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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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3.2 Identity and social behaviours

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Figure 7 Masked superheroes or villains?

Digital optimists believe that anonymity online can give children the freedom to explore and engage with different identities and behaviour patterns. Digital pessimists worry that this may allow them to falsify their age, fabricate events or misrepresent themselves, either innocently or deviously. For vulnerable children, identity experimentation could be confusing and disorienting, they argue.

Little is really known about how online and offline identities fit together. Existing research suggests that similarly to children’s experience of virtual worlds, the boundaries between online and offline identities are much more blurred than adults believe (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008). Increasingly, the identity of just about anyone living in a digital era is a synthesis of real-space and online expressions of self.

There are also constraints built into many social networks (Willett, 2009; Cánovas, 2014). Children may want to reinvent themselves to show maturity, but be undermined by photographs or activity on their friends’ online space.

What may be a greater concern is the amount of personal information that children share online. Psychologists have developed what they call the ‘disclosure decision model’ to explain why older children often reveal so much information to others online. The underlying assumption is that people decide what personal information they will disclose, how they will disclose it and to whom they will disclose it, based on their evaluation of the possible rewards and risks. According to this model, the disclosure of personal information is intended to achieve certain benefits that might include social approval from others, intimacy or relief of distress. The difficulty with social disclosure online is that personal information is shared on platforms that are used for marketing or commercialisation purposes. Although social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram were designed for adults, they are also used by young people whose personal information is as vulnerable to abuse by technology giants as that of their caregivers. Dr Ben Williamson, who studies the issue of sharing personal information online, highlights just how far some technology companies go to harness children’s personal data.

You might find these two articles interesting: Hyper-governance and datafication in early years education: children as ‘abilities-machines’ or ‘like sausages in a factory’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives from Palfrey and Gasser, 2008.