copy the linklink copied!Chapter 9. Youth inequalities in digital interactions and well-being

Ellen Helsper
Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom
Svetlana Smirnova
Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom

This chapter focuses on examining disparities of digital outcomes against the backdrop of social inequalities. In particular, it explores how information and communications technology (ICT) access, skills and uses relate to different socio-cultural and well-being outcomes. Well-being is referred to widely in research and public discourse though its definition and components are debated. In this chapter, it is used to describe the positive outcomes related to civic and social participation and leisure pursuits. Inequalities for young people are examined from all socio-economic backgrounds but highlight the experiences of the most disadvantaged – young people not in employment, education, or training (NEET). This chapter is of interest to those who seek to better understand how the digitisation of everyday life might exacerbate existing patterns of disadvantage as well as those looking for ways to ameliorate inequalities.

    

copy the linklink copied!Digital inequalities

The literature on digital inequalities has developed over the last decade, becoming increasingly nuanced and multi-layered. Initially treated simply as an issue of individual access, researchers have gradually distinguished three interlinked levels of digital inequalities, or divides (Tsatsou, 2011[1]; Van Deursen and Helsper, 2015[2]), all of which will be considered here. At the first level, some individuals are disadvantaged by limited access to digital devices and infrastructure. At the second level, digital inequalities arise due to limited information and communications technology (ICT) skills and uses. Here, researchers distinguish technical-operational, critical information-navigation, social-communicative and content creation skills (Helsper and Van Deursen, 2018[3]; Van Deursen, Helsper and Eynon, 2015[4]).

In this chapter, we move beyond the ‘harder’ technical and navigation skills and incorporate the ‘softer’ skills, such as those related to content creation, participation and social interaction that have been less explored in the literature but are vital for social and personal well-being. In doing so we capture skills that are less likely to be formally taught to young people but which amongst adults have shown to be important for avoiding negative outcomes in everyday life (Van Deursen et al., 2017[5]). For example, knowing how and where to find health-related information without understanding why a vlogger, friend or family member might share a specific piece of health advice could lead one to trust information that should be looked at more critically. The uses of ICTs at the second level are roughly grouped into information seeking, entertainment, financial or economic, communication, political or civic engagement, and identity motivated activities (Cho et al., 2003[6]; Eastin, Cicchirillo and Mabry, 2015[7]; Opgenhaffen and d’Haenens, 2012[8]). Motivations to engage with or attitudes towards technology are sometimes included as part of the first level inequalities (Van Dijk, 2005[9]), and in other work as part of the second level (Van Deursen and Van Dijk, 2015[10]).

The third level of digital inequalities is in the outcomes of ICT use (Nie, Sousa-Poza and Nimrod, 2016[11]; Wei et al., 2011[12]; Van Deursen and Helsper, 2015[2]). That is, the differences in the positive and negative outcomes individuals achieve from undertaking online activities. For example, while making new connections online is more likely to result in extended networks with access to valuable resources for some (see Chapter 5), others may experience higher levels of harassment and bullying.

The three levels are interrelated; one way in which this is the case is that a range of skills is needed to translate use into beneficial outcomes and avoid negative ones. Thus, inequalities in skills result in inequalities in outcomes. For example, engaging in positive social interactions online requires understanding the settings of different platforms (operational skills), being able to find and interpret the content shared by other people about themselves and others online (information-navigational skills), knowing how to interact, with whom, and on which platforms (social-communicative skills), and building an attractive and engaging personal profile that reaches the right audience or contacts (content creation skills).

The conceptual model used in this chapter is presented in Figure 9.1

In summary, digital inclusion is defined as being able to translate ICT access, skills and use into beneficial outcomes in everyday life. The term socio-digital inequalities refers to systematic differences in digital inclusion between young people from different socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. In this chapter, the focus is on inequalities in the opportunities and abilities to achieve social, cultural and personal well-being outcomes in particular, leaving aside the economic and education outcomes extensively debated in other literature (e.g. Wei et al. (2011[12])).

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.1. Framework for thinking about the links between social and digital inequalities
Figure 9.1. Framework for thinking about the links between social and digital inequalities

copy the linklink copied!Digital natives?

The relationships between the three levels of digital inequalities and socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities have been explored in depth for adults. However, it is only recently that policy makers have become concerned about and researchers have started to understand how these work for younger generations. Some of this is the legacy of the now debunked idea of the digital native, a term coined and since adjusted (Prensky, 2001[13]; Prensky and Sapiens, 2009[14]). This idea, or rather, the way in which it was interpreted, meant that young people were seen as innately and effortlessly capable of using ICTs, simply because they grew up surrounded by and immersed in digital technologies. Research has shown that age in itself does not determine the level of skill and breadth of use of a person. Rather it is one’s socio-economic and socio-cultural circumstances as well as one’s experience with (rather than exposure to) technology that determines whether one is digitally included (Bennett, Maton and Kervin, 2008[15]; Helsper and Eynon, 2010[16]; Jones and Czerniewicz, 2010[17]). This means that there is likely to be as much variation in engagement with ICTs between young people based on systematic inequalities as there is between older individuals.

