Table of Contents


Title page

Copyright page



1 Changing Childhood, Changing Media

Change and crisis in the post-traditional family

Individualization and the risk society

Growing up in late modernity

The ‘arrival’ of the internet

From impacts to affordances

From great expectations to challenging realities

2 Youthful Experts

Great expectations

Meet three children

Appropriating the internet

Enthusiastic take-up of (some) online opportunities

Digital natives?

Familiar inequalities

Creative engagement

New opportunities?

3 Learning and Education

The promise of the transformed classroom

Learning to use the internet

A reliable learning tool?

Enhancing traditional learning outcomes

Compensating for disadvantage

Broadening expectations – enhancing soft skills

Learning in a convergent environment


4 Communication and Identity

Why communicate online?

‘Constant connection’

Making communicative choices

Representing the self

Transitions in identity development

Intimacy and privacy

Restrictive affordances

Creative affordances


5 Participation and Civic Engagement

High hopes for young citizens online

‘Politics is boring’

Widening the definition of the ‘political’

Can the internet make a difference?

Varieties of online youth

Engaging the already engaged

Designing opportunities to ‘have your say’

Who’s listening?

Citizens now or citizens-in-the-making?

Participation in what?

Opportunity structures for civic engagement


6 Risk and Harm

Beyond moral panics

Going online in the risk society

What risks do face children online?

Online risk – how much of what kind?

Mapping online risk

Linking risks and opportunities

The identification of risk in the risk society

The intensification of risk in the risk society

The individualization of risk in the risk society

7 Media and Digital Literacies

In support of media literacy

The legacy of print literacy

Access, analysis, evaluation and creation

Individual skills or social practices?

Reading the online world – a matter of design

Media literacy – a concept whose time has come

Media literacy and media regulation


8 Balancing Online Opportunities and Risks

Online opportunities and risks – a balancing act

Maximizing opportunities – a matter of children’s rights

Improving provision – some practical challenges

Minimizing risks through top-down approaches

Minimizing risks – a matter of parental mediation

Minimizing risks through safety by design

Looking ahead


Young People, New Media

Families and the Internet

EU Kids Online

Social Networking Study



Title page


When I was a child growing up in the 1960s, the typical British family had one television with three channels, the phone was in a hallway or street corner, bedrooms were cold and forbidden in the day time, living rooms were formal and ruled by parental wishes, books came from the library, sums were calculated with a slide rule, and computers existed only in science fiction. Many will recognize this picture. For much of the world, it is already privileged. But for today’s youth, it’s a forgotten history.

Nowadays, at least in wealthy parts of the world, children live wholly surrounded by media of one kind and another. In the UK, four fifths (79%) of 7–16 year olds have internet access at home, and over half (53%) of even 5–6 year olds now go online; moreover, among 5–16 year olds, 37 percent have access in their own room (this including 26% of 5–10 year olds, rising to 57% of 15–16 year olds). Further, among 5–16 year olds, 77 per cent have a television in their bedroom (56% have multi-channel), 73 per cent have a mobile phone, 69 per cent have their own DVD player, MP3 player, radio and games console, while 55 per cent have their own PC or laptop (ChildWise, 2009; see also Ofcom 2008c).

The media landscape is far more commercialized than when I was a child, and now operates more on a transnational than a national scale. Indeed, ‘mass’ communication may seem almost an obsolete concept, transformed by the growth of interactive, personalized, mobile and social media. Convergence is making it harder even to distinguish different media and information forms as they intersect and hybridize, converging not only texts and technologies but also everyday social habits and practices and, further, the social institutions and governance structures that regulate the conditions of children’s lives.

These are not just changes in technology, in the consumption of stuff – they are changes in the patterns of, and possibilities for, almost every aspect of our lives. When I went home from school, I re-entered a symbolic space defined by my parents’ values, unable easily to stay in touch with my friends. But I could escape to my bedroom, and I could go out – the world was not a scary place.

In this book, I argue that changes in the media landscape – especially the advent of widespread internet use – have altered the opportunities and risks experienced by children and young people. And, even more importantly, I argue that changes in the social landscape alter the ways that children and young people use the media to connect and communicate with each other, with parents and other adults, and with the wider world. Also pertinent to our understanding of children and the internet are the historical and cultural shifts in youth culture, consumer culture and the growing children’s market, and the domestication and privatization of leisure – consider the twentieth century transformation of the home into multiple personalized spaces of identity.

