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Taking up opportunities? Children’s uses of the internet for education, communication and participation

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The research project, UK Children Go Online (UKCGO), is conducting a rigorous investigation of 9-19 year olds’ use of the internet, comparing girls and boys of different ages, backgrounds etc., in order to ask how the internet may be transforming, or may itself be shaped by family life, peer networks and school. It combines qualitative interviews and observations with a major national survey of 9-19 year olds (N=1511) and their parents (N=906). This paper focuses on two of the key opportunities the internet affords to children and young people: first, education, informal learning and literacy and, second, communication and participation. The survey charts how central the internet has become in young people’s and children’s lives as an information medium to support school work, although it is not seen as a wholly unproblematic learning tool. Children and young people alike encounter difficulties with searching the web, with the critical evaluation of website contents, and with a range of other online skills, and these in turn appear due to the patchy educational support they have received in internet literacy teaching. While education and learning represent the ‘approved’ uses of the internet, which is often the reason for which parents and governments invest in domestic internet access, children and young people themselves are far more excited by the internet as a communication medium. Both internet (instant message, email, chat) and mobile phone (talk, text) are mostly used to contact friends that live locally and, through skilful choices regarding the nature of these technologies in relation to the purposes of the communication, they are employed to manage the intimacy, embarrassment or privacy demands of such communications. Hence for many, mediated communication is by no means seen as less satisfactory than face-to-face communication. Although such communication sustains the peer network, it does not necessarily generate a wider interest in community or civic participation, although over half have shown some interest in such web content. However, not all the opportunities available to children and young people are being taken up equally. Hence the paper concludes by charting the emergence of a new divide, signalling emerging inequalities in the quality of internet use, with children and young people being divided into those for whom the internet is an increasingly rich, diverse, engaging and stimulating resource of growing importance in their lives and those for whom it remains a narrow, unengaging if occasionally useful resource of rather less significance.

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