Thus, the question that this chapter will answer is whether disadvantaged youth are or are not achieving the same social and well-being outcomes as their more advantaged peers, taking into consideration the socio-digital environments in which they live, their skills and the ways in which they use ICTs.1

One of the most socio-economically vulnerable groups of young people are those not in education, employment or training (NEETs). As of December 2018, 788 000 young people (ages 16-26), or 11.3% of all youth, in the United Kingdom were categorised as NEET, which is higher than the OECD average (Office for National Statistics, 2019[18]). NEETs suffer from diverse disadvantages, including exclusion from educational, social and healthcare settings. NEETs “feel marginalised and perceive themselves to be viewed negatively by formal and traditional structures (civic and community)” (Buchanan and Tuckerman, 2016, p. 529[19]). This is due to overwhelmingly negative everyday life experiences, such as restricted access (e.g. inability to enter a store or commute on public transport as a group), heightened surveillance, bullying, disregard in academic environments and societal segregation (Miller et al., 2015[20]; Russell, Simmons and Thompson, 2011[21]; Simmons and Thompson, 2011[22]; Thornham and Gómez Cruz, 2016[23]).

copy the linklink copied!Socio-digital ecologies of disadvantaged young people

While the generalisation of all youth as digital natives is contested (Prensky and Sapiens, 2009[14]), it is not contested that youth’s experience with and exposure to (others’ use of) ICTs at a young age shapes their perceptions and uses of ICTs (Helsper, 2017[24]; Livingstone, 2003[25]; Robinson and Schulz, 2013[26]). Thus, to understand how and why technologies are and are not used, it is important to understand the environments in which disadvantaged youths live. These socio-digital ecologies are looked at here through the access that youth have to digital devices and the people that they learn from and rely on for ICT-related support.2

Access

The UK-wide survey3 conducted for this study suggests that connectivity is high; almost all young people (9 in 10), including the most marginalised, had access to smartphones (see Figure 9.2).

Nevertheless, this does not mean that all young people access the Internet equally with their devices. Logically, NEETs are less likely to access the Internet at work or school but they also access it less at friends’ homes, Wi-Fi hotspots, Internet cafés and public libraries. This is especially worrying because conducted focus groups4 uncovered challenges faced by NEETs in particular in terms of the continuity and quality of their connectivity at these different locations. Digital connectivity was discontinuous since Wi-Fi connections did not always work at home and their (often) limited data plans did not meet their needs. Thus, NEETs tended to seek better connectivity in creative ways, including scouting access points in public libraries, their friends’ homes, public hotspots and Prince’s Trust (an NGO that works with marginalised youth in the United Kingdom) locations.

For example: “I'm that guy that’ll walk into your house with the... do you have Wi-Fi?” or “half the time I'm already on it [friend’s Wi-Fi], so it’ll be just like, sneak outside their house, and just sat on their wall for five minutes.”5 The element of disempowerment and embarrassment – i.e. “being that guy,” “sat on their wall”– was painfully obvious in such accounts. The low quality of devices was also reported as an issue; on multiple occasions young people reported their devices being fully or partially (e.g. a smashed screen) broken. When devices were no longer functional, they relied on their friends and family to give or lend them a new device. For example, “I actually got given my phone as a gift when I left my old foster home. They gave me a gift and they said like, here you go, we know that you wanted a phone for ages so they got me a nice phone so I was like, right, that's cool.”

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.2. Location of access by work status: In the last month, how did you connect to the Internet?
Figure 9.2. Location of access by work status: In the last month, how did you connect to the Internet?

Note: All young people (N=1026 Non-NEETs and N=318 NEETs). NEET status was defined as currently not being in education, employment or training, and these young people were compared with those who were in either employment or training.

Having to use semi-broken devices clearly limits functionalities available to young people and, in the light of limited financial power, having to count on others to replace a device leads to frequent interruptions of access for an undetermined amount of time. Another issue that arose was that of privacy. On many occasions “personal” laptops, tablets and computers were shared among family members, including siblings and friends, which led to surveillance of activities, conflict over use and limited access.

copy the linklink copied!Networks of support

Support networks are important because they enable both technical (i.e. how to do things) and normative (i.e. why certain activities are or are not valuable) learning.

Figure 9.3 shows that there are significant differences in support available and offered to NEETs in comparison to other socio-demographic groups. NEETs are both less likely to have support available to them (9% of NEETs had no support available in comparison to 6% of non-NEETs) and are less likely to have asked someone to assist them (17% of NEETs and 23% of non-NEETs asked). We can nonetheless distinguish two types of support, formal and informal. Formal support relies on expert, often distant others such as help desks, librarians, online and support services. Informal support is less professional and describes family and friends, who in the case of disadvantaged youth are more available for assistance in the immediate environment.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.3. Availability and use of support in ICT-related issues
Figure 9.3. Availability and use of support in ICT-related issues

Note: All young people (N=1026 Non-NEETs and N=318 NEETs) FSM = free school meals. Entitlement to free school meals is part of a social assistance programme for those families receiving income support from the UK government; here it is used as a proxy for a history of poverty

Young people in general rely more on informal than formal networks of support (see Figure 9.4). However, while NEETs had a narrower range of informal and formal support networks available, when they did ask for help, they asked a wider range of individuals in their informal networks for support. The same was true for those with a history of poverty (i.e. who had received free school meals). It is important to note that all of these support sources were the second point of call for both NEETs and non-NEETs, well behind trying to figure it out yourself and searching online.

The focus groups support this and provide further insight, for example, NEETs mainly sought help with practical, technical issues (i.e. how to undertake a specific task or troubleshoot a technical issue). This is important because seeking practical help did not translate into discussions around broader issues such as online safety and content production. For example, NEETs discussed learning how to use a Print-screen function or how to block a specific user on a social media site, but these lessons were not seen as transferable to other platforms or useful to engage in positive interactions.

The same occurred when roles were reversed, when NEETs offered somebody support it was technical (e.g. when parents “get stuck” with their phones). Even in situations where NEETs felt that close others might be violating codes of digital engagement, they were not likely to see it as an educational opportunity. Consider, for example, the case of a young woman who reported being “livid” after her father uploaded a video of her 6-year-old sister singing in her underwear onto an open social media profile. Others echoed similar stories about younger children and parents posting pictures of bath times, but even though NEETs recognised this was not appropriate, they did not take any action to instruct their parents or peers on these matters.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.4. Type of support available (a) and type of support used (b) by young people
Figure 9.4. Type of support available (a) and type of support used (b) by young people

Note a): All young people who had support available (N=952 Non-NEETs and N=289 NEETs).

