Exploring young people’s digital worlds

Dr Luci Pangrazio, a researcher in the Centre for Research in Educational Impact (REDI), is an expert in young people’s digital and data literacies, and digital cultures.

She is currently Chief Investigator in the Deakin node of the Australia Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child and is also working on an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship project investigating new ways to understand digital data, Materialising Data: New Methodologies for Mapping Digital Data. Here she explains how her interest in young people's digital worlds was sparked.

How did a high school English teacher become a leading researcher in digital media and its impact on young people?

I was teaching English in a secondary school in Melbourne at a time when young people’s use of digital media was on the rise. I became curious about how they were using digital media and their critical understanding of it. That curiosity coincided with a change in my circumstance that gave me the time to undertake a PhD.

My PhD was a detailed case study of 13 young people over a year. I followed their online activity and did some creative visualisation work to determine their understanding of the digital. I found that just talking to them about their digital concerns, things that had been troubling them or past experiences, was powerful because young people don't often get the chance to talk about what it's like to be online. Doing this in a creative way was more effective than sitting down and asking them what they thought of the Internet.

After I completed my PhD I started looking at young people's understandings of data more specifically and how they managed and protected their privacy online. They are much more aware than we realise, but their concerns are often more extreme. They are less concerned with the more routine issues that probably have more consequences for them in the long run. Once they understand how their data is processed and used, they can see the implications.

How do you ‘show’ young people what is happening to their data?

It’s hard to educate young people about data because it is abstract — it operates behind the computer screen. One of my research projects involved developing an educational chat app (Friendsend) designed to help young social media users navigate the challenges of developing a digital identity and managing personal data. The Friendsend app was able to show children how their personal data might be commercially processed, so they could see what insights were drawn from the different data they generated. The chat app was able to collect the geolocational, text and visual data generated through use and then process it and display the insights on a separate web app. Showing the children how they were being tracked through the geolocational data had the biggest impact on them.

We had a lot of fun showing the kids how visual data from photos is processed to reveal something about their emotional state. For example, we were able to show that a facial expression can be analysed for joy, confusion, anger and surprise. From there we could start a conversation about who would be interested in this information and how it could be used.

Bellbrae Primary students Chloe and Maulie and their teacher Lauren White helped develop the FriendSend app.

What are the real-world consequences of all this tracking?

Organisations that have access to your data can identify your networks, see where you live, where you went to school, what you are interested in, who you vote for or even if you have been in jail. This information can then be used to help companies, institutions and organisations make decisions about you and your future. For example, it can help decide whether you are admitted to a university course, qualify for a loan or an insurance policy.

The materialising data project builds on the idea that people will have a better understanding about how their data is being collected and used if we can make the data more visible. It’s a way to make them a bit savvier and consider the consequences of giving away too much information. What's really needed is an educational program that goes all way through school starting with awareness, understanding, and then critique.

Why is the Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child important?

Digital technology is rapidly evolving and changing, and many parents are concerned about the impact of this technology on their children’s learning, safety and social development. Many are struggling to figure out how to support their children while maintaining a good relationship that values their children’s opinion and allows them to have agency and voice. It's a whole new world that we are all tackling. There is fear and anxiety, as well as a lot of hype and hope.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child is the world’s first research centre dedicated to creating positive digital childhoods for all Australian children. The heart of the Centre’s research program is its Longitudinal Family Study – a seven-year study of 3000 Australian families, focusing on children from birth to eight years of age. The study is designed to provide the big picture – to identify potential problems and unmet possibilities associated with digital technologies in early childhood.

As a Chief Investigator for the Deakin node of the Centre I’m looking at data use in Australian homes. Smart appliances and intelligent assistants are changing family life and we need to identify and investigate the range of short- and long-term implications. In the first instance, we will map all the devices, apps and platforms in the home and work with families to understand how they make sense of these devices and representations of data.

How will you map data use within a home?

I will start with traditional research methods such as surveys and interviews, but I’m also looking at using digital methods. I’m working with a software engineer to design a data meter — a device that will sit inside the home and show the volume of data going into the different devices connected to the internet. It will work in a similar way to a smart meter that is able to show electricity use in a home. The data meter will be a tangible representation of the family’s use of data. For example, they will be able to see how the volume of data coming into the home changes when they start using Facebook or watching a movie. We can then introduce strategies to help families better manage and protect their data and possibly minimise their data use. The data meter will be interesting for individual families but will also allow me to compare data use across multiple families.

What is unique about your work?

I draw on a combination of theories and methods to make sense of the challenges presented by digital technologies – digital literacies, critical data studies and youth studies. I've always been interested in how the design of digital platforms affects how we use them and how they shape our interactions with others. For example, some of the platforms used in schools are changing the way that teachers teach and assess, how students experience school, and how schools communicate with parents. I want to develop critical understandings that will lead to better use and design of these platforms.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I really enjoy working with young people, they have a different perspective on these issues that is always very refreshing.