Spreading from high- through to middle- and low-income countries, adolescents are going online more, and more frequently, as they gain access to mobile phones, tablets, laptops or games consoles, along with other digital media devices and connectivity. But most adolescents in poor countries still lack access, and even for those who do, digital media are often expensive, unreliable and limited in what they provide.
Even so, top-down or externally-led strategies to promote development in low and middle income countries increasingly deploy information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a means of supposedly convenient, scalable and adolescent-friendly solutions to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (see references to ICTs in UNICEF’s mapping of child rights onto SDGs).
At present, some programmes are directed to children and adolescents – for example, to provide resources for education and digital literacy. Some are particularly targeted at girls, such as to provide health and sexual education information and advice. The potential to extend and diversify such programming is huge.
Our GAGE rapid evidence review found that remarkably few reliable studies have examined the growing importance of ICTs in girls’ lives, whether in relation to either the hoped-for opportunities or the attendant risks. Even fewer studies have independently evaluated the benefits of digital interventions, so that future programmers to learn from past efforts, and nor do they draw attention to the challenges of these supposedly convenient tools – for example, raising critical concerns about the privacy risks linked to collecting or providing sensitive information to children in ways that can be tracked and surveilled by parents, businesses or the state.
There were some valuable findings regarding girls’ digital media use in the five key areas that we examined:
- Access. Adolescents are generally enthusiastic about accessing digital media. But in homes where they are provided by parents or carers, it is more likely that girls will gain access later than their male peers, their access will be more curtailed and monitored, and boys will be more supported in using ICTs for education and future employment.
- Skills and practices. Adolescents are far from ‘digital natives’ who need little support in making the best of digital media. Few have received much guidance from school or home, too many have only basic functional skills, and there are particularly worrying gaps in their critical information literacy skills. As a result, their digital practices tend to be fairly narrow.
- Opportunities. When they have access, adolescents in low and middle income countries use digital media for many purposes - to search for health information, maintain family relationships, for entertainment (e.g. gaming) and community participation. These are curtailed by the lack of sufficiently diverse and imaginative online resources in many countries and languages.
- Risks. For adolescents using digital media, the risk of harm arises both through the ways in which children gain access e.g. via cybercafés, and in what they do online e.g. sharing pornography or encountering violence. Digital media can pose a wide array of content, contact and conduct risks for children, sometimes severe, but very little research has examined this (although see Global Kids Online for recent findings).
- Mediation. Parents and teachers represent the most immediate sources of support and guidance for adolescents as they go online, but both parents and teachers themselves tend to lack expertise in using digital media, and can be judgemental of children’s activities. They are thus not well-positioned to support children’s exploration and creativity, and nor do children tell them – especially teachers – when they encounter a problem online.
While we wait for more and better research, it may be asked: is there already good practice for programmers to learn from? Our review included critical scrutiny of nine case studies, from which we can distil four significant recommendations:
- Imagining that technologies are just a matter of hardware to be dropped into ‘needy’ situations rarely - if ever - succeeds. The result is generally wasteful, sometimes directly counterproductive, as ICTs are underused or misused. Over and again, efforts simply to provide tech solutions discover that also vital is communication (to explain, to listen), training (for teachers, for local organisations), and continuity of resources (to update, trouble-shoot and maintain provision).
- With ICTs, risks and opportunities go hand in hand. Programmes that provide digital platforms for health or educational resources may inadvertently provide the means for cyberbullying or pornography or other kinds of online risk of harm. These risks concern adolescent’s safety – especially for girls – and also their privacy, since public-private partnerships can leave their personal or sensitive data open to commercial or other forms of exploitation.
- As adolescents increasingly gain access to digital media, this must be accompanied by research to track the risks and opportunities that result. As programmes increasingly harness the potential of digital media to reach their goals, they must consult, study and critically evaluate whether this potential is realised, and how it can be improved.
- Most important of all, it is vital to consult adolescents and their families and communities to discover what they want and need from interventions. It is wrong to impose top down external agencies’ goals without understanding the contextual factors – especially gender and other inequalities – that shape the consequences of interventions on the ground. Without such consultation, digital media interventions will miss their mark or prove unsustainable. With it, there is a chance that children’s rights to provision, protection and participation can be better fulfilled as digital media become increasingly a reality in low and middle income countries.
Read the full Rapid Evidence Review, ‘Young adolescents and digital media: Uses, risks and opportunities and in low and middle income countries’ here.
Sonia Livingstone is from the London School of Economics and Political Science