Note b): All young people who had asked for help/used the support network (N=246 Non-NEETs and N=50 NEETs).

During our conversations with NEETs, we realised that there was a lack of recognition of sources of support. For example, course-leaders who delivered training courses, involving, but not centring on ICT skills (e.g. robot building, which clearly involve learning ICT skills), were seen by NEETs as content providers, rather than potential sources of technical expertise. Probably for the same reason, teachers were not mentioned as support sources. At the same time, a quarter of NEETs reported seeking help from both helpdesks and online platforms, including Google and YouTube, thus overlooking expertise that is available to them in their direct environment. Our analysis of what NEETs shared in the focus groups suggested a widely held belief that ICT skills are not something that is learned. They described their skill acquisition as follows: “I mean, it’s not rocket science, it’s something I'm going to figure it out,” and “you’re just like born to it.” In many ways, this echoes the debunked idea of the digital native: the presumption that young people naturally acquire ICT skills through immersion rather than by learning.

copy the linklink copied!Literacy

Literacy is a broader term that involves the ability to find, interpret and produce digital content and engage in interactions online. Distinctions can be made between skills, self-confidence and the uses made of ICTs.6

Skills

As discussed in the introduction, there are multiple classifications for ICT skills. Here, we distinguish technical-operational, information-navigation, social-communicative, content creation and mobile/protection skills. The survey measures used have been extensively tested and validated in different contexts and for different socio-demographic groups (Van Deursen, Helsper and Eynon, 2015[4]). There were 17 items capturing different types of skills young people have developed (see Helsper and Smirnova (2016[27])). All five skills measures are composite scales counting the number of times a young person indicates having the highest level of skill for each of the items that make up the scale. For every “very true of me” response7 – the highest skill level – a respondent would get 1 point. The overall skill level consists of the sum of scores of the items in the skill category.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.5. High skill levels
Figure 9.5. High skill levels

Note: All young people (N=1026 Non-NEETs and N=318 NEETs).

Like young people in general, NEETs were the least skilled when it came to content creation skills and the highest levels were obtained for social and communicative skills. The difference in skill levels between those who were currently and historically disadvantaged, and those who were not, were not significant except for information-navigation skills where employed youth had higher skill levels than others (including students). While it is positive that disadvantaged youth did not feel more or less threatened by ICTs than their peers, this might lead them to ignore things they have yet to master, or prevent them from seeking or being offered further learning opportunities.

Information-navigation

The focus groups underlined the risk of overestimating one’s skills, particularly when it came to information-navigation skills. For example, one NEET explained that he approaches YouTube without a search strategy and watches content that is algorithmically presented to him without questioning why it appeared: “Sometimes it’s advertising. Games. Music, games, whatever you want, they’ve got a little bar outside for games.” This led to being taken to content that was not requested, getting “lost” in digital space, and not being able to find desired information.

NEETs welcomed the possibilities the digital world brings, often failing to take a critical stance towards and overlooking societal factors that shape digital spaces. While this is a more common problem amongst youth, it is especially problematic because algorithms and design are more likely to be biased against the most vulnerable in society (Ransbotham et al., 2016[28]; Williams, Brooks and Shmargad, 2018[29]).

NEETs were relatively satisfied with what they were able to do, and when things went wrong they did not attribute this to their own skill but to technological failures or the people on the platform. However, some limitations, especially in their information-navigation skills, did not go unnoticed by NEETs. For example, one of the focus group participants describes and evaluates his friend’s digital practice, noting, “she'll open one [browser] and then she can't be bothered to like go into that one and so she'll open another. See the thing is, when you have really slow Internet, and someone does that, it's really not helpful, like somebody else like just opened up 50”. Other participants told stories of medical self-diagnoses by Googling syndromes and being diagnosed with “the worst case scenario”, such as lung cancer. In these instances, they did not uncritically adopt the common practice, but got frustrated because their strategies did not yield actionable results and they did not know where to go or what to do to be more effective.

Of course, this is not just a problem for disadvantaged youth. However, exclusion from educational, employment and professional service contexts such as the health system puts them in a more disadvantaged position since it reduces the number of expert and reliable sources that can help with acquisition and external validation of knowledge, such as expert colleagues, family members, medical professionals or teachers.

Social-communicative skills

As with the discussions around information seeking strategies, discussions around netiquette (i.e. social skills; what you should or should not do online, how to avoid unpleasant encounters or how to deal with the aftermath) revealed how offline social contexts shape young people’s knowledge and skills and that softer skills are especially necessary for positive socialising. Social-communicative skills in particular were perceived by youth as naturally acquired rather than learned.

NEETs reported only accepting friend requests from people they knew and declining those they did not, a recommendation in many online safety guidebooks. One of the participants described one such encounter: “[…] I’ve had people from Africa send me messages like, hey I know we’re not friends, but you look lovely so let’s talk and I’m like, go away. How did you even find my profile?” When similar situations with more familiar others occurred, NEETs faced the dilemma of managing their online presence. For example, being contacted by a distant cousin or a person from work (i.e. “older”, “a bit creepy”), NEETs reported frustration and awkwardness but did not take action nor indicate going somewhere for help on how to deal with these situations.

When dealing with online situations, NEETs tend to use short-term, passive strategies, with doing nothing as the preferred option. This echoes the lack of agency and power that NEETs have experienced throughout their lifetime when confronted with official institutions (e.g. schools), powerful others (e.g. employers), and in informal relations with those who are better off (e.g. family members without histories of poverty). Often such encounters are experienced with estrangement and awkwardness, and with resignation that this is just the way it is and they have to accept it.

