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Alternative Futures? Teenagers' Digital Practices, Social Mobility, and Schooling

Mon, April 16, 10:35am to 12:05pm, New York Hilton Midtown, Floor: Second Floor, Gibson Suite

Abstract

Like other advanced market economies, the British government is advocating digital education programmes as the way to ensure economic prosperity. In no uncertain terms, the education sector must: "equip the next generation so we have a strong pipeline of specialist skills – from coding to cyber – to support the tech industry and drive productivity across the economy” (DMCS, 2017). Despite well documented concerns that young people’s technological education is diminished and instrumentalised by being assimilated into this logic (Robins & Webster, 1989), policy interventions in this space have recently intensified. Embedded within such moves is an assumption that young people can experience significant social mobility as a result of getting on board with this agenda.

Drawing on data from workshops and in-depth interviews with 50 young people aged 13-18 about their digital lives, we challenge this assumed and deterministic relationship between young people, digital technology and the economy. The research focuses on students’ digital practices in two schools in economically deprived areas of Wales. This is because economically disadvantaged young people are particularly targeted as a group for whom digital skills can transform their “class of conditions” (Bourdieu, 1992, p. 53).

The paper examines how young people really use technology, and explores their motivations and the socio-technical factors shape them; and asks to what extent does technology really offer young people security and economic success on their way to adulthood? Utilising Bourdieu we characterise five theoretical groups that emerge from the data (the PC gamers, academic conservatives, pragmatists, non-conformists, and the leisureists) and through a sociological lens we compare their reality as they tell it to the normative expectations now placed on young people by government and policy discourse.

The research demonstrates that these young people have opportunities to learn, play, work, and socialise that were unimaginable a few decades ago; and for a minority they are able to use technologies to enhance their future economic success. However, there is a significant mismatch between policy and their experiences.

We suggest this is because commercialised digital technology is firmly implicated in young people’s transition to adulthood, and show how the supposed freedom offered to young people through technology is shaped by the design of software and hardware they have access to; and the market logic that requires them to ‘buy’ these freedoms. Second, we argue that the discourse coming from government ignores social structures that remain highly relevant. If someone lacks certain forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986) their technical skills are less likely to lead them to an economically successful career (Halford & Savage, 2010) and are instead more likely to become an exploited part of the fragile ‘gig economy’ (Friedman, 2014).

In conclusion, teaching young people digital skills are necessary but not sufficient. Instead, schools need to facilitate a more disruptive course of action where young people can explore how they can use their digital skills alongside a wider set of skills and knowledge to challenge the architectures the of digital economy’s dominant social technical structures.

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