A Rapid Evidence Review

Publication Date
July 1, 2017

With the goal of contributing to evidence-informed programming and policy dialogues and action, this rapid evidence review explores adolescent girls' access to and use of digital media, especially mobile phones and the internet, in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). It examines the associated digital skills and practices and opportunities and risks, including forms of safety mediation, especially among the 10 to 14-year-old age group. The authors of this report from the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme, which is funded by UK [United Kingdom] Aid from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), seek to address two main questions: What do scholars and practitioners know about how young adolescents are using digital media and the key challenges these children face? What evidence is there of local, national, and international development programmes' effective use of digital media to reach the early adolescent age bracket (rather than adolescents 15+ years)?

To answer these questions, the review sets out a conceptual framework that defines key terms and examines established knowledge regarding (i) information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digital media, (ii) gender and adolescence, and (iii) communication for development (C4D) and ICTs for development (ICT4D) programmatic interventions in LMICs. Some insights to emerge from the literature:

  • Spreading from high- through to middle- and low-income countries, more children are going online, and doing so more frequently. However, many children lack access, and for many who do have some access, digital media are expensive, unreliable, and limited in their contents or services and/or difficult to use.
  • In LMICs in particular, top-down or externally-led strategies to promote development through the deployment of ICTs have often been unsuccessful, leading to increasing interest in and support for C4D initiatives based on dialogic and participatory approaches that are responsive to, respectful of, and embedded in particular communities.
  • ICTs and digital media have become widely associated with considerable hopes as a potential means of supporting children's needs and rights for provision, protection, and participation. In fact, the potential of ICTs and digital media has been linked to delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the spread of ICTs and digital media has also raised many concerns in terms of exacerbating forms of exclusion, amplifying pre-existing risks, or advancing state surveillance and/or commercial exploitation.
  • Although evidence regarding children is lacking in many countries, available indicators suggest persistent gender gaps in terms of access and use of ICTs and digital media. In homes where digital technology is provided by parents or carers, it is more likely: that girls will be given access at an older age than their male peers; that the access they are given will be more curtailed (through sharing) or surveilled; and that the idea of ICT-related careers will be associated more with boys than with girls. Among older children in low-income households, it is more likely that girls' income will be incorporated into family survival, while older boys might expect to be able to keep a portion of their earnings to support mobile phone access.

Key findings and recommendations from the rapid evidence review include the following, as excerpted from the report:

  • In contexts where children do have access to digital media, their access often begins in late childhood, may or may not involve access to the internet, can involve shared or community-based rather than personal ownership of devices, and is often greatly enjoyed and valued by children, despite inequalities in and difficulties of access and use. This enthusiasm for digital media provides a promising basis for interventions that advance their needs and rights.
  • Children are not, however, "digital natives" who need little support in making the best of digital media. Where children are knowledgeable in relation to digital media, which may or may not include an understanding of the online sphere, this often goes unrecognised by teachers, therefore being little valued in or extended by school.
  • Important gender inequalities concerning digital media exist in relation to internet access, digital skills and patterns of use, and opportunities and outcomes, with wider gaps in LMICs. However, the actual scope and consequences of digital inequalities remains largely deductive, and more research is needed.
  • Qualitative and participatory research has documented the fact that well-intentioned interventions based on assumptions of digital skills and/or internet access can exacerbate rather than ameliorate pre-existing inequalities. Children's access to digital media is partly mediated by teachers and parents, partly by peer norms; in both cases, such mediations should be anticipated and addressed when digital media are incorporated into programme interventions.
  • Many reports on ICT-related provision in LMICs have been generated by organisations, institutions, and corporations with vested interests in promoting the spread of ICTs or connections to other organisations that have commercial interests. There is, therefore, a need for practitioners who institute interventions with children, and for communities where such interventions are proposed, to interrogate the claims of such studies in their own practical contexts, to observe and be cognisant of the associated issues of technical and electronic obsolescence before making any investments, and to explore local low-tech alternatives.
  • A number of interventions have focused on the straightforward provision of digital media hardware or contents, and many have failed. Where digital media interventions have been more successful, they have devoted time and resources to testing and developing low-cost sustainable hardware, to ensuring equal participation, to supporting necessary digital expertise, and most important, to respecting children's contexts, needs, interests, and perspectives in planning and implementing the intervention.
  • There are indications that as children gain familiarity with the internet, some value it as a confidential source of health information; it remains unclear, however, whether they gain sustained benefits from such information or whether they have sufficient discernment to judge what information to trust. Media and information literacy education for all children should therefore accompany provision of digital media. In relation to these digital opportunities, there are few gender-disaggregated findings available.
  • Several development-related digital interventions and entertainment-education initiatives in the literature draw on the formats and iconography of older media forms or on the personalities, characters, and narratives of television, film, comics, or radio. But insofar as these tend to make use of television characters that are popular in the Global North, often from propriety shows, it is preferable to evaluate and plan digital media interventions that build on content already familiar to children from their own life contexts, including traditional audio-visual and print media.
  • The online risk of harm to children is closely related to the conditions of their access. For instance, mobile phones can be used to distribute pornographic content partly because they are hard for teachers or parents to monitor. Both traditional gender inequalities and the mere fact of access bring more risk, and thus girls and those living in urban areas tend to experience more online sexual or violence-related problems. Often, young people are aware of risks and disadvantages associated with social media and take proactive and responsive steps.
  • Despite popular anxieties about the risk of harm associated with children's internet use, little research has examined children's own concerns about the internet, or has traced when and whether exposure to online risk (e.g., of pornography or bullying) results in sustained harm. Global North research is stronger in establishing that children who experience (or are vulnerable to) risks in their everyday (offline) lives are more likely to encounter online risks. This especially applies to girls for, although boys are often associated with higher risk-taking, girls report more upsetting or harmful experiences online. Researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners should look for possible online extensions of offline risk, ensuring that support and coping resources address online as well as offline dimensions of risk and paying particular attention to children who are vulnerable or marginalised while working to improve the resilience of all children as they engage with digital media.

Reflecting on these findings, the authors note that conducting this evidence review has led to the appreciation of how unevenly distributed the evidence is across LMICs, both within and among regions. It has also highlighted a particular research and programmatic blind spot with regard to young adolescents, especially girls, within the age group of 10-14.

In addition to efforts to empower children directly through digital media and ICTs, this review also supports the conclusion that adults - parents and teachers, on the one hand, and also policy-makers and practitioners initiating interventions, on the other - should strive to achieve a child-centred grasp of the opportunities and risks that matter to children and that are meaningful within their life contexts. In the technological determinism that underlies many ICT4D programmatic interventions, social norms, values, and practices that shape socio-technical relationships are often ignored. Since many studies show that parents and carers are generally the most accessible and preferred source of information and support for their children, C4D and ICT4D interventions should include these as key mediators of children's needs and rights.

The researchers "specifically call for more research that can identify entry points for the role of ICTs in augmenting opportunities, mitigating risks, negotiating structural barriers to access, developing frameworks for critical skills-based education and facilitating an enabling mediating role by parents and carers at a programmatic level."