Young People's Net Cultures (Distance Learning)


Sweden has a large number of Internet users, and on a global scale only Iceland had more Internet users in 2005 (ITU, 2007). The European Union funded project Safety Awareness Facts & Tools found that 87 % of the Swedish children have access to the Internet at home (Medieradet, 2003a). Today Scandinavian media focus on alleged serious problems caused by children being on line. Despite these media reports, however, it appears that Scandinavian parents and children talk little about the Internet and its effects on life (Bj0rnstad, 2002; Medieradet, 2003b).

In Sweden consensus is strong regarding adult responsibility towards children. Parents often organize forums for different aspects of the child’s life. Many parents and teachers consider it bad form not to participate in these activities ranging from meetings to taking the children by car to all their activities. This shared notion of what adult responsibility means, forms a background to the debate concerning children and the Internet. At an early stage some Swedish schools discussed whether pupils should be allowed to use the Internet during school hours (Rask, 2006), despite the Swedish government having placed large resources into giving all schools access to the Internet and every pupil an e-mail address (Chaib & Tebelius, 2004).

However, in the discussions of this development the children’s voices were absent; the threats against children were defined by adults. This is not surprising in view of a pre-figurative learning culture in which adults follow a tradition of warning children against threats posed by everyday life. Moreover, these threats are basically the same from generation to generation. New threats originating from the Internet might cause adults to warn about a reality which seemingly differs a great deal from the reality they know. Thus it should be interesting to investigate children’s views of what threats the Internet poses and how to deal with them.


Net cultures

Net cultures are activities on the Internet and the cultures that evolve around them (Dunkels, 2007). Net cultures can be viewed as emerging in a context that the Internet creates. When children enter this context they learn how to interact with others and how to make use of the possibilities as well as to avoid negative phenomena. This ongoing learning process can be viewed from a socio-cultural perspective, in which knowledge and skills are seen as products of our environment (Saljo, 2000). Saljo also claims that learning and what is considered useful knowledge change with history and culture.

The learning taking place through a computer connected to the Internet can also be seen as situated learning (Smith, 2003) where beginners are in the periphery, learning from experts and gradually move into the centre of the community, becoming experts themselves.


The following is an account of a pilot study, conducted in November 2003 through February 2004: Children’s Strategies Dealing with Threats, Abuse and Bullying on the Internet.

The focus of the study is on the children’s own counter strategies against what they themselves define as threatening or negative on the Internet. Questions of interest are: What do children find threatening on the Internet? How do children cope with these threats? How have they developed these strategies? Do boys and girls differ in this respect?


To receive in-depth answers qualitative interview was chosen as the method. The interviews took place in a chat forum for three reasons. The first is that children interesting to this study are on line and likely to be used to computer mediated communication, the second is that chatting facilitates data collection and makes transcription unnecessary (Bordia, 1996). The third reason is economic and practical.


The Swedish net community Lunarstorm with close to 90 % of the country’s 12-17 years-olds as members (Rheingold, 2005) helped me get in touch with children of the right age. This seemed to be a good idea at the planning stage since I wanted to interview children with experience of interacting on the net. The manner in which the informants were contacted, explained below, made the sample small and perhaps skewed. The intention was to interview 15 children between the age of 10 and 13. Of 3000 Lunarstorm members who received and read the invitation letter I ended up with six children to interview, five girls and a boy, all 12 or 13 years old.

Ethical considerations

Besides the ethical considerations pertaining to any research project, there are special issues when children are involved and when the Internet is the medium. When contacting children on the net any adult must be very clear concerning her identity, to minimize the risk of misunderstanding. Doing this without being explicit about your identity and agenda may cause children to act in a careless way when contacted. There is also a risk that parents suspect that a pedophile posing as a researcher is contacting their child. The Internet might encourage us to perform covert observations of children on line. Such investigations could produce interesting data, but should be avoided for ethical reasons.

The letter the webmaster of Lunarstorm sent to the Lunarstorm members described my project and asked interested children to show the letter to their parents, who then were to contact me at the University via telephone, e-mail or mail. 12 parents responded, all by e-mail, and I sent these families a form to sign their approval. Only after that I contacted the children by phone to establish contact. We used Lunarstorm for making appointments, but all interviews took place in a chat forum that I control.

