a partly imponderable character (Giddens, 1991, p. 123-124).

However, in relation to risk society, children are not a central feature in Beck’s individualization discourse. This study, therefore, set out to examine specifically how children themselves view the nature and relationship of mobile phones and risk in their everyday lives and how they reflexively construct their own life biographies. This paper draws the data to address the issues of risk and reflexivity and examines the main concepts of responsibility and trust. According to Giddens (1991), in order to prevent the generalised risk climate from impinging upon life circumstances, individuals develop a protective cocoon of basic trust. He developed Goffman’s (1971) notion of Umwelt, which corresponds to a system of references to describe how the protective cocoon of trust is constructed by individuals. Through risk profiling, sometimes deferring in space and time, individuals deflect potentially hazardous consequences and maintain a viable Umwelt.

This paper considers previous research on understanding children and technology before outlining the methodological framework of the study and the qualitative approach adopted. It examines three key themes – Risk and reflexivity; Risk and responsibility and Risk and trust – in order to consider how children reflexively construct their own individualised risk biographies and how they actively manage both their behaviour and mobile phone technologies in order to minimise risk in their everyday lives.

The verbatim data presented is an example of what Greig and Taylor (2007, p. 37) describe as social constructivist research viewing children as “subjective, contextual, self-determining and dynamic” and it endeavours to understand how the worlds of children operate by describing and analysing the contextualised social phenomena found there. The findings are presented following Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) suggestion that developing theory is a process, one which is based on an ‘interplay’ between inductions from the data (theory building) and offering an explanation about phenomena.

Understanding Children and Technology

“The portrayal of children and ICTs has proved an enduring and multifaceted aspect of the social construction of the ‘information age’ over the past two decades” (Selwyn, 2003, p. 366). Buckingham (2000, p. 45) argued that both discourse and academic debate on children and technology have been dominated by technological determinism. He is critical of the many accounts of technology which take an essentialist view of childhood arguing that they reflect a sentimentality about childhood that fail to recognise the diversity in children’s lived experiences and in their relationships with media technologies.

Livingstone (1998) stresses the importance of contextualising new media in relation to the contexts of young people’s lives, including pre-existing media; theorizing media use in relation to modernity and both being informed by and informing academic study of childhood. Children’s use of technologies and media is diverse and they use and do not use them in many different ways (Selwyn, 2003). Much recent research on a wide variety of media technologies highlights gender, age and socioeconomic differences in children’s access to, perceptions and use of technologies and these marked divisions are giving rise to further concerns of technological inequalities and potential exclusion (Livingstone et al., 2011; Livingstone, 2009; Ofcom, 2009).

Postman (1983, p. 45) draws on Elias’ (1969) civilizing process argument to claim that, as the concept of childhood developed, society began to “collect a rich content of secrets to be kept from the young: secrets about sexual relations, but also about money, about violence, about illness, about death, about social relations”. Such concerns over unsuitable content influence parental behaviour in order to protect children’s innocence. Livingstone and Bober (2004) note that parents employ methods to promote safe internet use such as locating the computer in a public area of the house and attempt to monitor their children’s use of the Internet. However, Valentine and Holloway (2001) suggest adults and children have very different perspectives on ICTs and, whilst adults are concerned about the future, children are interested in the present and the social relationships within which they have to manage their own identities.

Paradoxes additionally appear elsewhere and, whilst the mobile telephone is associated with privacy, freedom, security (Ling, 2000; Charlton, Panting, & Hannan, 2002), recent research reveals complex aspects of the relationships between mobile phone technology, children and parents. The mobile telephone allows parents to give their children more freedom (Crabtree & Nathan, 2003), but Ling (2000), Yoon (2003) and Williams and Williams (2005) all highlight the role of mobile technology in extending parental control and also in young people negotiating parental control. The creative challenge of mobile phone technology, therefore, sits uneasily on the private role of the mobile, and is somewhat controversial and open to further regulation and control (Stone, 2004).

Livingstone et al.’s work (2011) reveals that contemporary children are using a wide variety of technologies in their everyday lives with varying degrees of knowledge and competency. The technologies that they use and how they use them have profound implications on young people’s development of self-identity. Yoon (2003, p. 329) suggests that “young people respond increasingly to the issue of self-identity by continually reinventing cultural conventions of socialization on the basis of individual choice and reflexivity”. The mobile phone has become a ubiquitous technology in children’s everyday lives and is associated with simultaneously both protecting children from and inducing risk. Little research, however, focuses on the children’s views and experiences themselves.