Society is positioning the internet as providing new routes not just to entertainment but also to education, workplace skills, civic participation, global connection and more. Children’s uses of the internet have, therefore, wider implications than for any previous medium, even television, since the advent of the printed book and the rise of mass literacy. The commensurate rise of media and internet-related literacies will prove a major theme in my account of the opportunities afforded by the internet.

While academics and policymakers deliberate over the best way to maximize opportunities and minimize risk, children and young people are simply getting on with it – for them, these are welcome changes. The media are with them all the time – on their person, in their pockets and their ears, embedded – or part of the wallpaper – in most spaces they enter, whether public or private. And they are delighted that it is so – they could not imagine life without the media, turning on the television or internet the minute they wake up or come home, falling asleep with their iPod or mobile phone by their pillow. For the ‘always on’, ‘constantly connected’, ‘digital’ generation, it seems that few experiences now go unmediated, whether in the sphere of leisure or education, relations with peers or connection with their neighbourhood and beyond.

To ground my analysis, I hope to convey the enthusiasm, the richness and diversity, indeed the very texture of children and young people’s experiences with the internet. For the past fifteen years, I have been researching – interviewing, observing, listening to, surveying – children and young people about their engagement with old and new media. Most of the empirical work included in this book draws on the ESRC-funded ‘UK Children Go Online’ (UKCGO)1 project I directed, though I began working on children and the internet when British Telecom commissioned my in-depth study of thirty British families between 1999 and 2001. I next directed the ‘EU Kids Online’ project (2006–9), funded by the European Commission’s Safer Internet plus programme.2 And Knut Lundby’s ‘Mediatized Stories’ project at the University of Oslo provided the opportunity for the social networking study – interviews and observations with teenagers in 2007.

Beyond listening closely to children’s voices and experiences, a critical framework is also vital. One starting point is to observe the considerable anxieties associated with children’s internet use which are widespread among social scientists, policymakers, the mass media and, of course, among the public. In the academic literature, such moral panics have been roundly critiqued for scapegoating new media so as to deflect public attention from the real problems in society and for attempting middle class control over working class pleasures, thus denying the agency, responsibility and general good sense of the public – including children.

It seems that when the debates over children’s media get polarized and emotive, it is because ‘the child’ or ‘childhood’ has become a stand-in for something else – a means of articulating anxieties about Western capitalism. Often, these are debates about tradition, authority or respect for shared values, or about the balance between individualism and participation. In some circles, questions about children’s protection and human dignity are ‘heard’ as elitist or moralizing or as an argument against adult freedom of expression and hence a covert move towards censorship, and given worldwide moves towards state control of the internet, of course one must recognize the force of this position.

But where does this leave children? What media and communication environment can and should be provided for them? Clearly, a critical rejection of both moral panics and the technological determinism they imply does not permit us to conclude, as some misguidedly do, that the media play no significant role in children’s lives. But asking such questions demands engagement with a normative agenda, a direction not all researchers would follow, perhaps depending on the political climate in which they work. Recently, it seems that academic research has taken a normative turn, that evidence-based policy is expected and respected, and that academic collaboration with diverse stakeholders – including government, policymakers, industry, regulators and civil society actors – is cautiously welcome. In the UK, the wide-ranging deliberations that informed the UK Government’s review of children and new technology (Byron, 2008) illustrate the point. Arguably, then, being ‘expert’ on children and the internet, it is incumbent on the research community to ensure that good research reaches those stakeholders who might act on it, especially if the outcome supports children’s interests. Readers may judge whether the evidence I present justifies my conclusions, to which end I have sought to distinguish one from the other in writing this book.

My guiding principle, as signalled by the book’s subtitle, is to understand why, so often, empirical findings suggest many children are not, or are not yet, enjoying the great expectations held out for them. I do not advocate that the internet represents the solution to all their problems – indeed, a theme running through this book is the identification of the many other factors shaping children’s opportunities. But, to the extent that society appears willing to invest in online provision for children, whether through public investment or the market, it is surely worth thinking through how this provision could benefit children, bringing their actual experiences closer to the high hopes that many, rightly, have for them.