The chat tool creates a nickname consisting of the word nick and a randomly chosen number every time a person logs on to the server. If a person logged on to the chat elzachat at 4.33 pm and received the nickname nick70 this was displayed as: [16:33] * nick70 has joined #elzachat

We used Mirc as a tool, placing it on our own server. All chat logs were kept on the server and on my own hard drive. It was at all times possible to see how many were connected to the interview chat, so that no one unauthorized could monitor the traffic. Mirc is an uncomplicated tool, and there were very few problems when the children started using the chat forum. They accessed the chat through its web interface, and thus there was no need to download any software.

Written conversations

The characteristics of conversation are affected by the context in which it is conducted. The study’s interview chat is an example of a computer mediated real time written conversation (Dunkels, 2007). One circumstance affecting this study is that the parties were in different locations with no visual or audio contact. Another factor is that all participants had previous experience of chatting. This context shapes the interview but also the product of it – the text for analysis.

When transcribing an interview the text you end up analyzing is not the interview, but an image of the interview (Elmfeldt, 1997). The transcriber’s ambition is to create as accurate an image as possible; nevertheless, it remains an image. The interview itself exists in another medium. Written conversation on the other hand exists only as a text. The text is not an image of the dialogue – it is the dialogue. The paralinguistic markers that enhance any conversation (Hard af Segerstad, 2002) are visible in the shape in which they were created rather than interpreted and transferred into another medium, which would be the case of a transcript. An example of paralinguistic markers is when a girl being interviewed asked me if we may finish at ten past four. To show me that this was information beside the actual interview, she put this question into brackets.

<nick06> (do you think we are finished by ten past four?)

Another example is an informant who wants me to go ahead from small talk to the actual interview, but she takes the edge of what might be considered a rude question when she uses unconventional abbreviations and ends the sentence with a smiling emoticon (Hard af Segerstad, 2002).

<nick67> r u going to start soon? :)


Hernwall (2003) claims that cyberspace is an arena for communication and interaction rather than the use of technology per se. Such a view is implicit in the study in question, and in fact none of the informants ever mentioned the technology as such. The word computer is found 30 times out of approximately 8000 words in the interviews. Out of these 30, I mentioned the word myself 19 times and only on two occasions the word was mentioned first by a child. Communication and having fun are the themes most frequently mentioned by the children when describing their Internet habits.

<elza> what do you usually do on the Internet? <nick 56> visit lunarstorm, playahead and msn <nick 34> visit lunar, play games at blip, check my mail and stuff.

Lunarstorm and Playahead are net communities, Blip is a web site with free on-line games and MSN is a common instant messaging tool. The two children quoted hint at a reality described by researchers such as Enochsson (2003) and Bj0rnstad (2002); that keeping in touch with friends is the most essential part of young people’s net use.

The children in the study were never asked about their real life activities, but they revealed some of this when we tried to make appointments for the interviews. It was obvious that all of them were very active in the real world as well as in the virtual. That this is very often the case is confirmed by Bj0rnstad (2002) and Sjoberg (2002) among others.

In the following I present the results thematically. The first theme is what advantages and disadvantages the children see in the Internet and the second how they have developed counter strategies to cope with the disadvantages.

Advantages and Disadvantages

When I explicitly asked the children to describe the advantages of the Internet, communication and having fun were leading themes. Prensky (2001) uses the term Digital natives for the first generation having grown up with the Internet as an integral part of their childhood. These children see the Internet as an everyday tool, interesting only in its role as yet another instrument to achieve goals known to human kind since the beginning of time; closeness to others, being an arena to express one’s personality, coping with daily problems, etc.

For example, one girl told a story of how some problems between her and a friend were solved using the Internet as a medium.

<nick 64> [...] but if you mean advantages, it’s great if you want to say something to somebody and you don’t dare say it to their face or on the telephone!

Another girl has her relatives spread all over the world and for them the Internet is an opportunity to keep in touch at a low cost.

<nick 78> that you can chat with your friends and that I can do it with my cousins in Paris and Teheran

None of the children told me stories of disadvantages on their own initiative. When I asked them to tell me about problems they may have experienced the answers were not what I had expected after monitoring the media debate. None of the children mentioned sexual harassment as a problem. Two girls had experiences of this and one of them said:

<Elza> what do you think are the disadvantages of the net?

<nick88> people who fight and are dirty and stuff.

The other girl had had a frightening experience, when someone pretending to be an 11 year old boy contacted her and the conversation made her give out her address. This person then started threatening the girl and her family, frightening the girl immensely. She comments the incident like this:

<nick27> and they are sick having these “interests” <elza> does it feel worse on the net? More or less threatening?

<nick27> i’m never contacted by old men irl

The girl thought my question was slightly stupid; she thought it obvious that this kind of behavior is specific for the Internet.

