A scientist’s opinion: interview with Halla B. Holmarsdottir on children & the digital world

Interview with Halla B. Holmarsdottir, Professor and former Vice-Dean of Research at the Faculty of Education and International Studies, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway on the EU-funded project “The impact of technological transformations on the Digital Generation (DigiGen)”.

What characterises DigiGen?

Halla B. Holmarsdottir profileHalla B. Holmarsdottir: We wanted to move beyond how children and young people are “negatively” affected by technology and focus more on the positive effects. How it affects their everyday life, how and to what end they use it, their interests, and how it affects their ecosystems (home, school, peers/leisure time). Finally, we investigated how young people let their voice be heard about socially relevant topics (civic involvement).

In addition, what I think is really novel about this project is that we directly involved children as co-researchers. They got an app where they could describe their digital use, and they interviewed one another. These peer interviews were particularly very helpful as they provided insights into what motivates and interests kids themselves, which we, as adults, sometimes have trouble relating to. We gathered our data from the source and children and young people were active participants in the project.

Children are not just research subjects, but co-researchers in the project. Why was it important to involve them directly in the research?

Halla B. Holmarsdottir: As adults, we ask “grown-up questions”. However, kids have a more advanced knowledge in some aspects of digital technology, and we wanted their own. We did not want to approach the topic by interpreting their thoughts, views, and experiences but actually to understand them. As adults, we are not in their space, we are not included in their communication channels, and if we are, their behaviour is not like that among their peers, that is why them being the ones asking the questions was so important for us.

How does technology influence civic participation among the young?

Halla B. Holmarsdottir: Digital technology allows them to speak up for marginalised groups and to develop a sense of civic responsibility. To young adults, social justice, including environment, racism, sexism, are the most important topics and those they engage the most with. In the older group of young people, age 16 and up, we see that they find importance in their political or social justice activism, which is linked, among other things, to self-improvement, “being knowledgeable” and feeling included in something larger than themselves.

Are adults prepared to help their kids navigate a digital world?

Halla B. Holmarsdottir: Parents are having a hard time finding a balance. We are constantly receiving messages about the dangers of digital media, but at the same time, we are our kids’ first role models and not all use is the same. Parents need to be educated and require tools to understand their kids and what they need and want.

That’s why we prepared conversation cards for adults to engage with children in a positive conversation about technology, available in various languages. The cards are based on the insights we got from the children themselves through the app, conversations with them, and their peer-interviews. We found that children want to talk about their interests, what moves them, what they like to do in digital media and why.

But not only the parents need education, also the children. We cannot let a child loose in the forest with a knife and expect that nothing bad will happen. We need to teach them first how to use the knife, for example how to make a stick for cooking hotdogs on an open fire.

Similarly, we cannot protect them from the bad things they can encounter online but we can prepare them by giving them the right tools so when they do find something bad, they know how to react. We need to give them the reassurance that we are open to a discussion, not only on the bad stuff but also on the potential of digital media, so that when needed they will reach out and ask for help.

We should not forget that despite their limitations, digital tools can be an asset. They can actually improve family interactions; social media can actually help young people find like-minded people or help them learn about topics not discussed at home (different political stances, social issues). For instance, during lockdowns Pokemon GO! was a way to engage children in spending time in nature and socialise with their friends, even if remotely.

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