Every few years the newest trend attracts headlines, reshuffles expectations, wrong-foots adult observers and revives perennial anxieties. One constant is that it is children, young people and their families who tend to be in the vanguard of these new online activities, and so popular and policy interest in children and the internet remains intense, as does the need for rigorous empirical research. The result is an unfolding and fascinating interplay among technological innovators, ambivalent governments, big business, creative children and worried parents, as well as academic researchers seeking to track and interpret these unfolding trends.

Many of these trends, on close reflection, turn out to concern not only changes in technology but also, more fundamentally, changes in contemporary childhood. These, too, are now attracting widespread public attention. In the UK, the past year or so saw the Risk Commission’s report on ‘Risk and Childhood’ (Madge and Barker, 2007) and ‘The Good Childhood Enquiry’ (Layard and Dunn, 2009), this latter following up on the huge international interest attracted by UNICEF’s (2007) report, ‘Child Poverty in Perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries’, which placed the UK – closely followed by the USA – at the bottom of a league table of twenty-one wealthy countries. Concerns over children’s wellbeing periodically reach the top of the agenda in many countries worldwide, bringing into focus another series of changes since the childhood of today’s adults, those who are making the decisions about, worrying about, the lives of children today.

When I was a teenager, most teenagers in Britain left school aged 15 or 16 and began earning; few went to university. Now nearly all stay in school till 18, nearly half go to university, and they’re still living at home through their twenties. In other words, it would appear that childhood is lasting longer. Further, as adults are fond of recalling, forty years ago, children packed their cheese sandwiches and headed off on their own for the day. Today, faced with anxieties about streets, parks, even the swimming pool, home seems safer. To occupy children at home, many parents – rich and poor – seek to fill their homes with media. To give children and parents some privacy, ever more media are located in children’s bedrooms. To keep them in touch with friends, parents provide mobile phones and domestic internet access. If they are worried, guilty, rushed for time or flush with cash, the media – in one way or another – provide a ready answer, seemingly less the problem than the solution.

It is the conditions of childhood, and the ways they are changing, then, that demand critical attention before we can ask how the internet is fitting into children’s lives, for these shape the meaning and consequences of internet use. This, therefore, is where chapter 1 begins. In the chapters that follow, I address key themes regarding children’s relations to the internet, drawing on my recent writings and research findings. Thus I integrate and rework published and new material so as to offer a coherent and multifaceted analysis of children’s engagement with the internet.3 Since this book is empirically grounded, I acknowledge that it reflects the UK experience more than others, but the analysis is informed as far as possible by an international though still largely Western research literature.


1 This was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-335-25-0008), with additional funding from AOL, BSC, ITC, Citizens Online and Ofcom. See Appendix.

2 This project networks research teams in 21 European countries – see, accessed 15/9/08, and Appendix.

3 These are referenced in the book as appropriate, including Livingstone (2005a, 2006, 2007a, 2007c, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d), Livingstone and Bober (2003, 2004b, 2005) and Livingstone and Helsper (2007).


It has been a pleasure, over the years, to work with some great colleagues – Magdalena Bober, Moira Bovill, David Brake, Leslie Haddon, Ellen Helsper, Andrea Millwood Hargrave, Uwe Hasebrink, Andrea Press, Panayiota Tsatsou and many wonderful colleagues from the EU Kids Online network, the Internet Watch Foundation and the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, as well as the committed international community of scholars concerned with children, young people and the internet: I have valued their conversation, their collaboration and their criticism.

I also thank Keri Facer, Sara Grimes, Dafna Lemish, Maggie Scammell and Elisabeth Staksrud for critiquing draft chapters during the writing process. And I thank my colleagues at LSE who allowed me the time off to work on this book, Yinhan Wang who assiduously tracked down my missing references, Todd Motto who tidied up my messy text, and John Thompson and Andrea Drugan at Polity Press who have been remarkably patient in waiting for its final appearance.

Many children, young people, parents, youth workers, content providers, regulators and teachers generously gave their time while I asked numerous questions, hung out in their homes and bedrooms and dropped into their classrooms and offices. I thank them all warmly. My parents have remained encouraging and engaged in my work long since my childhood in those days before the internet. My own children, expert and eloquent members of the digital generation, have had to answer more questions than any – Joe and Anna, I hope you think this was worth it! And for Peter, who offered constructive advice on my tangled arguments along with endless cups of tea, no amount of thanks can ever be enough.