Other children told me that among the disadvantages of the Internet is that anyone can download your images and “do anything with it” and that the virus problem is a great hazard.

Developing counter Strategies

One central question for this study is how children develop their counter strategies. Particularly interesting is in what way adults contribute to the development of these strategies. One informant told me how she knew that Lunarstorm was a safe place.

<nick44> that’s why lunar is so good because it is the safest site.

<Elza> how do you know that lunar is the safest? <nick44> Because I saw it in a TV show where they interviewed someone from lunar and he said it and a lot of people say it too <nick44> Or at least one of the safest

Clearly she trusts the Lunarstorm representative and other people who say that Lunarstorm is one of the safest places on the net. If this affirmation from others came after she started visiting Lunarstorm we can suspect that she had listened selectively, but her trusting approach suggests that she is accustomed to taking advice from adults.

None of the children in the interviews have received any formal training in coping with the disadvantages of, or threats from, the Internet, neither at school nor at home. Nevertheless, all of them had swift answers to the question about how one might deal with these matters.

<nick12> no…I’m mostly on msn and stuff… and there I only chat with people I know, and if someone I don’t know and he/she is not nice I block that person… <elza> what does that mean – block? <nick12> so that the person can’t write to you…

<elza> ok, how do you know how to do this? <nick12> what?

<elza> how did you learn how to block? <nick12> there is a button you press so that this person gets “shut off” from my chat room

This girl tells how she stops unwanted contacts using the blocking utility found in virtually every net communication tool. She did not understand my question about how she learnt to use it – this was obvious to her. This does not differ when using different web sites or software; blocking is basic knowledge that you pick up just by looking around in a new setting.

The children in this study had few, and not very detailed, rules concerning Internet use. One girl could only think of one rule in her family; she cannot visit pornography sites.After thinking again she remembered that she must not to eat by the computer, either. This tallies with the results of Medieradet (2003b) where Swedish parents were asked about rules concerning their children’s Internet use. 56 % of those who stated any rules at all, regulated the time spent in front of the computer, 30 % had rules about visiting certain web sites, 12 % told their children not to give out personal information and three per cent banned chatting with strangers.

future trends

When we observe a child hurrying home after school just to connect, via the Internet, to the same friend she just parted from, this should certainly stir some academic interest. Jones (1997) asks: “What is it about life offline that makes us so intent on living online?” If we could identify the driving forces behind this interest, we might find a way to use this knowledge in an educational context. The research field of young people’s net cultures provides many interesting questions still to be asked. Among these are questions of gender. The basic issue being whether differences between the sexes can be observed and, if so, what do these differences consist of? Other questions are how young people – the first digital natives – shape their identities today. Calvert (1999) discusses children from minority backgrounds and their access to computers. It is essential that future research focuses on marginalized groups, be these groups based on age, gender, ethnicity or socio-economical status, with the aim to

find out what the dangers and possibilities might be for these groups. Examples of dangers that have been pointed out are less access (Enochsson, 2003) and the consequences that follow from this. Bard & Soderqvist (2001) point out the possibility that computers and the Internet create new opportunities for some groups that have a marginalized position today. And behind all these subjects lays the question of how adults could better support these digital natives right in the middle of the process of growing up and making sense of the world.


In this study the aim was to investigate young people’s net habits. What I found was that there is a discrepancy between children’s and adult’s views on threats on the Internet. The head-lines of newspapers tell one story – the children tell another.

Adults have a legal and moral responsibility, no matter the context, to care for their children. Caring involves estimating risks, which we even do when sending our children to school in the morning. Estimation requires knowledge, without which the estimation will be pointless, and knowledge seems to be in short supply when it comes to the new media environment. Children, on the other hand, are often native Internet users in the sense that they are socialized into mastering the technology, its language and user codes. At first glance there seems to be no logical explanation to this discrepancy; adults are accustomed to all that involves caring for children and children have the information adults require to make informed judgments. Adults and children even have common platforms for information exchange; the family and school. Still there seems to be some sort of obstacle for this exchange, and if we could identify which, this gap between the children and their parents may be bridged. One idea is that the technology itself constitutes a barrier for some adults and keeps them from seeing Internet activities as nothing but normal human actions. Moreover, the introduction of new technology is always followed by adaptation problems (Dunkels, 2002) and one of the problems is that we seem to be unable to separate the media itself from its content (Dunkels, 2005). When reaching the point where we identify the problems with Internet use as human problems; threats, abuse and bullying among others, adults and children might regain traditional roles in the upbringing phase of life, perhaps with the surprising side effect that a post-figurative learning environment has emerged. The one conclusion to be drawn from this is that this indeed needs to be investigated.