In the digital world, this idea of disempowerment affects the quality of social interaction in which NEETs engage. The stories young people relayed included aggressive comments towards family members, incidents of malicious gossip, social media profile hacking or exposure to undesirable content. They reported their emotional responses – being sad, frustrated, angry, confused – but actions taken were mostly post hoc rather than preventative such as asking for help from parents, and blocking or ignoring people whose behaviour disturbed them. Proactive strategies or actions that might prevent similar negative experiences from occurring in the future were very rarely mentioned.

Content creation skills

The biggest issue regarding content creation skills, for NEETs and non-NEETs alike, was that this set of skills was not well-integrated into teaching curricula nor was formal training seen as useful in everyday life (see Chapter 13). Participants described school and extracurricular training (e.g. robotics, IT skill courses) as irrelevant to their everyday lives with no concrete examples of anyone they knew who had applied those in practical ways (e.g. getting a job, making something useful for friends or family). One NEET who was an expert gamer and knew some programming did not really see this as a career. “I won't mind being a game master. Or make my own games, but... Then I’d rather work on cars all the time […] I’d drop gaming in a heartbeat to work for... you know, mechanical stuff and stuff like that.”

When it comes to more complex issues, such as licensing and owning online content, NEETs used formal language circulating in public discourse (e.g. copyright infringement, identity theft, corporate ownership), linking this to big business and advertising, but they did not demonstrate an understanding of how this might relate to content or products generated by users like them. One NEET created glasswork and occasionally sold it to others: “yes, to friends…I sold four coasters. I [make] owls and they went to an art person and they actually really liked them. They went for about £45”. However, in the discussion that followed, he had problems understanding why setting up a profile/site and promoting his work online and on different platforms could lead to tangible benefits such as broader recognition and sales of his work.

copy the linklink copied!Confidence in self and others

Besides concrete skills, the survey also measured digital self-efficacy or confidence that youth had in their own abilities, because this has been shown to be an important driver of digital engagement, more so even than actual skills (Eastin and LaRose, 2006[30]; Eastin, 2005[31]; Huang, Cotten and Rikard, 2017[32]). While less researched, we assumed that confidence in others and how they behave in online spaces would similarly drive young people away from or towards digital engagement. In both these areas, significant differences were observed between disadvantaged youth and their peers. Disadvantaged youth were less confident in their ability to use ICTs, the least confident being those with histories of poverty (FSM 55% reported being very confident, NEETs 61% and 63% of working youth).

As Figure 9.6 shows, confidence in others online is where there are large inequalities between NEET and non-NEETs. There is very little difference in trust in online information between the two groups. This, in combination with the lack of confidence in their own ability to deal with unknown (more powerful) others online, as illustrated in the sections on social-communicative and content creation skills, suggests that it is especially the social and interactive aspects of the digital world that are alienating for disadvantaged youth. In the focus groups this came up clearly when discussing looking for work "[I’d rather] have them walk up to me, and shake their hand and have them look me in the eye and say: listen I want the job” and “They get more of an idea of you, that way [face-to-face], as well".

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.6. Trust in information and in others online
Figure 9.6. Trust in information and in others online

Note: All young people (N=1026 Non-NEETs and N=318 NEETs).

copy the linklink copied!Uses

Social engagement

Communication and socialisation with others is vital to an individual’s sense of well-being and belonging, beyond addressing more practical issues like finding jobs and promoting an individual’s creations.

NEETs engaged in the fewest average number of social activities online (on average 3.4 different activities monthly). Comparing those on free school meals and those with no experience of socio-economic disadvantage, a surprising result is that those with a history of poverty are more socially active (on average 4 different types of activities) than those without this history (on average 3.7 activities).

Like most Internet users, NEETs were more likely to engage in informal types of communication. They mostly communicated with people they interacted with intimately in everyday life – family members, carers and friends. NEETs did not like having “people that aren't necessary” or adding people on social media who they do not know in person: “You add your friend; add people you've met.” A few who were heavy social gamers considered other players to be friends because they had been in an online world together for a long time. NEETs’ definition of what counted as a known person seemed narrower than that encountered in other research with non-NEETs, which might be partially explained by distrust in others and the histories of distrust in institutions and others who do not know them as individuals.

Cultural and personal engagement

Also included in the survey were questions about activities that related to young people’s socio-cultural and personal well-being; their sense of identity and belonging to different socio-cultural groups and health and leisure activities.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 9.7. Cultural and personal uses of the Internet (Average frequency of engagement)
Figure 9.7. Cultural and personal uses of the Internet (Average frequency of engagement)

Note: All young people (N=1026 Non-NEETs and N=318 NEETs).

What is interesting in Figure 9.7 is that young people with a history of poverty undertake cultural and personal activities more often, but NEETs undertake these activities less frequently than do their more advantaged peers. While frequency of engagement with a broad range of activities is a reasonable indicator of digital inclusion, more important, under the definition we propose here, is what results from these activities. Engaging with others who are not like you, learning about the norms and values of people who are similar to you, finding information about health and developing personal interests, and participating in your community are all very well. However, unless these others treat you well and the information you find makes you feel good about yourself, you will not be included in a digital society.

copy the linklink copied!Outcomes

To find out if young people were able to achieve positive and avoid negative outcomes, we asked them if they succeeded in achieving certain outcomes, and what the quality of these outcomes was. For example, whether the information they found about people like them made them feel better about themselves (positive outcome), whether they were bullied (negative outcome), or whether they improved their health and fitness based on the information they found online or on the apps they used. Here, we make a distinction between social capital and personal well-being outcomes.

Social capital

The number of outcomes achieved partially or fully is not significantly lower for young people with a history of poverty. Across the board, NEETs are less likely to achieve positive social outcomes from undertaking the same activities as their more advantaged peers. The smallest difference was found for informal social outcomes related to frequent interactions with family and friends achieved by 77% of NEETs and 82% of employed people. For those who were not so close, frequent interactions were 54% and 62% for NEETs and employed people respectively.