This research set out to address the question: How do children themselves view the nature of the relationship between mobile phones and risk in their everyday lives?

Research Methodology

Developments in standpoint feminism and the influence of individualization as “the tendency for contemporary children to be seen as having a voice in determining their lives and shaping their identity” are important aspects of recent advances in undertaking research with children and are also associated with the new social studies of childhood (Christensen & Prout, 2005, p 53). There is increasing recognition that it is the children themselves who are experts in their own lives and not the adults (who have previously dominated the role of the expert). The concept of competence in children’s participation in research that has previously been so dominant has recently been challenged (for example, Clarke & Moss, 2001; Lancaster, 2003). In exploring the methodologies that draw on young people’s strengths rather than focusing on what they are unable to do, issues of power and social exclusion can be addressed and facilitate children’s active participation in research and allow their voices to be heard.

The research presented here had an exploratory purpose and adopted a child centred approach using focus groups with 30 children aged between 11 and 17 years old. A non-probability sample was generated through snowballing via social networks. The snowball method of sampling involves selecting a few participants and asking them to recommend other participants willing to take part in the study continuing until saturation point is reached (Sarantakos, 2005). This method did not encounter the disadvantage of gate keeping that other methods may have come across and all the children who took part did so voluntarily and appeared happy to do so which reflects Brannen et al.’s (1994) comment on the importance of willingness of participants to take part in social fieldwork studies. The groups were self-selecting and this ensured that the children themselves chose the participants in each group, who were already familiar with each other and comfortable in each other’s company. A total of thirty children participated in the study – 16 girls and 14 boys. However, the sample is non-representative in nature and was limited in terms of ethnicity and no attempts were made to ascertain differences in social class. There were nine focus groups in total of varying ages and gender mixes, attending three different high schools within Suffolk, UK. The participants were all previously unknown to the researcher.

The children chose the location of the discussions, times and dates and this proved effective and the conversations that took place were lively and relaxed and flowed easily and there was little prompting on the part of the researcher. Social contexts such as gender, status and relational contexts influence the course of the focus group discussion (Hollander, 2004) and the use of established friendship groups may have influenced the responses of the participants in, what was intended to be, a positive direction. Because the children were previously well known to each other the power balance between the children and the researcher shifted towards the established friendship group. Discussions of shared experiences within the group were frequent and often required no further explanation. This facilitated some themes to emerge – for example, on sexuality and sexual content – that were less likely to have been discussed in the context of an individual interview.

Although the use of a focus group method with children has both advantages and disadvantages, the epistemological approach of children’s focus groups informs the methods used, the questions asked, and how children are represented as participants (Goodenough et al., 2003). “One of the most consistent threads in focus group literature is the vital importance of using nondirective questions to elicit spontaneous expression among participants” as limiting discussion to a particular focus may be in contradiction to some of the underlying assumptions of grounded theory (Kidd & Parshall, 2000, p 296). To this end a topic guide was used rather than specific questions which proved very successful and the researcher had very little input into the focus group conversations. This allowed the children to discuss the subject in their own terms of reference, to talk about what was important to them and did not influence the discussions with underlying assumptions from the researcher’s perspective.

The ethical framework for the research was drawn from a variety of sources including, for example, Hill (2005), Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Bureau. These guidelines suggest access to children involves issues of informed consent, confidentiality and legal issues prior to negotiations to gain access via gatekeepers who, through their relationship with the children, have a protective role. Aspects of child protection, the role of the researcher and questions of responsibility, confidentiality and how to deal with the potential disclosure of information, or possible exploitation through the research process require special consideration (Thomas & O’Kane, 1998).

In order to be mindful of ethical requirements and meet the principles of high quality research, written information about the research, its aims, design and process were given to both the participants and their parents. The children’s names have been changed and the names of schools withheld. Child protection issues were additionally addressed and both the children and parents were informed that anything that the children said would remain anonymous unless they disclosed that they were potentially at risk (for example, had arranged a face-to-face meeting with someone they had previously only met online), in which case a relevant responsible adult/ professional would have been informed (no such issues arose from the children’s accounts).