Not one of the children in this study identified any deliberate teaching occasion where adults at home or at school tried to pass on knowledge or skills concerning Internet safety. This does of course not imply that adults never do this – only that the children do not recognize this. These are interesting results, given our pre-figura-tive learning culture. Two alternative conclusions can be drawn; one is that adults do not provide children with the tools they need to cope with the Internet; the other is that children do not recognize the teaching situations. In both cases interesting questions arise. If the first is true we need to find out what prevents adults from doing what they normally do. If the second is true the intriguing part is why children think that all of a sudden they are on their own.

The traditional way of looking at children’s gender differences and ICT is to say that girls are interested in the content and boys in the technology (Pedersen, 1998), but my own observations point towards a change. I meet boys and young men who are not interested in the computer as technology, but who are intense Internet users. My theory is that when children’s views on ICT changes, from technology to communication (Hernwall, 2003), then this gender divide will erode. In this study there was only one boy to ask about this, so I chose not to go deeper into the gender issue. Nevertheless it will be interesting to investigate these conditions in another study. There are also the very interesting misgivings of gender and access to computers that Enochsson (2003 p.15) mentions:

There is a risk that the headway boys have concerning access in reality at home gets bigger if parents ‘concerns are directed to young girls’ safety [my translation].

The children in this study were all very comfortable with computer mediated communication. They saw no need for seeing or hearing each other when communicating in this medium, on the contrary at times. The way in which some children solved difficult relational problems over the net illustrates what Gibbs (2000 p.167) expresses:

… the lack of visual and aural cues tends to lead to less prejudice, the discarding of inhibitions, and a creativity with the keyboard which can draw interactants into closer relationships.

This study was meant as a pilot study to a larger investigation in which the chosen perspective – socio-cultural and situated learning – is further elaborated in relation to new empirical data. Slightly altered, the method of written real time interviews was used also for the main study (Dunkels, 2008).


Chat: A computer-mediated real-time written conversation. It has the characteristics of a casual conversation, and is usually not stored. A chat can be Web based or software based. The first means that it can be accessed from any computer with a Web connection, the later that certain software needs to be installed on the computer. There are open chat forums that anyone can visit to chat, to find new acquaintances or information. Just as often, people prefer to chat with friends, using chat tools that require authentication before allowed chatting. Examples of software chat tools are Irc and Mirc.

Digital Native: Somebody who did not experience life before the Internet. Prensky (2001) uses the term to describe the first generation that grew up with the Internet as a part of their childhood, which is the sense of the word used in this article. People not accustomed to computers and the Internet from childhood are consequently digital immigrants.

Emoticon: The word emoticon is probably derived from the words emotion and icon, suggesting that emoticons are icons, or images, expressing emotions. In written conversations, such as chats, IM or post-it notes the lack of visual and aural support often needs to be compensated. Hard af Segerstad (2002, p. 131) expresses this: Cyber communicators use emoticons to convey non-verbal signals.

Instant Messages (IMs): Written messages, synchronous or asynchronous, sent via an IM tool. The IM tool allows the user to see which pre-defined contacts are online and send synchronous messages, the conversation taking the character of a chat, or asynchronous, leaving the message until the contact goes online. Examples of IM tools are Icq and MSN.

Net Cultures: Activities on the Internet and the cultures that evolve around these activities. Examples are:

• Chatting

• Searching on the Internet

• Playing games

• Downloading and distributing music, films, software and other digital material

• The unwritten rules concerning e-mail and other written conversations

• Patterns of interaction in the new media environment

Net Community: A virtual meeting place accessible through the Internet. To get a picture of what a net community is one can imagine a mixture of the school year book, a show room, a trendy cafe, a telephone, mail, and walking down High Street on a Saturday afternoon. It is a virtual place for communication, providing tools for presenting yourself and observing others. Most net communities are web based, that is, you can access them via a web site. As a member you log in and get admittance to your personal space where you can publish information about yourself, true or untrue, as much as you choose. All members can view each other’s information and communicate.

Safe Use Guide: A set of rules to help Internet users avoid dangers and unpleasant situations. Examples can be found on many major web sites, particularly aimed at children and teenagers. Among these you often find tips like the ones (2006) list:

• I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parents’ work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents’ permission.

• I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable.

• I will never agree to get together with someone I “meet” online without first checking with my parents. If my parents agree to the meeting, I will be sure that it is in a public place and bring my mother or father along.

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