When it comes to more formal social outcomes there were larger differences. The respondents reported that civic engagement – joining a party or becoming a donor – was achieved by 31% of employed youth but by only 18% of NEETs. The proportion of young people who had positive outcomes with political engagement was also lower; 19% of NEETs managed to get in touch with local members of parliament or politicians versus 33% of employed youth.

In the focus groups, NEET respondents acknowledged the benefits of communicating online, especially with informal ties that were not available for face-to-face interaction because they were living in different countries or separated through foster care. Nevertheless, NEETs also described experiences of isolation, alienation and disconnect from others attributing these to growth in personal technology use. Social experiences in digital and material worlds were seen as depressing rather than enriching social life. One NEET describes this as follows: “I'm so isolated where I'm living, all I've got to do is go on social media. Two months ago, I was running around playing Nerf guns, listening to music, like... being with my friends, being with people and now, I'm linked to my phone and without my phone I get panicky.”

Drawing on their own experiences and those of the people around them, NEETs understood that some of their current online activities could potentially have negative outcomes in the future. One NEET reported that her mother’s career in the army was jeopardised when a picture of her mother taking part in a civic protest taken when she was 16 years old was posted. She drew a parallel with a celebrity at the other end of the political spectrum, “Miss England, or whatever she was, the other day got called up on a racist comment she’d written about five, six years ago.” Based on these indirect experiences, she concluded “[If] I was to say put something offensive online when I’m 14 and I’m a bit stupid and not really thinking of it, that can come back and bite you”. Another NEET reported that she did not get the opportunity to work at a tattoo parlour after one of the employees checked her Facebook profile. She explained: “I went for voluntary work, and I had a tattoo done, they went through my Facebook and told me I had unprofessional tattoos […] I have, but you can’t see them.” It is interesting to note that the strategies to deal with negative outcomes that NEETs proposed involved opting out of the digital world altogether rather than avoiding them online, as non-NEET youth would tend to do.

Cultural and Personal well-being

Personal well-being outcomes consisted of entertainment-, self-actualisation- and lifestyle-related outcomes. Entertainment included watching online content and playing, and self-actualisation and lifestyle outcomes involved improving everyday life (e.g. hobbies, fitness, diet, health).

The number of fully or partially achieved personal outcomes differs greatly between those who live with and without experience of poverty; young people receiving free school meals in school achieved on average fewer outcomes than young people without free school meals. To a lesser extent, there is a difference among outcomes achieved by NEETs, students and employed youth. Thus, the same pattern occurs as for social uses; while engagement in these activities is often higher among NEETs, the achievement of positive outcomes from this engagement is lower. On the other hand, occurrence of negative outcomes (i.e. something bothered or upset them) is higher, with 36% of those receiving free school meals and 34% of NEETs but only 28% of employed young people indicating being upset by something encountered online.

In the focus groups, a more complex picture dominated by frustration emerged. For example, NEETs recognised the value of information on transport online but often ran into trouble when trying to act on the information provided. One NEET completely miscalculated the time it would take to get to her next appointment even though she had looked it up online and the social support workers had to help her take all other aspects of planning (e.g. leaving the building) into consideration.

Health and lifestyle outcomes were not easily achieved either. For example, one NEET commented that the worrying result of finding unreliable health information was just to not look for any information anymore; “so I don’t Google anything anymore, it tells me I’m dying. Even if I get a cough, I’m dying.” In addition, NEETs expressed preference for doing things “in the real world” even when it was more work and the outcomes were potentially the same, feeling that they had more control and could hold others more accountable when there was an actual person in front of them.

copy the linklink copied!From inequalities to outcomes

The previous sections were primarily descriptive. Here we would like to explore all the socio-cultural and socio-economic factors together with all the digital factors and how they explain the different social (formal and informal), cultural (related to sense of identity and feelings of belonging to the communities in which one lives) and personal (entertainment, self-actualisation- and lifestyle related) well-being outcomes. The regressions presented in Table 9.1 allow us to draw conclusions about which factors are the most important in explaining which outcomes young people achieve.

The multivariate analysis presented in Table 9.1 shows that socio-cultural characteristics are related to achieving social and cultural outcomes; young women achieved fewer positive social and cultural outcomes than young men. Socio-economic status, the most focused-on factor of disadvantage in digital inequalities research, was not related to non-economic outcomes, though having a history of poverty (i.e. receiving free school meals) was related to personal outcomes and cultural outcomes before digital factors such as ICT access, skills and confidence, and uses were controlled for. The same counts for the highest level of education achieved; there was only a significant difference between undergraduate and graduate students for social outcomes but, surprisingly, not with the other education categories.

copy the linklink copied!
Table 9.1. Regressions of number of social, cultural and personal outcomes achieved (coefficients)

Social

Cultural

Personal

Negative

(Intercept)

45.90

22.93

6.68

-17.40

Socio-cultural resources

Age

Gender (Girls)

