Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Media and Communication
Department of Communication
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a comparative research project on the domestication of Internet-connected robotic toys, which is funded by the Australian Research council and is led by my colleague Donell Holloway, from Edith Cowan University, Perth. We adopt a combination of discursive and ethnographic methods, visual materials and co-creation techniques that engage both children and parents as co-researchers, in order to investigate how young children appropriate and make sense of Cozmo, what play practices they engage in, what specific affordances of the toy they enact and how their interaction with Cozmo varies cross-culturally. We draw on a notion of affordances as socially and culturally situated and as emerging from children’s interactions with the technological artefact, so we are looking at how prior experience with digital media (e.g., coding skills), play preferences, children’s and parents’ imaginaries around robots, family cultures (including parental mediation), gender and age differences all contribute to shape the adoption of Cozmo.
The project also aims to critically interrogate the corporate and regulatory environment that oversees Internet-connected toys, including the data collection and sharing practices associated with these toys; track and analyse the publicly available information, and critique the discursive environment in which Internet-connected toys are being promoted, appraised and criticised; and investigate toy designers’ attitudes, practices and constraints regarding the development of viable Internet-connected toys to support children’s rights to protection and participation in the digital world.
My other research line is the EU Kids Online. We have collected new survey data in 14 European countries in 2017-2018 and we are now working on a comparative report.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
This has to be the EU Kids Online, which I joined in 2007 soon after completing my PhD. It was a great opportunity to meet and work with leading scholars, first and foremost Sonia Livingstone. I have learnt so much from my EU Kids Online colleagues, many of whom have now become very good friends.
Thanks to my experience within the EU Kids Online, I also had the opportunity (and the confidence) to lead the Net Children Go Mobile project, a 9 countries project funded by the European Commission’s Safer Internet Programme (now Better Internet for Kids), which investigated the relationship between smartphones and tablet use among European children and their changing online experiences. We found that the use of smartphones intensified some of the risks we observed in the EU Kids Online’s 2010 survey –with a rise in cyberbullying and exposure to Negative User Generated Content– while posing new risks, especially related to privacy and commercial data collection.
I would also like to mention COST Action IS1410 here, the digital literacy and multimodal practices of young children DigiLitEY, because it is thanks to my activity as co-chair of WG4 that I started to be interested in young children and the Internet of Toys.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
As scholars studying children and media, I think we have the responsibility to help parents, teachers, educators and policy makers move beyond media panics with our research. So I was particularly thrilled when I was invited by the Italian Children’s Commissioner (Autorità Garante per l’Infanzia e l’Adolescenza) to take part in an experts audition for the implementation of the GDPR. Based on the audition, the Commissioner suggested to lower the age limit for children being allowed on online platforms without the need for parental consent. And she was successful, as the age limit has now been lowered to 14.
Another major source of satisfaction in my work comes from students. I am always grateful when I receive emails from students thanking me for my classes. The latest I received, just one week the spring teaching term started, stated: “First of all, I want to thank you for being kind, and for making the course interesting and entertaining with your examples. We are aware that it is not your obligation as a teacher to do this, and therefore really appreciate it :-)”
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
As a mother of a young girl who is nearly three, I find myself asking many of the questions that I guess most parents struggle with, such as what is the right balance between online and offline play, what is the right screen time, etc. In these moments, I keep repeating myself what I have learned from the EU Kids Online data through time, that the Internet and digital media are just other means for today’s children to engage with the world and that active mediation is the best answer. But this shows how much we researchers can do in order to improve parents’ (and practitioners’) confidence in their ability to guide children’s Internet use, and how much simple (not simplistic!) messages to parents and teachers are still needed. This is a hard task, because, as we know, media panics can only be countered by showing the complexity of children’s experiences with the Internet and other media.
What would be your work motto?
When I struggle with conflicting deadlines and commitments, I try to hold on to what brought me here, that is curiosity and passion for research on the role of the media in children’s and families’ lives.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I am really proud of the book that I co-edited with Donell Holloway on The Internet of Toys. Practices, Affordances and the Political Economy of Children’s Smart Play, which collects multidisciplinary approaches to the Internet of Toys as simultaneously playthings, social robots and media. My main contribution to the book, I think, is precisely this theorization of the Internet of Toys using the mediatization framework, that is, as the interrelation of their physical and digital materiality, the play practices in which children engage, and data traces which feed into dataveillance as the dominant business and social model in the age of “deep mediatization”.
I further elaborate on the social and political consequences on the datafication of childhood in two 2018 articles, that were published in the Journal of Children and Media and in Current Sociology. In the first, I criticize the narrow framing of datafication and privacy as an individual problem, for failing to account for the potentially disruptive long-term consequences of datafication for citizenship. In the second, I argue that, if we want to understand both the data practices in which children and parents engage and the social consequences of such data traces, we should embrace an epistemology of the everyday and grasp the diversity and complexity of the embedding of data and Internet-connected things and toys in children’s and families’ everyday lives.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
My dream project is an extensive, longitudinal investigation of the datafication of children’s and families’ lives that starts with the premise that datafication is altering the conditions of both doing and becoming citizens, and that children are at the core of this process. I am concerned not only with the ways in which digital dossiers could regulate children’s access to life chances and opportunities, including education, health, and, in the future, job opportunities and credit – that is with the ways in which datafication could transform citizenship rights. I am equally concerned with how datafication is shaping social imaginaries around citizenship and rights. Therefore, I believe that looking at data practices in the context of children’s and families’ everyday life is vital, for it would help us better understand the kind of data that are collected from and around children; and, second, how and to what extent surveillance imaginaries are being normalized, or resisted in families’ data practices. It is at the level of the everyday –in the varied practices through which parents and children incorporate and make sense of digital technologies– that we can observe the emergence of alternative imaginaries of citizenship that resist surveillance culture. I have actually designed such a project, so I am keeping my fingers crossed it gets funded.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Have fun, doing research with children is challenging, but highly creative and rewarding. Try to resist the numerous pressures and focus on what really interests you. Pursue your research interests and learn from your failures: everyone has had a paper or a grant application rejected, don’t be discouraged and try to improve it.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to nominate Elisabeth Staksrud, to learn more about her research on children’s rights online.
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.