The conversations were lively, dynamic and an in-depth rapport between the participants facilitated lengthy and detailed discussions on many varied and diverse topics related to mobile phones. The unstructured approach produced a wealth of interesting and varied data as the children discussed their thoughts, feelings, views and experiences relating to mobile phone and risk in their everyday lives. The data from the tape recorded interviews was transcribed by the researcher and the analysis was initially carried out manually. Following the principles of grounded theory (see Strauss & Corbin, 1998) the data was analysed following Miles and Huberman’s (1994) recommendations to affix codes to interview transcripts and sort to identify similar phrases, relationships between variables, patterns and themes and common sequences. The data was then analysed further and analytical trees were designed to explore the main themes that arose from the categorised data which provide a focus for the findings discussed below.

Findings

Risk and Reflexivity

The notion of social reflexivity “refers to the fact that we have constantly to think about, or reflect upon, the circumstances in which we live our lives” (Giddens, 2006, p. 123). This appears as an important concept related to the children’s understanding of mobile phones and risk. Giddens (2006) suggests we are responsible for our own reflexive project of self and the children’s accounts are no exception to his proposal. Strongly linked to the development of self-identity and individualization in late modernity, the children were reflexive in their conceptions of risk associated with mobile phones within the day-to-day context of their lives. The children self-formed and adapted their perceptions of risk associated with mobile phone technologies and actively negotiated restrictions imposed on them in relation to their mobile phone use.

Understanding risk in relation to public space was discussed in detail by all the groups but for a group of girls this was especially pertinent. The mobile phone and being able to contact someone provided them with a security network when feeling vulnerable in public space. This sort of discussion was common during the focus group talks and what is interesting is that they took steps to be responsible for their own safety in public space by using their mobile phone as a tool:

Cathy [aged 17]: Does your mobile phone make you feel safer?

Beth [aged 16]: Oh yeah.

Emily [aged 16]: Definitely.

Megan [aged 17]: Oh yeah ‘cos like you can call someone.

Emily [aged 16]: If anything happens then you can like just call somebody.

Beth [aged 16]: We were in [name of town] once and someone was like following us.

Megan [aged 17]: Oh yeah…

Beth [aged 16]: And like I had my hand on my mobile in case we like needed to like ring someone.

Emily [aged 16]: ‘Cos like if you didn’t have your phone then you’d be like lost and you couldn’t call someone.

Using a mobile phone in public space was of particular importance from the children’s accounts and they all discussed the risk of having their mobile phone stolen. They managed and modified their behaviour to minimise the risk of having their phone stolen by keeping it up their sleeve or keeping it in a bag. However, in other circumstances they reflexively weighed up the risk to their phone and the risk to themselves. When the risk to themselves outweighed the risk to their phone, they would openly use their mobile phone in order to feel secure and safe when feeling vulnerable in public space. Thus there are public and private behaviours associated with mobile phone use in managing risk. As depicted in the excerpt between Chris and Vicky below:

Chris [aged 13]: Yeah whenever I’m in town I try and keep it [mobile phone] like slightly hidden so people can’t see it – like just up my sleeve or something.

Vicky [aged 13]: Yeah like my friend […] or something ..she’s called me a couple of times when she has had to walk home by herself. She’s just like ‘[…] I’m walking home by myself, can I talk to you? You know I’m a bit scared’ and I think it’s like you know you always feel a bit more like safe or whatever. I mean just like talking to someone you know if someone is going to come up behind you can be like ‘[friend] someone’s just come up behind me and she’d be like Oh dear what do you want me to do. I’m not with you and I’d just be like ‘oh fuck!’ [laughter]… but it makes me feel a bit more secure.

The children’s accounts were littered with examples of what Giddens (1990) describes as the doubled edged sword of modernity paradoxically viewing the mobile phone as having simultaneously good and bad characteristics or consequences. They were highly analytical and rather critical in their perceptions of mobile phones and security. Whilst much discussion of the mobile phone being useful in emergency situations did indeed take place, as illustrated above, the children viewed networks as often unstable (for example when they did not have network coverage or had run out of credit). They also discussed how a mobile phone did not keep you safe if you could not reach the person you wanted. As Josh describes below, whilst he had been provided with a mobile phone to reduce the risk in the event of an emergency, in order to be effective it relies on a network of technology and people. Josh considered that, although, his mobile phone had a role to play in keeping him safe in an emergency, its value was limited if he was unable to make contact with his parents if they have their phones switched off. Goffman (1971) suggests by his notion of Umwelt that in order to function we have to trust the other people. It could be argued that the children’s perceptions of mobile phones and risk incorporated a reflexive Umwelt constructed from both human and technical bodies. An example of a network of heterogeneous materials that constitute the social (as outlined by Law, 1991), Actor Network Theory (ANT) is helpful here explaining that social life cannot be understood as either human or technical, as neither human nor technology controls the resulting patterns of relationships and the importance of trust in relation to those bodies – both human and non-human - in maintaining a viable Umwelt.

