Visualising Younger Children's Perspectives on Digital Technology and Ethical Decision-Making

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The starting point for this research acknowledges that over the last 20 years, younger children are engaging with digital technologies at a younger age and for longer periods of time (Danby & Davidson, 2019; Davidson et al., 2021; Eichen et al., 2021; Laidlaw et al., 2021; Vidal-Hall et al., 2020). Despite this increased digital engagement, younger children remain an under-represented group in terms of academic literature that explores their perspectives on digital technology. I adopt a phenomenological perspective in order to research with nine five year old children, using a multimodal methodology to explore their experiences and attitudes towards digital technology, and what this means in terms of their emerging and evolving digital identity and ethical decision-making within research. This inductive approach recognises and explores the multimodality of younger children’s sense-making in order to centre them as competent social actors within the research. The study was designed as a series of storytelling sessions, wherein nine children and I together read and discussed age-appropriate storybooks about digital technology. 20 storytelling sessions took place in a reception class in a school in Northern England and were videorecorded in order to capture a range of children’s verbal and non-verbal responses to the story, to me and to each other. A specific challenge for research involving video, is how to capture and understand children’s multimodal communication, by which I mean: their gaze, gesture, facial expressions, relationships with objects and body positioning within interactions. In order to respond to this, I adopted video-based conversation analysis (VCA), building on established transcription conventions to represent multimodal opportunities afforded to and by children during the storytelling sessions and to enable analysis of often ‘messy’ data.

The research is underpinned by Ervin Goffman’s (1959) ideas of the presentation of the self, specifically the concept of Impression Management, revealing more about children’s ‘different languages’ (Clark & Moss, 2017) in order to further understand their perspectives on digital technology and ethical decision-making within research. The key findings reveal the complexity of children’s research participation, exploring ethical decision-making around assenting and dissenting within research. These findings show that younger children are capable of making decisions about their participation within research. More particularly, the findings build on research that does not problematise younger children’s ethical decision-making within research, specifically highlighting how VCA reveals the complexities of the developing relationship between younger children as research participants and the researcher in order to ‘see’ and ‘listen’ to younger children’s ‘different languages’. The research findings then introduce the concept of the ‘desired-digitalself’, which is used to explore younger children’s emerging awareness of and formation of digital impressions and sense of self. Analysis reveal that younger children want to affiliate their digital perspectives with those of their peers, specifically so when exploring digital possessions, situating these as aspects of their ‘desired-digital-self’. The research findings also suggest that younger children’s impression of the ‘desired-digital-self’ includes knowledge about digital safety, particularly, who a ‘safe person’ might be and what attributes a ‘safe person’ might have.

I therefore suggest a methodological contribution to knowledge, demonstrating that a phenomenological approach which is focused on children as active meaning-makers through a storytelling methodology both supports and makes visible younger children’s ethical decision-making. I also propose a contribution to knowledge involving the interwoven benefits of VCA underpinned by Goffman’s (1959) concept of Impression Management in recognising nuanced aspects of younger children’s perspectives on digital technology and how these support the development of their ‘desired-digital-self’.
Date of Award23 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHelen Lomax (Main Supervisor) & Kevin Orr (Co-Supervisor)

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