Using digital technologies to research children in time

This is a presentation I gave last week – developed entirely just based on the prescribed title topic. Feel free to skim any of it (with correct attributions) if it applies to your work!


WHY use digital technologies to research children in time? 

This can really be broken down into 3 questions:

  • Why research children? As Livingstone (2009) points out, children are often ignored in population-level studies but tomorrow’s adults are children today. Therefore, their current lives, activities, and influences will have an effect on the future of our society. The media also perpetuate moral panics and sensational rhetoric (Selwyn, 2003) that necessitates research in order to dispel myths and actually get to the bottom of what is happening in children’s lives. Professor Kehily explains this further in the video at the bottom of her research page.
  • Why use digital technologies? Studies continue to show that people under 18 are still the most rapid adopters of new technology (Dutton & Blank, 2011; Madden, Lenhart, Duggan, Cortesi, & Gasser, 2013). While I’ve been focusing on the ways in which social networking sites, like Facebook, are important to young people’s identity formation and participation in society (boyd, 2007, 2011), technology in general is essential to children’s learning and social development (Ito et al., 2010). As a result, any research about children will need to be digital in some way in order to investigate how their lives are interwoven with technology.
  • What does time have to do with it? Not only do longitudinal studies show us how behaviour and social interaction change over time, but they also provide more robust findings than one-time surveys and interviews because they let us know what we are seeing is an enduring pattern and not a blip in the data. Researching children over time also helps us to understand how people, activities, and behaviour feature differently throughout development and the life course (Furlong, 2013). However, in a world where funding is scarce in the social sciences and funders want to see significant findings immediately, fewer longitudinal studies are being carried out. Digital technologies can help to remedy this by providing us with records of activity over time. From individuals’ browser history to their Facebook Timeline and Tumblr posts, most technology-users have amassed a digital archive that is available if you have the right tools to access it.

Digital Tools for Research

Having taken the Oxford Internet Institute’s seminar on Digital Social Research, which helped me to develop foundational knowledge of some coding languages including python and PHP, I see lots of opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists and computer scientists in this area. With most social platforms having readily available APIs and programming toolkits, there is no limit to the range of research-based applications that can be created. Whether it’s an app that embeds a survey into Facebook or that collects non-reactive data, such as my Like Collector project, participants simply need to grant access to the program and it does the rest of the work.

I also learned about a swath of digital tools for social network analysis in my other option course at the OII. Using a variety of programs, such as NodeXL, data about individuals’ social networks can be collected from Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. These programs can then be used to analyse social graphs to identify clusters of contacts and important people in networks, such as those who bridge different groups. Since children’s lives are so intensely involved in their social networks, this type of analysis can provide a world of insight into cliques, isolation, and the ‘popular’ kids.

The OII-developed app NameGenWeb is a good example of both these types of digital data collection and analysis tools together.

Researching Digital Data

People like to share about what they do online. Whether this is because the Internet is an outlet for creative endeavours or because people spend so much time expressing themselves on social platforms, they seem to be open to talking about it for hours. My approach of interviewing young people about Facebook and having them walk through their social media accounts has been extremely effective at understanding the intentions, awareness, and motivations behind online activities. Their accounts also help to develop an idea of how online behaviour is connected with the rest of their lives and their social relationships. The semi-structured interview is flexible enough to uncover new and unexpected things about technology use and online demonstrations act in the same way as photo elicitation (Harper, 2002) to help people remember what they have done online and why.

Of course, this is not the only way to access mediated aspects of people’s lives. Another approach is to carry out content analysis of all the material people post. Years of status updates, tweets, and blog posts can give a world of insight into the way young people develop and change over time. Traditional methods, such as surveys and focus groups, can also be moved online to reference mediated activity while participants provide feedback about it.

Digital Dissemination

Publicising findings online increases both the reach and impact of research. When I think about who needs to know about research outcomes, three groups of stakeholders come to mind:

  1. The participants/co-researchers – First and foremost, I feel that the people who have taken time to co-create the knowledge necessary for the study deserve to know its outcomes. I am a firm believer in enhancing the credibility of research by having participants validate, dispute, or add to the findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Online forums, e-mail exchanges, and research websites can provide platforms for this type of dialogue. Participants can also play a key role in knowledge dissemination by creating online content, such as telling their stories through blogs or apps like Tellagami.
  2. The public – The Internet means that we no longer have to wait until policy-makers and legislators notice our research in order for it to reach people who might be affected by its outcomes. By having a presence on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, and by encouraging discussion around findings, we can reduce the gap between academia and real-world applications of research. This can be achieved by building eye-catching, interactive spaces, such as the Making Modern Motherhood website. In turn, creating a larger buzz in public will hopefully spur bureaucrats and policy-makers to take greater heed of research findings and incorporate them sooner than later.
  3. The academic community – Research related to children and digital technologies is interdisciplinary since its outcomes could have implications for researchers in the areas of political science, sociology, youth studies, media studies, computer science, etc. Too often academic departments function as knowledge silos where research is not informed by projects at other universities or in connected disciplines. Disseminating research through webpages, webcasts, online videos, and old-fashioned listservs ensures that we can build on work that others are doing in order to make even larger strides in the generation of comprehensive knowledge about these multi-disciplinary topics.

A Note about Challenges

While research involving digital technologies opens up new opportunities, it also carries with it risks and ethical concerns, such as gaining informed consent proportional to the huge amount of data that is being gathered about participants. This, paired with the power imbalance between researchers and children (Morrow, 2008), means that research projects need to be well thought out and that extra measures need to be taken to protect children’s safety, confidentiality, and well-being (such as in projects like Livingstone et al.’s investigation of children’s encounters with risky online content, including violent or sexual material). At the same time, research about children’s lives must involve children themselves. It is essential to carry out research that is for children, not on children (Balen et al., 2006) by having them participate as active co-creators of knowledge.


Using digital technologies to research children in time means harnessing digital tools, investigating mediated aspects of children’s lives, and disseminating research findings through digital means that increase their impact. Through this approach, we can produce robust research outcomes that develop a deeper understanding of children’s lives over time and pave the way for future research.


Balen, R., Blyth, E., Calabretto, H., Fraser, C., Horrocks, C., & Manby, M. (2006). Involving children in health and social research: “Human becomings” or “active beings”? Childhood, 13(1), 29–48. doi:10.1177/0907568206059962

boyd, d. (2007). Why youth (Heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), MacArthur Foundation series on digital learning – Youth, identity, and digital media volume (pp. 119–142). Cambridge: MIT Press.

boyd, d. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39–58). New York and London: Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., & Blank, G. (2011). Next Generation Users: The Internet in Britain. Oxford Internet Survey 2011. Oxford Internet Institute: University of Oxford.

Furlong, A. (2013). Youth studies: An introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26. doi:10.1080/14725860220137345

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic Enquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet: Great expectations and challenging realities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2010). Risks and safety on the internet: The perspective of European children. Initial findings. LSE, London: EU Kids Online.

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2013). Teens and technology 2013. Retrieved from

Morrow, V. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children’s Geographies, 6(1), 49–61. doi:10.1080/14733280701791918

Selwyn, N. (2003). “Doing IT for the kids”: Re-examining children, computers and the “Information Society”. Media, Culture & Society, 25(3), 351–378. doi:10.1177/0163443703025003004


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