Youth & Cyber-risk during the COVID‑19 pandemic

Adorjan, Michael C. | $13,061

Alberta University of Calgary 2021 SSHRC

At a time when research is indicating youth are facing unprecedented challenges for their mental health and well-being in the face of the COVID‑19 pandemic, our research will provide crucial insight into the experiences and perceptions of Canadian youth, specifically regarding greater reliance on information communications technologies (ICTs) and navigating associated cyber-risks. Scholars are only starting to research the pandemic’s impacts for online spaces, including the exacerbation of pre-existing structural inequalities (e.g., the digital divide) linked to race and ethnicity, gender, class and age, among others. Canadian responses to the COVID‑19 pandemic, as elsewhere in the world, have included the rapid closure of schools after the initial outbreak, with parents taking on new challenges with the sudden requirements of homeschooling their children.

COVID‑19 also likely widens the digital divide, referring to reduced access to and proficient use of technologies due to a range of social factors. While young people are often referred to as ‘digital natives’ whose early adoption of ICTs enables them to harness the positive advantages such technologies offer, the COVID‑19 pandemic is also greatly disadvantaging those youth, and their families, who are not able to access and utilize ICTs. The emphasis on ICTs among youth is not only because they practically live in the virtual sphere, but, also because youth are forced to move all their lives into that sphere due to COVID-19. While knowledge is emerging regarding how youth are coping during the pandemic (see detailed description), what is of particular concern is the intersection of youth well-being and their engagement with ICTs at this time.

Specifically, we seek to generate insights regarding the following interrelated objectives (elaborated in detailed description):

– Explore and compare experiences of youth with ICTs, including social media and other forms of internet connectivity before and during the pandemic; Have these changes produced detrimental impacts on young persons’ well-being?

– Determine responses to both parental and educator policies and practices in response to COVID-19, especially affecting the role of ICTs while at home; i.e., what do youth think about how their parents/guardians are managing their use of technology?

– Ascertain how the pandemic may have changed how youth are accessing news, opinions, and other information about current events and learn to what extent are they aware of, and concerned about what information they consume, especially through social media and ‘fake news’.

– Explicate any effective strategies youth are employing to manage stressors and interpersonal difficulties during the pandemic. How effectively are they coping with their circumstances, especially in how they use ICTs?

– Examine how ‘digital divides’, referring to gaps in access and proficient use of technology, factor into young people’s experiences and attitudes related to the above objectives.

Through 60 semi-structured interviews with Canadian youth (12-19 years of age), our research will generate nuanced knowledge about not just how structural inequalities are experienced by youth in relation to ICTs, but knowledge regarding what strategies they draw from to cope, and their experience of the effectiveness of these strategies. Findings will advance theories related to risk and ‘governmentality’, specifically theories centered on the affordances (i.e., technical features) of ICTs, surveillance, education and privacy. This research will provide prescient knowledge for parents, educators, and the wider academic community that will help guide short and long-term responses to the needs of youth who are grappling with the pandemic.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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