In search of social acceptance: Youths’ talk about Internet technologies

In this blog post, I bring more attention to the discursive resources used by Finnish youths to describe their digital experiences and engagement with Internet technologies.

In my forthcoming article, I analyze the DEQUAL project’s interviews with 9th-grade Finnish students to understand the nuances of youths’ digital agency and the accompanying inequalities by examining how they talk about Internet technologies. I argue that the discourses these youths use are socio-culturally produced ways of talking about the Internet technologies they internalize but also produce in their social interactions, such as the research interviews. I therefore perceive such discourses as being essential to the socio-cultural context in which youths develop, conveying important information about their digital agency.

Overall, I identified 11 discourses under four themes: (1) benefits, (2) harms and risks, (3) person-based networking, and (4) Internet skills. These discourses are related to major elements of the cultural portrayal of youths as ‘digital natives’ – a rich discursive repertoire – on which youths draw to create more space for and social acceptance of their use of Internet technologies. Here, I mean, for example, the discourse of usefulness, in which youths frame their digital engagement in ways that align with societal expectations, emphasizing the educational or skill-enhancing aspects of online activities. Furthermore, the discourses of ‘waste of time’ and ‘generational gap’ indicate that some youths can strategically leverage language to distance themselves from the moralizing tone around their use of technologies and redirect it towards problematic uses by generations other than their own.

I argue that rather than abandoning the cultural portrayal of ‘digital natives’, we can use it to better understand the socio-cultural context and contradictions in which today’s youths are immersed and through which they navigate in their engagement with Internet technologies. However, my findings also demonstrate some problematic implications of this portrayal, such as its pressure on youths to constantly justify their technology use and claims to have Internet skills they might not possess but yet feel compelled to demonstrate.

Additionally, these discourses also shed some light on youths’ digital experiences of acting as networked individuals who are expected to manage and maintain various offline and online connections, relationships and resources. These tasks are today undertaken on a more individual basis rather than being anchored in physical locations or social memberships, such as family, class or race belongings. While this shift towards networked individuals has been liberating as it has provided individuals with greater autonomy to meet their social needs through access to individually crafted and selected online communities with like-minded others, it can also be exhausting and demanding in terms of the time needed to continuously adapt to the evolving online world and Internet technologies. In other words, cultivating, sustaining and navigating online relationships can bring about its own anxieties. For instance, one needs to know in what efforts to invest and on which platforms, which bits of information to share and with whom, and whom to invite or accept to one’s own network of friends.

The issue of online privacy and safety has emerged as especially important to youths. Youths use various strategies, such as selective self-disclosure, limiting or avoiding some social network sites, or disengagement strategies, to prevent negative fallout from displaying their personal lives on the Internet. Yet, in the online world, it is no longer just one’s own but also others’ actions that influence who sees one’s own content. Therefore, the worrying trend I noticed in my study was that the youths emphasized their heightened individual responsibility for digital learning and for benefiting from opportunities offered by Internet technologies, along with a keen awareness of online risks and the necessity for individual acts to ensure privacy and foster resilience. However, there is a whole machinery – the platforms’ technological features and the technology providers’ enormous investments – which contribute to the individual challenges surrounding online privacy and safety. Therefore, I call for more attention to and societal actions against the tendency for social network sites to favour public sharing and pursue a persuasive design in order to strengthen youths’ collective digital agency in their navigation of a digital age.

See more about the topic at:  Choroszewicz, Marta (forthcoming, 2024) Addressing youths’ digital agency with Internet technologies: Discourses and practices that produce inequalities. Journal of Youth Studies.