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Towards equity-focused EdTech
A socio-technical approach

Digital methods and the digital native: A cautionary note for participatory researchers

Kids walking
Kids walking
Published: 1 September 2023

Louise Couceiro

Recognition of children and young people as agentic individuals whose voices should be heard has been well-established since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was drafted in 1989. Children’s capacity and right to be active contributors in research concerning their lives is widely acknowledged, as researchers strive to explore and develop new ways of engaging with this group.

Underpinned by the key notion that research must be undertaken with children, not on children, participatory approaches are at the heart of this endeavour. The importance and value of centring young people’s perspectives and priorities cannot be overstated. To ensure research concerning children’s and young people’s lives is both socially relevant and informed, intergenerational dialogue is vital. However, within the context of an ever-developing digital landscape, where young people are often – and problematically – positioned as highly knowledgeable, competent, ‘digital natives’, the question of how to thoughtfully and effectively incorporate digital methods into participatory approaches remains unresolved.

Since the dawn of the Internet, digital methods have held an increasingly prominent place in researchers’ toolboxes across a variety of disciplines and fields. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic instigated a significant surge in interest around digital methods. Distancing measures implemented to prevent the spread of Covid-19 forced researchers to abandon ‘traditional’ face-to-face methods and explore alternatives. Long-standing questions about digital methods resurfaced as researchers scrambled to redesign studies. What safeguarding, ethical and privacy issues need to be considered when using digital methods? Could digital methods really be a good substitute for face-to-face methods? When might digital methods offer something more meaningful than the ‘gold standard’ of face-to-face qualitative approaches? Certainly, when seeking to understand how everyday life is mediated by digital technologies, the use of digital methods can be hugely valuable.

For example, the walkthrough method involves systematically stepping through the various stages of engagement with the technology of interest, including registration and entry, everyday use, and discontinuation of use. This process allows the researcher to better understand the technology’s possible uses, its intended purpose and ideal user, and its embedded cultural meanings, values and biases. The potential dimensions of understanding afforded by the walkthrough method are not easily attainable through implementation of more traditional methods, such as user interviews or focus groups.

In addition to questions around the benefits and appropriateness of using digital methods, researchers working with children and young people have further factors to consider. The National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) recently published a guidance paper outlining some of the ethical issues relating to the use of digital methods when researching with children. These include safeguarding issues that may be more difficult to attend to if the use of digital methods means researchers and participants are at a physical distance, and issues of confidentiality and privacy, especially if data is gathered over a public medium. However, given the rapid pace at which digital technologies continue to develop, coupled with the complex and evolving understandings of the ways in which children and young people interact with such technologies, this is an area that requires ongoing reflection and conversation.

Digital methods can offer us important insights or ways of engaging with young people that may enhance research findings and support participation, but this needs to be done thoughtfully. Digital methods are not, in and of themselves, a panacea for researching with young people.

An obvious point, but one that requires re-emphasis and reiteration, is that heterogeneity exists among children and young people. Although children might share similar experiences and characteristics, their engagement with and experiences of using digital technologies will vary. As research shows, the assumption that children and young people have a certain level of digital competency because they have been born into a world where digital technologies are omnipresent – the ‘myth of the digital native’ – can have detrimental and delimiting effects in terms of education and equity (Eynon, 2020). For researchers hoping to empower young people by incorporating digital methods into their study designs, assumptions around participants’ digital competencies could have inadvertent, disempowering effects.

While some children and young people will likely find engaging with digital methods comfortable and easy, others may not. This could be due to a range of intersecting factors, including a lack of access to digital technologies, or insufficient training in digital skills. It could simply be that some children prefer communicating in ways that are not digitally mediated.

David Buckingham (2009) cautions that although creative methods can be engaging and enjoyable, at least for some participants in some contexts, creative approaches are not inherently ‘empowering’. In fact, creative methods can be disempowering if participants feel that they lack the appropriate, creative skills. The same is true of digital methods. As the myth of the digital native shows limited signs of abating, and digital methods continue to evolve in exciting and innovative ways, we must remain mindful of participants’ varying levels of digital capability and comfortability. Failure to do so risks undermining the underlying principles of participatory research altogether, where engaging children and young people in meaningful and inclusive ways is paramount.