Research on African Digital Cultures: are children’s voices missing?
As a scholar who is deeply interested in children and the media broadly – and intersection of children and digital technology as a point of departure – it has always been disconcerting to notice that within academic conferences organised in the continent and in the field of media and communication, little attention is paid to the theme of children and the media or children and digital media.
In the recently-held 2nd Biennial Africa Regional Conference of the International Communication Association (ICAfrica) in the University of Ghana under the theme of “African Digital Cultures: Emerging Research, Practices and Innovations”, the voices of children were missing. As one of the very few and very first regional academic meetings organised with the overarching aim to bring together scholars within and outside the continent to debate on both the materiality and affordances of digital media in the continent, expectations (at least mine) were high.
In the almost 60 parallel sessions and 200 paper presentations spread over the two conference days, there was no session specifically dedicated to the theme of children and the digital media. Although there was a session on “Youth cultures and digitalisation” only papers focusing on older category of young people were presented. Overall, only three presented papers centred on children and their practices with technology, and these were themed under disparate sessions. This ‘familiar’ occurrence buttresses the fact that in the continent, not only are research on children scanty, children are often maliciously subsumed within the broader range of youth. With reference to youth, the United Nations has described youth as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 without prejudice to other definitions by member states. What happens to children who are less than 15?
Research into the digital landscape of African ecosystems is still in its developmental stages, as opposed to the overwhelming spectrum of scholarship from the global North. Although a substantial amount of research exists in Africa on the diffusion, and appropriation of digital technology in various aspects of society, yet, there is little that is known about the digital experiences of younger category of ‘youth’ – preteens and teenagers in the continent. Only very few studies have engaged with these cohorts as the focus has always been on older category of youth mainly the university students or other age brackets in the Millennial generation.
My doctoral research explores the practices and shared lived experience of children in rural and urban spaces in Nigeria. Through reading and contemplating on existing literature, it was discovered that while children’s digital lifeworlds and practices with digital technology in the global North arena is well-known, widely researched and documented, research focusing on their counterparts in the global South, particularly in Africa, is still largely inadequate; still largely undocumented and the field quite underdeveloped.
Although, it must be recognised that a relative body of work and scholarship exists which focuses on the broader context of children and media in Africa, and on the economic and technological aspects of use and access, digital divides, and the potentiality of new media to support societal development and e-commerce. Yet, it would appear that there are not enough indigenous scholars and institutions making inroads into the new media as it relates to children studies. There is a resonant paucity of and apathy towards research and scholarship in children and media studies in the continent generally.
In analysing the reason for this gap in both research and practice, I highlight two key points. First is what I consider the ethical complexes involved in research involving human subjects and particularly children not up to 18 years. Whenever I speak to colleagues about research on children, the ‘ethical alarm’ seems to sound more than the passion and interest to engage with the field. I’m always reminded that children can be a handful and there is always the possibility that they might be too young for researchers to produce deep, thick data for a meaningful analysis.
This thinking feeds into an earlier paradigm of childhood studies rooted in developmental psychology in which children are viewed as social problems, dependent and without agency. The dominant framing of the child is that of a vulnerable, innocent social unit undergoing a crucial but fragile process of cognitive and social development. In this era characterised by moral panics, studies on children relied on media commentaries and reports of negative effects of media on children.
However, beginning from the 1980s and 1990s, a new paradigm emerged to challenge this old thinking while endorsing the urgent need for a rethinking of how children and childhood are considered and studied. Known as the new sociology of childhood or child-centred approach, the paradigm argues that childhood is a social construction and aims to reconstitute the child as a subject rather than an object, as a ‘being’ rather than a ‘becoming’, as having agency rather than a powerless innocent member of society and passive media user.
Within this current paradigm, children are studied directly and not by proxy methods; the most important of which is through qualitative methodology such as ethnography, interviews, focus groups, observation, etc. In the global North, this paradigm has been vastly accepted and developed; however, that cannot be said of other climes such as Africa where research on children are still approached with moral panic, negative-effect-lenses.
The second explanation is that research enquiry into the digital practices of young people in Africa generally started to gain traction in less than a decade ago, and there is yet no indigenous research institute or research body on the continent which focuses on children and young people. UNICEF Office of Research, the European Union and various other foreign donor organisations support projects such as EU Kids Online, Global Kids Online, EuroChild, and Parenting for a Digital Future; the African continent does not boast of any similar projects or sponsorships yet. It must also be noted that the existing studies on preteens and adolescents were either conducted in collaboration with UNICEF or executed as part of a multi-country project by the international organisation in which an African country featured. So far, only very few African countries have been covered by such projects.
There is clearly a challenge for not only scholars researching African digital cultures, but likewise institutions and funding bodies within and those interested in the continent. Children are a critical segment of all populations, just as childhood or the period of adolescence is one of the most creative periods of young people’s lives. Since they live in a media-saturated and ‘gadgeted’ world, how they negotiate childhood with digital technology must assume pivotal focus of research and policy; and I strongly recommend the use of child-centred methodologies and best practices in ethical conventions.
Globally, research into children’s access to and use of digital technology has become a hugely expanding field, so also children’s full participation, rights and safety in the digital age. The journey to mainstreaming children’s full digital participation, digital rights, digital resilience and safety must start with a commitment by African scholars and researchers to, like counterparts in the global North, develop the field and by so doing, attract government attention.
In Africa, young people constitute the majority of the population, yet their voices, views and visions are rarely heard and taken seriously by the adult population since they continue to be viewed with suspicion, as being both vulnerable and disruptive.
It is time to wear off this old thinking and embrace this exciting field of study and develop both indigenous and domesticated methods, ethics, theories and digital policies specific to African audiences, and I daresay, particularly children. Africa must not be left behind, nor her children’s voices be allowed to be missing in scholarship and practice.