Josh [aged 15]: Well with like your family they are willing to get you like a new phone and that because they are like ‘well yes it is a necessity isn’t it especially if there’s an emergency?’ but my parents never have their phones on! So there’s sod all point in technology! I mean like my mum - I tried to call her before I came out here to check that I had got the times right and her phone is switched off. She never has her phone on and she’s got a phone that is 10 times better than mine!

Harden (2000) argues that children reflexively construct their landscapes of risk around the concepts of private, local and public. From the focus group data the children’s perceptions of risk also appear to take a more networked approach involving complex multi-faceted and complicated understandings derived from many different factors including both human and non-human elements. If, as ANT argues, the social world cannot simply be divided into things, on one hand, and the social, on the other (Bingham, 1996), it becomes necessary to understand the “intricate and mutually constitutive character of the human and the technological” (Prout, 1996, p. 198).

School remains one of the significant spaces of childhood and in the children’s lives in the study. Just as there are restrictions of children’s participation in public life (Hood et al., 1996), which they do not simply accept (Harden, 2000), boundaries and restrictions are placed on children related to their use of mobile phones in relation to their school life. As a significant factor in the children’s perceptions of their everyday spaces, school emerged as a topic for discussion. It was not an objective of the study to make comparisons but it emerged from the data analysis that the schools had significant points of difference in their policies and procedures related to children having mobile phones in schools. These policies varied from actively encouraging them to an outright ban on them or a more laissez faire attitude towards mobile phones. The children without exemption were highly critical of attempts to limit or control their mobile phone use and viewed any such efforts as pointless because “everyone does it anyway”. Tilly, John and Sid attended a school where mobile phones were banned. Endorsing Harden’s (2000) findings that children are active in their negotiation of boundaries and employed strategies for subverting both legal and parents’ restrictions, the children discussed how they felt about the ban, how everyone ignored it even to the extent that children used their mobile phone in class hidden under a desk to text.

Sid [aged 16]: Yeah but they’re still banned but we can still use them.

John [aged 16]: I mean if you look across a classroom you can actually see all the people who are texting and the teachers are completely oblivious.

Tilly [aged 16]: There’s normally about ten in every class.

Sid [aged 16]: Yeah if they stopped and actually looked they would be able to catch so many people.

John [aged 16]: Yeah but they don’t see.

Tilly [aged 16]: No you just put your phone just under the desk and you can just text away.

In comparison another school had a more laissez faire attitude. The children also reflected on the school policy and discussed how they could have a phone in school but it should be either on silent or switched off. Again the children did not passively accept the restrictions and described the consequences if they were seen with their mobile phone in evidence:

Chris [aged 13]: But you have to keep it in on either silent or switched off – you are not actually allowed to use it around school.

Mark [aged 13]: Yeah but loads of people still do.

Chris [aged 13]: Especially in the playground.

Vicky [aged 13]: But they can still confiscate it - I think.

Chris [aged 13]: Or they’ll go ‘put it away’.

Vicky [aged 13]: Yeah they’ll go ‘put it away’.

Chris [aged 13]: But people still use them.

Ben [aged 13]: All the time.

Chris [aged 13]: Yeah all the time.

James and James (2001) suggest that contemporary moral discourses are tightening the net of social control on children’s lives to the extent that children have increasingly become the subjects of overt and covert regulation and consequently opportunities for children to be relatively free from adult control have been greatly reduced (Valentine, 1996). The findings presented here reinforce and confirm the reflexive perceptions of risk that the children held and demonstrate the creative, adaptive and skilled ways that they overcame boundaries and attempts to control their mobile phone use in everyday environments.

Risk and Responsibility

The concept of responsibility in relation to the children’s perceptions of risk is important. There was much talk of the mobile phone being provided or purchased by parents as a device for managing risk and extended notions of responsibility in parenting. The children viewed themselves as responsible not only for themselves but also for minimising parental anxiety and reassuring parents that they were safe and that they had their phone with them. When the phone had run out of credit or was not with them, as in James’s case below, the children described feelings of uncertainty, especially linked with public space, which they also associated with a lack of responsibility.