-0.02

-0.19*

-0.01

-0.15*

0.00

0.03

0.01

0.02

Socio-economic status

Free school meals c,d

NEET

0.00

-0.12

-0.12

-0.07

-0.29

-0.04

0.01

0.02

Highest education

Primary a,d

Secondary a

University entry exam a

Further Education/Vocational a Undergraduatea

0.44

0.13

0.41

0.43

0.52*

0.50

0.14

0.18

0.23

0.14

-0.80

-0.46

-0.05

-0.13

0.30

0.11

-0.01

0.02

0.11

-0.01

Psychological resources

Problem solving b, c

Emotional problems

Social self-esteem b

Trust in people online

0.16

0.22**

-0.02

0.18**

0.05

0.11*

0.01

0.04

0.05

0.28**

-0.04

0.04

-0.03

0.02

-0.10**

-0.05**

Access

Number of devices

Ubiquity access

0.08*

0.05

0.02

0.03

-0.04

0.03

-0.01

0.01

Attitudinal drivers

Intrinsic motivation

Attitudes towards ICTs

Extrinsic motivation

-0.09

0.01

0.05

0.09**

0.07

0.15**

0.10

0.08

0.10

0.01

0.00

0.00

Digital skills

and confidence

Digital self-confidence

Operational

Information-navigation

Social

Content-creation

Mobile safety

-0.06

0.14**

0.04

0.01

0.01

0.05**

0.00

-0.06

0.03

0.03

0.06*

0.10**

0.07

-0.06

0.18**

-0.04**

0.02

0.00

-0.01

0.01

-0.01

0.00

0.01**

0.00

Use of ICTs

Economic use

Cultural use

Social use

Personal use

-0.03**

0.11**

0.30**

0.40**

-0.01

0.02**

0.01

0.00

0.01

0.21**

0.15

0.55**

0.00

0.01

-0.04

0.00

Note: All young people who had achieved at least one outcome within the category.

a Education comparison category Graduate education

b All Psychological resource significantly related to Social outcomes before controlling for digital factors (i.e. access, motivation, skills, and uses)

c Free school meals and problem solving significantly related to cultural outcomes before controlling for digital factors (i.e. access, motivation, skills, and uses)

d Primary education and receiving free school meals were significantly related to Personal outcomes before controlling for digital factors (i.e. access, motivation, skills, and uses).

Interestingly, young people with emotional problems achieved more positive social, cultural and personal outcomes. The other psychological characteristics were not significantly related to achieving outcomes, with the exception of negative outcomes. That is, those with higher levels of social self-esteem and who trusted people online more were less affected by negative outcomes. Trust was also related to achieving positive social outcomes, echoing the literature that emphasises the importance of trust for cementing and facilitating social capital. The data show that trusting people in digital spaces is related to more positive outcomes of online social interactions8. Problem solving was related to outcomes but not after controlling for digital factors, likely because general problem solving abilities are related to digital skills. In the end, in the online sphere, digital skills are important to achieving positive outcomes.

The results on the importance of access for young people show clearly that simply having access (on different devices and at different locations) is not enough for young people to achieve positive outcomes of ICT use. The only relationship was between the number of access devices and social outcomes, probably because more devices meant more mobile devices, and thus more applications which are heavily geared towards interpersonal interactions. Positive intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, rather than more general attitudes towards ICTs, related only to more positive cultural outcomes.

Different skills related to different outcomes. Higher technical skills related to more social outcomes achieved, Information-navigation skills to more cultural outcomes achieved and, surprisingly, social digital skills to fewer positive personal outcomes achieved. Perhaps an ability to navigate information and to interact online are related to young people finding information about who they are while social skills allow them to create narrower, quality social networks, missing out on valuable information that would otherwise allow them to improve their personal well-being. The opposite of this could explain why content creation skills were related to both more cultural outcomes and more upsetting, negative outcomes of ICT use. Youth who are capable of producing content might use it to develop their identity and reach out to a wider audience so they feel that their voice is heard, but as a result, they might be more exposed to bullying and harassment.

These conclusions are speculative and further research is greatly needed to explain these phenomena. The first phenomenon is that those who were more skilled in using mobile applications and protecting their personal data (on apps) achieved more social and cultural outcomes. Similarly interesting is that after controlling for socio-economic, socio-cultural and digital factors, economic and social uses were negatively related to positive social outcomes. The second phenomena could be related to social information/interaction overload. Those who are more engaged socially online achieve fewer positive outcomes because they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities, or because they go online to compensate for an offline deficit and cannot find what they are looking for, thereby leading to ever increasing searches for contact without getting it. Cultural uses, activities that allow one to connect to similar people or to people with different backgrounds and learn about your own or another group, were related to all positive outcomes (social, personal and cultural) and not to negative outcomes. However, activities that related to self-actualisation (i.e. self-help and leisure activities) were related to higher social interaction outcomes and more personal outcomes, but not to cultural outcomes or negative outcomes.

Before moving on to the conclusions, we should comment on the very narrow range of factors that explain negative outcomes. The factors related to a person’s tendency to feel excluded by and to distrust others, and those related to skills to create content allowing someone to present oneself to the wider world in part explained negative outcomes. It is thus social vulnerability, and not psychological or economic vulnerability, and softer skills, not traditional technical ones, which are linked to the consequences of the darker side of the Internet.

copy the linklink copied!Conclusions

This chapter set out to discover which young people, part of a generation that has grown up in a society in which the digital is ubiquitous, are able to achieve the positive and avoid the negative outcomes of being online. We asked whether the socio-digital inequalities, observed amongst adults, exist for young people in terms of the first (access and motivation), second (skills and uses) and third (outcomes of use) levels of digital inequalities. This was done by analysing survey data of a representative sample of English youth and a booster sample of the most disadvantaged group of young people, those not in education, employment or training (NEETs). The study also incorporated analyses of focus groups with these NEETs.

While in the analysis of survey data access was relatively equally distributed and did not relate to inequalities of Internet use, the qualitative data suggested that issues of connectivity (e.g. lack of privacy, convenience, restricted mobility) and limited personal networks of support to help use ICTs (e.g. with less expertise) translated into worse digital outcomes in comparison with young people from more privileged backgrounds. Nevertheless, a deeper analysis of the survey in relation to psychological problems indicated that access to and use of ICTs might offer a way to compensate for these types of vulnerabilities for those with emotional problems, who achieved more positive outcomes. Other research has shown that increased literacy amongst psychologically vulnerable young people could lead to increases in negative outcomes.

