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On-screen, off-screen: children's creativity and cultures


When Goffman (1969) wrote about identity and the presentation of self as a performance it is unlikely that he imagined today’s stage set of home-schooling and social distancing with a young person performing to an audience of under four family members, let alone the blurred lines of ‘front and back stages’ from the impact of social isolation measures. Using imagery of the theatre to explain the importance of human social interaction, Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis approach is useful today as we examine the context of culture and behaviour for children in a digitised society.

In a digital age, not everything is about digitality and this has been amplified throughout each stage of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, currently having an overwhelming impact on everyone’s lives around the world. The timing and measures taken by the government to address the crisis in the UK made me reconsider the focus for this study, as school closure and travel restrictions contributed towards different personal routines as ‘unprecedented times’ were reported by the media on a daily basis (Gauer et al., 2020).

My intention was always to explore how technology, society and culture interrelate in childhood and the ways that technology can influence behaviour and cultures, but this theme was chosen because of changing circumstances at home during the period of lockdown. Coronavirus is still not fully understood, and little is known about the social effects of the health measures currently implemented (Pieri, 2020) so I was determined to save social connectivity when our own family routine was thrown into disarray.

Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

Taking a step back to dramaturgical theory again, Goffman suggested that a person’s identity can be modified when they interact with others, and as a child taking on the role of a theatrical performer today their belief in the part they are portraying is significant to how their identity is revealed. In epistemology philosophers use the term ‘belief’ as an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof, but this has been challenging for both adults and children during today’s pandemic, as rapid information sharing with government intervention has been fast paced and often confusing. It is a bewildering time for children when different roles that have consistently been acting out are altered so quickly, even as much as abandoned costume changes between school uniform and weekend wardrobes which become an important aspect of a young person’s identity.

The effect of home-schooling has been profound on children and young people when lockdown measures have been taken to protect the health of the nation, but social connectivity using online environments has enabled them to retain a sense of commonality and belonging even during this period of isolation (Young Minds, 2020). Exploring children’s use of digital media in the home and throughout their lives necessitates us to examine the data available about accessibility of devices and usage and the annual ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes’ report shows that half of all ten year olds own their own smartphone in the UK. This increases to nearly all young people at the age of fifteen, but highlights that although children are spending time online it may not be through their own device (Ofcom, 2019). Throughout these exceptional times of school closures, with more work accessed through online environments, the social context and behaviours associated with children’s interactions of technology have changed and this led me to observe several personal examples at home.

A summary report from Global Kids Online estimated that on a global level one child in three is an internet user, with findings based on a survey reaching fourteen thousand children across eleven different countries. The research also found that half of the world’s population used the internet during 2017, and for children the most popular device for accessing the internet was the mobile phone. (Livingstone, Kardefelt-Winther and Hussein, 2019). This takes on a new relevance as we consider how ubiquitous technology has become normalised in modern childhood today with children talking about their world without the digital and analogue differential voiced by adults, and the phenomenon of invisible technology when human interaction can occur on a large scale as computing devices disappear behind the scenes (van't Hooft and Swan, 2007, Burke and Marsh, 2014 and Norman, 1998).

A 2019 survey from Talk Talk associated with UK Teenage Loneliness and Technology 48% of participants thought that social media and the internet made them feel less lonely while only 26% of their parents agreed, showing a recognition placed on the value of social digital technologies. What I find striking about this report is the amount of time that teenagers said they spent using technology each day, excluding using devices for homework. Three or more hours a day shared by 71% of teenagers is a significant amount of time and if they were attending a school adopting a mobile phone ban for students then their offline and online behaviours may well be different today (Beland and Murphy, 2015).

For some children the outbreak of Coronavirus and onset of home-schooling has resulted in them spending an increased amount of time online for school and social activities which has been a sudden change from recent behaviours. Owning a mobile phone gives young people an identity and a social stage (Oksman and Turtiainen, 2004) but we have now entered a new era when the mobile device has become the technological device for many to access work and social interactions over a much longer period of time each day. Although some research reports that an increase to full days of screen time is negligible against wellbeing measures of teenagers (Orben and Przybylski, 2019) there is now a need to increase the number of longitudinal studies and consider the impact of home-schooling when increases in screen use have been observed for study and social interactions.

Theme and Discussion

The following Sway presentation formed part of this module completed during lockdown. Full references are cited at the end of the document.



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