James [aged 12]: I’d feel OK but again but it [mobile phone] could partly change things because of arrangements that could be misunderstood because once I was supposed to meet my sister after school but it was too dark – she went round one way and I went round the other and left and then left and she had obviously missed me so I walked home and I didn’t have my mobile and if I had of had it, it would have been easier. It was stupid of me not to have taken it.

James viewed himself as irresponsible to have forgotten his phone but, perceived responsibilities did not just rest with the children. Laura (14), described how the mobile is an important tool in managing risk in a “difficult situation”. She discusses it in terms of relieving anxiety and in relation to feelings of safety but also how the phone paradoxically is a potential cause of risk associated with “bullies”. It, therefore, also induces anxiety and fear.

Laura [aged 14]: Another is if like contacting people if like you are stuck in a difficult situation like that you can’t get out of if someone’s like say you got attacked or something if you are in a difficult situation to like get out of it but like in another situation like with bullies and stuff it’s really bad ‘cos there’s crime and stuff and that’s still phones.

It is particularly interesting that providing children with a mobile phone is a strategy used by parents to extend notions of responsibility in keeping their children safe and minimising risk. Williams and Williams (2005) highlight the role of mobile technology in extending parental control and Green (1997b) suggests that risk management strategies are used by parents in their construction of an identity as a good parent. The children in my study though demonstrated their responsibility as a good son or daughter in ameliorating parental anxiety and minimising the risk of parental concern through reassuring parents that they ‘had their mobile phone with them’ and could be contacted. However, as Andy discussed, in the only incidence to emerge from the data which described the “in an emergency” type situation the one time when he needed to contact his parents they were unavailable as they had switched off their phones:

Andy [aged 15]: Yeah and you can do the whole tactic thing with parents you can be like ‘don’t worry I’ve got my phone don’t worry’ and they are like ‘ok if anything happens give me a ring’ but of course when something did happen they had their phones off – I get assaulted and their phones are off! So I had to walk all the way back to your house – bleeding – a true story!

Thus reinforcing Pain et al. (2005); Ling (2000) and Ling and Yttri (2002) that children associate having a mobile phone in public space as a security device for calling parents when they are worried or when something happens. However, what the data highlights here is how the device is of little help when other phones are not switched on and thus undermining the feelings of security associated with it in this context. The importance of consideration of the other elements in the risk context emerge and from the data obtained in the focus group study it could be argued that the children viewed the role of the mobile phone as a device for feeling safe in more complex terms, and additionally understood the role, in this case, of their parents in performing the collective.

In the following extract the girls are discussing their use of Social Network Sites and children putting their number onto their personal profile highlighting the lack of trust associated with late modernity. However, as Laura goes on to mention, it is the active embrace of risk that for some children is an important component for engaging in certain activities with the technologies.

Laura [aged 14]: But going back to like [name of Social Network Site] – you can put your number down and I think that that is like really stupid – as lots of kids like put their numbers out but they don’t know like what they are getting themselves into yeah ‘cos it’s like well you can choose to accept the call or not but you don’t know who it is on the phone – it may be a paedophile on the phone to you? And on some of them it is like live texting so it could be anyone, you know? But kids take the risk like to talk and to get adrenaline and stuff but I think mobiles are safer than [name of Social Network Site] and chat rooms and stuff ‘cos you get so many weirdos there that is what everyone says that and that is where they all hang out if you know what I mean. That is where they pretend to be like a teenager and people get sucked in.

Laura’s observations are in acquiescence to Green (1997b) that risk taking is an important part of the development of self-identity in late modernity and contributes to understanding the risk climate. Although Beck (1992) fails to acknowledge that risk may be chosen for personal reasons (Culpitt, 1999), Giddens (1991) stresses the importance of people’s active embrace of risk in the risk climate. Livingstone et al. (2011) found that children who took risks online were more likely to be older children, higher in self efficacy and sensation seeking. The children in both my research and the EU Kids online II research project interact with the risky opportunities and the various technologies in their lives by taking responsibility for themselves and trying to understand and manage risk by often choosing (as opposed to naively) to take risks. As Livingstone et al. (2011, p. 16) observe, increased digital and safety skills are derived from “online experimentation which can enhance skills, though having greater skills is also linked to more (not fewer) online risky activities”. The account above (by Laura) reflects much of the media discourse and rhetoric associated with chat rooms and online identities and risk in relation to online paedophile activities and people pretending to be someone else.

