Illustration showing two children, one of which is holding a balloon. Surrounding the children are emoji's and symbols commonly found on social media.

Growing up online

While the introduction of new legislation that allows children more control over the content they see online is promising, understanding how best to help children navigate wellbeing in a digital context has never been more important.

Sussex’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) engages with children and young people to better understand societal issues affecting their welfare. Drawing upon a broad spectrum of expertise from the social sciences and arts to psychology and law, CIRCY addresses themes that include children’s participation, digital childhoods, emotional lives, (extra)ordinary children and methodological innovations.

The Centre’s Childhood and Youth: Theory and Practice BA (Hons) course has been ranked number one in the UK for Childhood and Youth Studies in the Complete University Guide 2024 and CIRCY is recognised as one of the University’s Centres of Excellence. It’s an acknowledgement that Dr Liam Berriman, Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies in the Department of Social Work & Social Care and CIRCY’s newly appointed Director, believes opens exciting opportunities.

“We’ve done a lot of work internally to build up our connections and put CIRCY on a more international footing so we can collaborate on bigger projects addressing bigger problems,” he says. “Prior to Covid, our research seminars were well attended by local practitioners and children’s charities, so we’re now re-establishing these and embedding CIRCY within local Sussex communities.”

Liam’s research focuses on how an increasingly data-driven society is experienced by young people, and how they navigate wellbeing in a digital landscape. “There is a narrative in society about what is safe and good for children in a digital context,” he explains. “As well as the risk of encountering strangers online, a young person may feel socially isolated because they’ve been excluded from online chat groups or find it difficult to turn off their phone at bedtime.”

The ongoing challenge is how to involve children when finding ways to navigate a rapidly evolving digital landscape.”

However, Liam is keen to stress the need to balance such issues with benefits. “It’s important to recognise the positive sides of the technology. For example, we know that LGBTQ+ young people and other minorities are likely to find community in a digital space, and that it provides information that young people can be scared to ask about within their family or peer group.”

How can the voices of children be heard?

  • Video transcript

    [MUSIC: Whoosh sound effect into building strings]

    [TITLE CARD: ‘Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth’]

    Dr Liam Berriman: Voices of children remain amongst the most marginalised in policy and decision making in the UK.

    [MUSIC: Whoosh sound effect into old detuned piano playing nostalgic chords]

    Dr Liam Berriman: How children and young people experience society in this data driven and digital era is a key element of our work. We need to explore their perspective on the world and to do that in a very creative and innovative way.

    [ON SCREEN TEXT: ‘Dr Liam Berriman Director, Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth’]

    [MUSIC: Whoosh sound effect into staccato piano twinkling]

    Dr Liam Berriman: My research involves gathering the voices of children and young people, as well as their families and carers and those who work with them, to improve how they’re treated, how they can access specialist services and how policies can be developed to best meet their needs.

    Since so much of their lives involves data being gathered about them, we’re also concerned with how this information is used, particularly for the purpose of safeguarding. At our centre we can make the world a better place in terms of wanting meaningful change in their lives.

    [MUSIC: A final positive chord plays on a keyboard]

    [END CARD: University of Sussex logo ‘Impossible until it’s done ’ with URL]

Building a climate of trust and enquiry with young people is critical to the success of CIRCY’s research. This includes finding ways to engage children on things that directly impact their lives, like education or social care, as well as global issues like climate change. Together with Professor Rachel Thomson, Liam developed a project for children and families to create their own digital archives that capture a significant moment in their lives. “We’ve also explored the use of mobile phones to document children’s experiences as these approaches tell us a lot about their lives over time and their future aspirations,” he says.

Parents and carers play an important role in CIRCY’s research and their consultation helps to better understand generational gaps, perceived risks and the need to adapt to emerging technologies. Parents often share photos and videos of their children online without appreciating the complexities of children’s consent. As part of the Junior Research Associate scheme, one of Liam’s students, Yanna Erikson, addressed this issue in relation to autistic children. She recorded the reactions of focus groups to videos uploaded by parents who wanted to convey the challenges of bringing up an autistic child without appreciating the potential impact on the child in question.

CIRCY’s approach includes helping public sector organisations to design data practices that transform children’s lives.”

Focusing on the digital wellbeing of minorities is key to CIRCY’s approach. This includes helping public sector organisations to design data practices that transform children’s lives. Data collection is an area that Liam feels has become increasingly commodified, with governments showing a lack of understanding in relation to young people’s needs: “The past few years have seen a massive expansion in data collected on children for commercial exploitation. It’s very concerning. Meanwhile, policy makers tend to treat young people as one homogenous group, disregarding the huge variety of needs represented. A digital ‘safe space’ for an autistic young person will be very different from one for an LGBTQ+ young person. CIRCY works to identify what an inclusive digital world might look like.”

There is room, however, for cautious optimism following the implementation of the Online Safety Act of 2023. “I think the fact that it holds companies accountable is a really positive direction of travel, but the extent to which this law acts as an incentive is uncertain at this stage,” he says. Looking to the future, Liam and his colleagues plan to explore the challenges presented by artificial intelligence technology and algorithms by working with secondary school pupils to see how it may change young people’s perceptions of their own futures. For Liam, the ongoing challenge is how to involve children when finding ways to navigate a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

“Things get designed for children rather than with them,” he says. “My question to people who are working with children’s data or designing digital tools is, how are you bringing children into the process to make tools that benefit them?”

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