Optimism regarding the relationship between access to ICTs and positive outcomes should be tempered somewhat, due to the increasing importance of the digital world in young people’s everyday lives and the increased risks this brings for vulnerable youth in particular (Helsper and Smahel, 2019[33]). There are hints of this in the research presented here as well. Socio-economic and socio-cultural disadvantage do not directly translate into achieving fewer outcomes. However, disadvantaged youth were more likely to have characteristics such as low social self-esteem and low trust in others, as well as narrower engagement with societal and personal well-being activities online that are associated with achieving fewer positive outcomes. These attitudes and preferences are embedded in long histories of disenfranchisement within society, which these young people have experienced through interactions and observations in their everyday lives (Buchanan and Tuckerman, 2016[19]; Miller et al., 2015[20]; Simmons and Thompson, 2011[22]).

NEETs’ skill levels were similar to those of youth in general; it was in the translation of ICT use into outcomes that the inequalities with their more advantaged peers showed up (through differences in social vulnerabilities and differential engagement with ICTs). This suggests that it is about changing norms and social contexts offline (e.g. the support networks these young people have, respect they receive) as well as online (e.g. positioning certain activities as more attractive, content and designs that make them feel they belong) rather than about increasing disadvantaged youth’s technical skills and providing more ubiquitous access. Our research suggests that the same activities undertaken online lead to different experiences for disadvantaged youth based on the negative experiences they have had throughout their lives with outsiders and institutions, and the digital and social environments that lack positive stimuli to engage with ICTs. These differences in the socio-digital ecologies of disadvantaged and advantaged youth are likely to lead to increased inequalities in digital societies (Helsper, 2017[24]).

Implications for policy

  • Disadvantaged youth should have private, safe access in the environments in which they live. This will allow them to undertake the activities that require time and facilitate exploration, and that are more likely to lead to positive outcomes, such as those that develop a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging in the societies in which they live.

  • The compound disadvantage that disadvantaged youth suffer from, related to feelings of being disrespected by others, not trusting others, less diverse social networks and less rich digital environments, is related to more negative outcomes and fewer positive ones. This means a multi-stakeholder approach dealing not just with digital but also societal inequalities is vital to help these young people thrive in increasingly digital societies.

  • Inequalities in critical literacy, social-communicative and more basic content creation skills are related to inequalities in achieving outcomes more so than technical skills. Further understanding is needed around how being literate in one way and not in another might lead to adverse effects, especially for softer skills such as content creation skills, which are related to encountering more negative outcomes as well as more positive ones.

  • Disadvantaged youth should have access to and be aware of the broad sources of support that are available to them; currently they are lacking on both fronts. This means that support workers in different settings should have the digital skills needed and the time to talk to these young people about online opportunities and risks. 

  • Interventions and policies should be designed around and held accountable to the outcomes that young people achieve from using ICTs. Setting goals related to youth being able to translate digital opportunities into real benefits in everyday life while avoiding more negative outcomes associated with digital engagement is important. 

  • Access provision and technical skills training should be part of interventions, but changes in the socio-digital ecologies disadvantaged youth grow up in and training in more critical, digital literacy, are fundamental if we want to avoid larger inequalities in increasingly digital societies.

References

[15] Bennett, S., K. Maton and L. Kervin (2008), “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence”, British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 39/5, pp. 775-786, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x.

[19] Buchanan, S. and L. Tuckerman (2016), “The information behaviours of disadvantaged and disengaged adolescents”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 72/3, pp. 527-548, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/jd-05-2015-0060.

[6] Cho, J. et al. (2003), “Beyond access: The digital divide and Internet uses and gratifications”, IT & Society, Vol. 1/4, pp. 46-72, www.ITandSociety.org.

[31] Eastin, M. (2005), “Teen Internet use: Relating social perceptions and cognitive models to behavior”, CyberPsychology & Behavior, Vol. 8/1, pp. 62-75, http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2005.8.62.

[7] Eastin, M., V. Cicchirillo and A. Mabry (2015), “Extending the digital divide conversation: Examining the knowledge gap through media expectancies”, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 59/3, pp. 416-437, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2015.1054994.

[30] Eastin, M. and R. LaRose (2006), “Internet self-efficacy and the psychology of the digital divide”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 6/1, pp. 0-0, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2000.tb00110.x.

[24] Helsper, E. (2017), “A socio-digital ecology approach to understanding digital inequalities among young people”, Journal of Children and Media, Vol. 11/2, pp. 256-260, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17482798.2017.1306370.

[16] Helsper, E. and R. Eynon (2010), “Digital natives: Where is the evidence?”, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 36/3, pp. 503-520, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411920902989227.

[33] Helsper, E. and D. Smahel (2019), “Excessive internet use by young Europeans: Psychological vulnerability and digital literacy?”, Information, Communication & Society, pp. 1-19, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2018.1563203.

[27] Helsper, E. and S. Smirnova (2016), “Methodological report of the study: Socio-digital skills and wellbeing of disadvantaged young people”, www.lse.ac.uk/[email protected]lse/research/DiSTO/Pdf/Methodology-report-DiSTO-NEETs.pdf.

[3] Helsper, E. and A. Van Deursen (2018), ICT Skills For Future, Chapter 2, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/publications/misr2018.aspx.

[32] Huang, K., S. Cotten and R. Rikard (2017), “Access is not enough: The impact of emotional costs and self-efficacy on the changes in African-American students’ ICT use patterns”, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 20/4, pp. 637-650, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2016.1203456.

[17] Jones, C. and L. Czerniewicz (2010), “Describing or debunking? The net generation and digital natives”, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Vol. 26/5, pp. 317-320, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00379.x.

[25] Livingstone, S. (2003), “Children’s use of the internet: Reflections on the emerging research agenda”, New Media & Society, Vol. 5/2, pp. 147-166, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444803005002001.

[20] Miller, J. et al. (2015), “Exploring youths’ perceptions of the hidden practice of youth work in increasing social capital with young people considered NEET in Scotland”, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 18/4, pp. 468-484, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2014.992311.