Risk and Trust

The children’s understandings of the online environment reflect the lack of trust characteristic of late modernity discussed by Giddens’ (1991, p. 136) that “abstract systems depend on trust, yet they provide none of the moral rewards which can be obtained from personalised trust, or were often available in traditional settings from the moral frameworks within which everyday life was undertaken”. It has already been suggested that trust is important for everyday life (Goffman, 1971), yet as Scott et al., (1998) point out trust is also portrayed as a dangerous trait for children as they are regarded as a vulnerable group. Risk profiling, a central part of modernity (Giddens, 1991), is certainly apparent in the children’s talk, and Goffman (1971) suggests that the related increased vulnerability associated with public life undermines the Umwelt.

Direct first-hand experience of risk had an impact on the children’s perceptions and how they altered their behaviour in order to minimise the risk or prevent it from happening again. There is a complex relationship between technology and privacy (Shapiro, 1998), and Megan discussed altering her mobile phone behaviour after her parents had read her text messages:

Megan [aged 17]: My Mum and Dad used to do that so I sort of don’t leave my phone around any more ‘cos I left it on the kitchen table once and they went through it and read like all these text messages from boys that have been like texting me and stuff like [name of boys] [laughter] and that so they weren’t very happy and like they were like and I was like and I was deleting all my texts and that but now I like just keep it with me all the time.

In addition to managing aspects of their behaviour the children’s accounts also reveal how they used technological risk management strategies and discussed notions of responsibility as important part of their construction of self-identity. They weighed up the perceived risks in their individualised situations and circumstances and responded in order to manage the risk either by managing their own behaviour or by managing the technology itself.

As we experience risks in our everyday lives we are all experts in one way or another at taking them or avoiding them and thus there is no single definitive concept of risk but a wide range of approaches (Hood et al., 1996). Direct experience of financial hardship, for example, led some of the children to monitor their mobile phone use carefully in order to avoid expensive bills. Reflecting Ling’s argument that (2004, p. 118) “the mobile telephone has become the new locus among teens for discussing money and monetary issues”, many children discussed how they tried to leave a small amount of credit deliberately on their mobile phone for an emergency:

Ben [aged 13]: But there could always be that tricky situation.

Vicky [aged 13]: Yeah I always save like just a little bit of credit for emergencies and I know that that sounds really pathetic.

The groups discussed different ways that they created strategies in response to their own subjective everyday experience of risk, specific risks and situations and Livingstone et al.’s (2011) study found that most 11-16 year olds (64%) can block messages from those they do not wish to contact. Similarly in my study there was talk in relation to mobile phones of blocking unwanted contact as illustrated by John in his discussion of how he responded to a girl stalking him through his mobile phone:

John [aged 16]: Yeah and last night she rang me about twenty times and so I wouldn’t answer and I blocked her and then she kept putting it on 121 so I blocked that.

Tilly [aged 16]: Yeah you can do that – you can do things to withhold your number you just put 141.

John [aged 16]: Yeah well I just put a block on it.

Tilly [aged 16]: Yeah but 141 just comes up with ‘private number’ so you don’t know who’s calling you and on your phone you can set it so it always comes up as private number – you can do it on home phones as well.

The strategies adopted were not always complicated and the young people were all aware that the mobile phone could be used for receiving unwanted text messages and calls. One group of younger children managed the risk by simply not giving out their phone number in order to prevent this happening to them. For William, it was his older sister’s experience that had given him knowledge of the risks and Mary did not trust others not to reveal her number further:

William [aged 12]: My sister said that she got nasty text messages – but I don’t give anybody my phone number at all.

Matthew [aged 12]: Same here but people pester you for it.

Mary [aged 12]: Yes but I mean my mum would let me give it out but they have pestered me so much that I just say ‘No my mum doesn’t let me give it out’ and that’s so much easier than explaining ‘no I don’t want you to have it because I’m afraid of receiving meaningless text messages that I don’t want ‘I don’t trust you not to give my mobile number out’ so now I just say ‘my mum won’t let me’.

