Cultures of Consumption
Working Paper Series
Children online - consumers or citizens?
Professor Sonia Livingstone
London School of Economics and Political Science
Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author.
In the E-Society project entitled UK Children Go Online (www.children-go-online.net), we are combining qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the involvement of 9-19 year olds in today’s heavily mediated consumer culture, focusing on the opportunities and risks that the internet represents for young people. The enthusiasm with which this age group regards the internet (‘we are the internet generation’, they proclaim proudly), suggests a striking coincidence of interests between young people themselves and the rapidly growing industry which markets to them, developing dedicated online content and services, albeit a coincidence that arouses considerable ambivalence among critical commentators. It is suggested that young people’s involvement with online consumer culture, including the ways in which this mediates offline consumer/youth culture, can be usefully framed in terms of media literacy, a framework currently of considerable policy relevance given the duty of the communications regulator, OFCOM, to promote media literacy. This paper draws on the qualitative findings obtained thus far to identify the varieties of literacy evidenced by young people, including their considerable fluency in using new forms of media to create a seamless, ‘always on’, peer-oriented environment, their less-than-critical awareness of some of the commercial imperatives and strategies that lie behind the provision of these media, and the difficulties of identifying as yet ‘unmet needs’ for this population.
Children, media, change – an inflammatory combination
Blurring of familiar boundaries
Claims about the transformative power of the new media encompass many dimensions of social life. One of the most widespread is that long-established and traditionally-significant boundaries between distinct spheres are being blurred or transcended (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2002). These include the boundary between work and leisure (via home working, teleworking, flexi-working etc), between entertainment and education (as in the neologisms of edutainment and infotainment), between local and global (here we have glocalisation, the global village, etc), between producer and consumer (as products are co-constructed or socially shaped by consumers), between adult and child (as in the disappearance, or the death, of childhood), and between citizen and consumer.
These are familiar boundaries, that we have lived within and committed ourselves to, they institutionalise dominant values, and they are regulated and reinforced at all levels from domestic practices to international law. Yet they now seem to be, in these late- or even post-modern times, up for renegotiation. The increasing mediation of everyday life represents one among many social trends driving forward this discursive and material process of renegotiation.
The blurring of boundaries matters because what is at stake is a series of claims about power. Traditional distinctions, critical scholars argue, serve the interests of the cultural and political elite. Transforming or undermining these distinctions may, as those in cultural studies have advanced, open up new possibilities for the marginalized, the subaltern, the oppressed to regain some control over their lives. Alternatively, as many political economists would have it, such transformations are effectively exploited by powerful commercial interests, ruthlessly undermining any surviving spaces for the exercise of freedom by either the traditional elite or the masses. Whichever, if either, of these is the case, it is clear that any social change brings with it huge public uncertainty.
Optimism and pessimism
In relation to new media...
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