[11] Nie, P., A. Sousa-Poza and G. Nimrod (2016), “Internet use and subjective well-being in China”, Social Indicators Research, Vol. 132/1, pp. 489-516, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-1227-8.

[18] Office for National Statistics (2019), Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET): February 2019, www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peoplenotinwork/unemployment/bulletins/youngpeoplenotineducationemploymentortrainingneet/february2019.

[8] Opgenhaffen, M. and L. d’Haenens (2012), “Heterogeneity within homogeneity: Impact of online skills on the use of online news media and interactive news features”, Communications, Vol. 37/3, http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/commun-2012-0016.

[13] Prensky, M. (2001), “Digital natives, Digital immigrants Part 1”, On the Horizon, Vol. 9/5, pp. 1-6, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816.

[14] Prensky, M. and H. Sapiens (2009), “From digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom”, Innovate: Journal of Online Education, Vol. 5/3, https://nsuworks.nova.edu/innovate/vol5/iss3/1/.

[28] Ransbotham, S. et al. (2016), “Special section introduction—Ubiquitous IT and digital vulnerabilities”, Information Systems Research, Vol. 27/4, pp. 834-847, http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/isre.2016.0683.

[26] Robinson, L. and J. Schulz (2013), “Net Time Negotiations Within the Family”, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 16/4, pp. 542-560, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2013.777761.

[21] Russell, L., R. Simmons and R. Thompson (2011), “Ordinary lives: an ethnographic study of young people attending Entry to Employment programmes”, Journal of Education and Work, Vol. 24/5, pp. 477-499, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13639080.2011.573773.

[22] Simmons, R. and R. Thompson (2011), “Education and training for young people at risk of becoming NEET: Findings from an ethnographic study of work‐based learning programmes”, Educational Studies, Vol. 37/4, pp. 447-450, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03055698.2010.539783.

[23] Thornham, H. and E. Gómez Cruz (2016), “[Im]mobility in the age of [im]mobile phones: Young NEETs and digital practices”, New Media & Society, Vol. 19/11, pp. 1794-1809, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444816643430.

[1] Tsatsou, P. (2011), “Digital divides revisited: What is new about divides and their research?”, Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 33/2, pp. 317-331, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0163443710393865.

[34] Uslaner, E. (2004), “Trust, Civic Engagement, and the Internet”, Political Communication, Vol. 21/2, pp. 223-242, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10584600490443895.

[2] Van Deursen, A. and E. Helsper (2015), “The third-level digital divide: Who benefits most from being online?”, in Robinson, L., S. Cotten and J. Schulz (eds.), Communication and Information Technologies Annual, Studies in Media and Communications, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/s2050-206020150000010002.

[4] Van Deursen, A., E. Helsper and R. Eynon (2015), “Development and validation of the Internet Skills Scale (ISS)”, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 19/6, pp. 804-823, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2015.1078834.

[5] Van Deursen, A. et al. (2017), “The compoundness and sequentiality of digital inequality”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 11, pp. 452-473, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/68921/.

[10] Van Deursen, A. and J. Van Dijk (2015), “Toward a multifaceted model of Internet access for understanding digital divides: An empirical investigation”, The Information Society, Vol. 31/5, pp. 379-391, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01972243.2015.1069770.

[9] Van Dijk, J. (2005), The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society, Sage.

[12] Wei, K. et al. (2011), “Conceptualizing and testing a social cognitive model of the digital divide”, Information Systems Research, Vol. 22/1, pp. 170-187, http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/isre.1090.0273.

[29] Williams, Brooks and Shmargad (2018), “How algorithms discriminate based on data they lack: Challenges, solutions, and policy implications”, Journal of Information Policy, Vol. 8, p. 78, http://dx.doi.org/10.5325/jinfopoli.8.2018.0078.

Notes

← 1. This chapter draws on data collected as a part of the international Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes (DiSTO) project based at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). For more information about the DiSTO projects see www.lse.ac.uk/[email protected]/research/DiSTO/Home.aspx.

← 2. In what follows, utmost care was taken to make sure that young people’s voices are authentically represented by keeping quotes as close to the original utterance as possible with the exception of minor verbal clarifications.

← 3. The study combined focus groups with NEETs with a country-wide survey, in which booster sampling was used to increase the representation of NEETs who would otherwise have been underrepresented. In total, 1344 young people took part in the survey, which consisted of a representative sample of 1026 young people and a booster sample of 318 NEETs in which women were slightly over represented (reflecting the composition of the general NEET population).

← 4. For the focus groups, we collaborated with The Prince’s Trust, an NGO working directly with marginalised youth in the United Kingdom. The majority of the young people interviewed in the focus groups participated in the Prince’s Trusts’ Fairbridge programmes aimed at boosting confidence and providing skill training for the marginalised young people. Focus groups ran for 60-90 minutes and were held in the partner’s centres across the United Kingdom where these youth programmes are based. The age of participants ranged between from 16 to 26 years old. The size (4-8 participants each) and the gender composition of the groups varied. For both survey and focus groups, the participants were free to opt out from of participation at any point and their contributions were anonymised.

← 5. Italics indicate emphasis in quotes.

← 6. The survey used the DiSTO project measures for access, motivations, skills, uses, and outcomes. These are described in more detail in the following sections.

← 7. Possible answers ranged from 0=’DK what this means’ and a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 was not at all true of me and 5 was very true of me.

← 8. Cause and effect are difficult to disentangle here: if one has more positive outcomes, one is more likely to trust. However, the literature on trust would suggest that those who trust more are more likely to engage in positive ways with others leading to self-fulfilling prophesies (Uslaner, 2004[34]).

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

https://doi.org/10.1787/b7f33425-en

© OECD 2019

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at http://www.oecd.org/termsandconditions.

Chapter 9. Youth inequalities in digital interactions and well-being