Discussion

Technological developments associated with late modern conditions, which Turner (1990) outlines as disorganised capitalism, consumer society and mass cultural production, are viewed to have changed children’s and young people’s lives. To date children have been largely ignored in mainstream social research. The construction of the child in previous debates, viewing childhood as a time of innocence, which should not be corrupted or exploited by media, does not “match the reality of many children’s lives and fails to acknowledge that children are active participants” (Selwyn, 2000, p. 148).

Beck (1992) argues that understanding risk is not just about scientific definitions of risk but it is also about the social definitions or consequences of risk that impact on everyday understandings. The mobile phone is associated with providing a sense of safety and security – a tool for potentially managing the perceived risk in public space as Ling (2004, p. 35) points out:

One of the most common popular images is that it provides us with a form of security – that is, the sense of being out of harm’s way – and safety in which one is indeed free from harm. To be sure, the notion of a mobile telephone as a lifeline is one of the central images of the device.

Supporting McLuhan and Fiore’s (2001, p. 68) observation that “environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are visible”, it is apparent from the children’s talk that they actively took steps to keep not only themselves safe but their mobile phone safe too. This research illustrates how abstract notions of risk came up against everyday realities in children’s lives, and this is significant in the light of Freudenburg’s (1993) argument that traditional factors of risk perception analysis, such as technical assessments of the actual risk posed or socio-demographic characteristics of the risk perceiver, are sterile debates on whether perceptions of risk are rational or not, and that it is more productive for research to look at how people perceive risk. This study of children, risk and mobile phones is based on children’s own experiences and focuses on their everyday lives. It illustrates the importance of the mobile phone in their constructions of identity; their day to day lives within their community and in connecting them to others; to their friends and their families, and reveals the centrality of risk in their everyday lives. The findings suggest that the mobile phone simultaneously provides security and offers protection from certain risks whilst paradoxically increasing anxiety and creating feelings of vulnerability within the children’s lives.

Thus mobile phones play a fundamental role in positively maintaining and managing children’s friendships, but they simultaneously facilitate a negative role in more risky relationships and bullying (see Bond, 2010, 2011). The children were reflexive in their conceptualisations of risk and they viewed themselves as responsible for their own project of self. The findings uphold recent sociological developments that children are active social actors and should be viewed as persons in their own right. A vital component in the formation of self-identity is aspects of responsibility and, rather than accepting limitations imposed on them, the children reflexively weighed up understandings of a network of risk factors and responded accordingly. The concept of risk was, therefore, fundamental to the children’s self-forming, and being adaptive and creative in their mobile phone use and behaviour in order to manage risk. Childhood is constructed as a time of innocence, vulnerability and dependence (Jenks, 1996), and risk anxiety, engendered by the desire to keep children safe, frequently has negative consequences for children themselves and curtails children’s activities in ways which may restrict their autonomy and their opportunities to develop the necessary skills to cope with the world (Scott et al., 1998). Livingstone et al.’s (2011) report recommends that children are increasingly having to be responsible for their own safety online and should be encouraged to develop digital skills that build confidence, resilience and digital citizenship.

This was a relatively small study and as an investigative tool is not without some specific limitations especially in relation to number of children (30) that participated and the opportunistic recruitment process using a snow-balling method which limits generalisation. From a positivist perspective, therefore, concerns may be raised over the lack of objectivity, the difficulty in replicating and generalising from the study. These are, however, common disadvantages associated with qualitative research (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

What is significant in the research presented here is that it is the young people’s stories that are told, presented in their own words and the methodological framework adopted in the research allows these narratives to be heard. Yoon (2006) suggests that whilst work on youth and new technologies has recently flourished little is known about how local young people are using individualizing technologies and that there remains a dearth of empirical data of ordinary young people’s cultural practices in this field. Furthermore, it is the children themselves who actively manage the risk, reinforcing their role as active social actors. These findings have implications, therefore, for trusting children and parental mediation strategies that assume children are reflexive and responsible. Green (1997a) suggests that to deny responsibility for risk management would be to deny competence as an individualized expert in the risk society. The children viewed themselves as responsible for managing not only themselves but also others, for example, ameliorating parental anxiety through what they viewed to be responsible use of their mobile phones.

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Correspondence to:
Dr. Emma Bond
School of Applied Social Sciences
University Campus Suffolk
Waterfront
Ipswich
Suffolk
IP4 1QJ
UK

Email: e.bond(at)ucs.ac.uk