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Agricola interview: PhD student Denise Mensonides studies how children develop digital literacy

09 March 2023
In 2022, PhD student Denise Mensonides won a Sustainable Society PhD Grant. Sustainable Society was the forerunner of the Agricola School. On top of that, Mensonides won an Extra Grant to visualise the results of her research.

Digital literacy is essential to being able to participate in modern society. The University of Groningen is studying the factors that stimulate or impede the development of digital literacy in a long-term research programme. Denise Mensonides MSc is one of the two researchers; her research is focused on children between the ages of eight and twelve.

Partners in this study are the Groningen childcare foundation Stichting Kinderopvang Stad Groningen (SKSG), the Dutch Media Literacy Network, the Royal Library of the Netherlands, the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, the Alfa-college and Biblionet Groningen.

PhD student Denise Mensonides (middle) receives the PhD Grant 2022 from Dr Başak Bilecen (chairperson of the jury) and Dr Frans J. Sijtsma, Director of the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development.
PhD student Denise Mensonides (middle) receives the PhD Grant 2022 from Dr Başak Bilecen (chairperson of the jury) and Dr Frans J. Sijtsma, Director of the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development.

Are children ‘digital natives’ these days?

‘That's a myth!’, says Denise Mensonides about the notion that children have great digital skills, because they grow up in a world full of computers, tablets and smartphones. ‘Yes, often they do have the technical skills but when they need to take a critical look at different types of information, such as news or advertising, they find that more difficult. And yet that is an essential skill is a world where you are bombarded with information without always being clear on the origin of that information. The question is how you prepare children for a society that is ever more digitised, so they can navigate it properly with awareness of the possible negative sides it may have.

With the extra grant, I will produce an exhibition about the media use of children. I will do that with Non Fiction Photos. Together with the children who participate in the study, they will take photos of their media use, so that parents, teachers and other persons concerned can see media ‘through the eyes of the children’. The photos will be shown in the exhibition, which will also share the insights of the study.

Children and young people are often thought to have no issues with the digital world. Computers, tablets, smartphones? They’ve grown up with those and are often referred to as ‘digital natives’.

However, practice demonstrates that many people are not digitally savvy at all. In the Netherlands, some 2.5 million don’t have basic digital skills. Maybe they cannot manage their banking with the app on their phone and would like to go to the bank - which often no longer exists. Or they cannot use standard software, such as the word-processing package Word.

A higher level of skill is the ability to assess the origin and the level of truth of the information. In the modern age of fake news, it is essential to be able to see the difference between serious messages and advertising, clickbait and fake news. Amongst 13 to 18-year-olds, no less than two-thirds appear to be missing important skills in dealing with digital media. How can that be?

That is because they did not develop those skills at an earlier age, between the ages of 8 and 12. How do you develop those? Under which conditions? That's what I’m looking at in my research. I will be conducting my study in four different neighbourhoods in Groningen. I will also be considering socio-economic backgrounds too. The results may enable us to deal with digital inequality.

In my study, I consider media use within the various aspects of the children's daily lives. I observe how the children use media in various social contexts, such as out-of-school childcare, school and home, but also how media is used in various social processes, such as building an identity, building up social capital, and developing citizenship and resilience.

How do you learn those digital skills?

Children often develop important skills during play. I see that in the theme citizenship & resilience; children develop resilience through something I call 'risky digital play'.

By taking risks during play, you learn to assess and deal with risks. That gives you resilience. If you climb trees as a child, you learn a lot about risks. You may fall when you climb too high or stand on a branch that isn't strong enough. Through those experiences you learn to recognises branches that are strong enough, and you learn how you can get down safely again when you climbed too high. Those are tactics that children develop to deal with those risks.

The same happens in the digital sphere by playing games that children experience as exciting. For example, by playing the game in a safe environment or by playing it with friends, they learn to deal with exciting digital situations.

Do you influence your study subject as observer?

(Consider for a moment). In the two years I have been working on my study, I believe I have built up a bond of trust with the children. They understand that I am not a figure of authority on the sites. I mean, if they do something they're actually not allowed to, like playing on the computer for a little longer or looking over friends’ shoulders, I’m not the one to correct that. That means the children see me as one of them. Children also talk about the news when adults are not present. At the moment they talk about Ukraine, because it features often on the news. When they have built a fort in Minecraft and they need to put a flag, someone will suggest putting the flag of Ukraine, because that needs to be defended.

However, they spend less time considering where the news comes from and how it is created. For example, on TikTok they find it difficult to recognise advertising. Along the way, you see that they do develop those types of skills by talking about it with friends or with the educational employees at the out-of-school childcare sites. It will make them better armed to deal with fake news.

How do adults attempt to teach them things?

Adults quickly produce a protectionist response; they point the children to the dangers. Personally, I believe more in empowering; give children the opportunity to develop skills through play. And support that as a parent, by looking over their shoulder with interest when they are behind the computer or use the iPad and by having open discussions about media with children.

Your study is in the Groningen neighbourhoods Beijum, Stadspark, Oosterparkwijk and Helpman. They are socio-economically diverse areas - from neighbourhoods with lots of social housing to neighbourhoods with only private home ownership. Overall, you observe some eighty children.

Yes, and that is one of the things I look out for, the opportunities children have. That has its limitations. From previous studies we know that people from a vulnerable socio-economic background run a greater risk of being excluded from an increasingly digital society. That makes it important to look at how children from different socio-economic backgrounds use media and the skills they develop in the process.

You look from the point of view of the child, you observe the groups for six half days a week and have been doing that for two years already.

I love it! There is a lot of talk about children, but what's it like for the children themselves?

I have the opportunity to spend four years studying that perspective of a child: we observe what children do with media. There have been many studies into the media use of children, but largely ‘top down’ by having them answer questions.

A scientific disadvantage is that children often overestimate themselves, so you only have a limited picture of how children experience media and what they learn from it. The study that has been missing so far is ‘what do children themselves think about it?’. I’m now part of the furniture at the out-of-school childcare groups. Children no longer look up when I come in because I've been coming for two years. It really is a bond of trust. They don’t mind when I look over their shoulder, they actually like it. They often start telling me what they're doing.

Children like to share and often give unsolicited advice; they really involve me. That means you really work out what they're doing, and why they're doing it. It may well be that after a while they turn around and start doing something else completely. That's part and parcel of being that age.

What do you find most surprising about your study?

It is a luxury to be able to spend so much time with one group of participants. But what really strikes me is that children do not make a distinction between the online world and the ‘real world’. Previous generations grew up in a world with a clear distinction between ordinary human contact and media use. For today's children, media is simply an aspect of their lives. Real and virtual are intertwined. They work together in a room, but at the same time have extremely valuable interactions online, via Facetime for example. When they make something together or make a video, that is a physical and a digital project for them. We should never underestimate how much children learn from that.

Last modified:16 March 2023 11.51 a.m.
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