City Research Online

How do young people interpret and construct risk in an online context?

Powell-Jones, Holly (2018). How do young people interpret and construct risk in an online context?. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


This research provides an interactionist analysis of the ways that young people interpret and construct risk in relation to messages posted on social media. The focus is not only what kinds of content or conduct are considered to be more or less risky, but also why and how these perceptions may emerge. It builds upon previous studies into children’s use and experiences of technology (including ‘risky’ behaviours, such as sexting and cyberbullying) by engaging with theories relating to the social construction of risk, criminological theories of deviance, and current legal frameworks governing social media (mis)use in England. Findings are based on verbatim quotes gathered from 184 pupils, aged 11-18, during fieldwork in two schools. Groups of participants discussed 12 examples of online posts and categorised the associated risks for an imagined sender (criminal, civil, social or none). Findings show individualised narratives of blame and responsibility are common, including for targets of online abuse, along with techniques of denial and neutralisation, as well as symbolic attempts to control and define ‘meaning’. Most notable is the lack of consensus among participants’ perceptions of criminal conduct online, and the extent to which competing narratives, perspectives, truths and norms were largely accepted. A multitude of factors influenced risk perceptions (e.g. sender-subject relationship, proximity and status, past actions or future consequences of actors, and assessments of responsibility, injury and choice), most of which were unknown or imagined contexts. This research asserts that law, critical criminology and human rights therefore ought to form a central part of digital citizenship education in schools. At the same time, this study highlights how competing social, political and cultural discourses likely contribute to uncertainty around what is ‘risky’ or ‘deviant’ online, and that this is not an issue exclusively affecting ‘youth’ today.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
School of Policy & Global Affairs > School of Policy & Global Affairs Doctoral Theses
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