Photo by Vidya Kulkarni
The use of computers and internet for children is mediated more by the socioeconomic status of the family than the type of school they go to or the medium of instruction. This study of eight schools in Tamil Nadu points to sharp differences in the way children from elite, middle-income and disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds perceive and use computers and the internet. The study illustrates how socioeconomic backgrounds influence digital opportunities and disparities.
If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s,
we rob them of tomorrow.
— John Dewey (1944: 167)
The internet is rapidly becoming essential in both private and public spheres, and the convergence of information, entertainment and participation through digital platforms makes research in this field relevant in a larger context. Technology, including the mobile phone and internet, is ubiquitous in contemporary urban culture and has become the focal point for communications. New-generation mobile phones are being utilised for phone calls, data downloads, television, games, shopping, banking, travel bookings, entertainment and interaction on social media.
As a result, the experience of childhood itself is changing, particularly in the middle and upper classes of society. For instance, the notion of privacy, which includes a separate room free from intrusion by parents, is observed among upper income group children. Power structures and the relationships between child and parent and child and teacher are also changing to become more inclusive and participative. How and why school-going children participate in the digital environment and their digital competencies in mediated spaces therefore become crucial questions.
This study provides an understanding of how socioeconomic backgrounds influence digital opportunities and disparities, and how these shape social inclusion and exclusion. The purpose of this paper is to explore the patterns of internet use of children who go to different types of schools.
The research strategy employs a qualitative approach, including a combination of in-depth interviews and observations in the natural school setting, interpretation of children’s drawings, as well as an exploration of the use of computers and internet among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The study focuses on the specific ways in which children negotiate the presence of the internet in their lives.
The fieldwork was conducted in the two districts of Coimbatore and the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, India. Participants for the study were selected from different school systems of Tamil Nadu, catering to different socioeconomic strata. The selection of participants ensured a good mix of rural and urban areas, gender, age (8 to 11 years) and grade (Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6). The schools selected are listed in Table 1.
The participants included 72 children in Coimbatore district and 51 children in Nilgiris district, between the ages of 8 to 11 years, studying in Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6. Eighteen participants in each school were interviewed, three boys and three girls each from Grades 3, 4 and 5. Data were collected through in-depth interviews with children in schools to explore their patterns of internet use, involvement, routine habits, socioeconomic parameters, purpose of internet use, frequency, location and gadgets of use, as well as the demographic aspects of age, gender, family type, and mother tongue. In the case of the Urban Elite School, group interviews were held with 33 participants—21 boys and 12 girls—in Grade 3, 32 participants—14 boys and 18 girls—in Grade 4, and 31 participants—13 boys and 18 girls—in Grade 5. The interview language was predominantly English, but in the case of the rural and government schools, the interviews were conducted in Tamil. In addition, computer lab sessions and multimedia or audiovisual sessions using smart boards (wherever implemented) were observed. The third tool for collecting data was a creative approach—drawing. Children were given a drawing sheet and asked to describe the internet, draw a picture of the internet, a picture of themselves doing a favourite activity, and a wish list. The drawings were sometimes a starting point for the interviews with the participants. They also helped reveal their perceptions of computers and the internet.
Internet use and socioeconomic background
Although the study focussed on children’s patterns of internet use, in the course of the study it became evident that the pattern of access and use is influenced by the home background of students, which in turn influences the type of schools they attend. Therefore, the findings on pattern of access and use of internet are discussed on the basis of school types and interpreted through the socioeconomic perspective. There are three groups of schools based on students’ socioeconomic background:
- Group 1: The Urban Elite School, the Rural Elite School, and the Elite Residential School
- Group 2: The City Public School and the Valley School
- Group 3: The Village Public School, the Community School, and the Hill School
The pattern of internet use is analysed by differences in the socioeconomic conditions at home, both within-group differences and between-group differences.
Group 1 consists of the Urban Elite, Rural Elite and Elite Residential Schools. All the three schools are private, English-medium schools. Student participants of Group 1 schools come from upper- and upper-middle class homes. The parents of students in the Urban Elite School are either professionals (like doctors, architects and teachers), industrialists or entrepreneurs. Similarly, parents of students in the Rural Elite School are engaged in three occupations—working professionals (banking, medical profession), business and trading community (who live in the city) and agricultural landowners (who live in the rural areas). The family background of the student participants in the Elite Residential School can be categorised as follows: a) Business, b) Employed in senior positions in the corporate sector, and c) Professionals. Twelve of the 18 participants come from business families from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, one girl is an NRI, and two participants were children of teachers at the school. In all three schools, the parents of student participants are post-graduates, while a few are graduates. The mothers of the student participants are mostly homemakers, a few are into business, and some are working professionals. The perception that the schools are good and provide “quality education” is the motivation for sending students to these schools.
In these homes, computers are a part of everyday life. The families own computers, and parents use them frequently for communication and business. Computers are placed in the study, library or bedrooms, and not in common spaces, conveying a message of seriousness and privacy in the use of computers. Parents or siblings have taught the student participants to use computers and the internet and they share computer time for a variety of purposes. The children also witness parents using computers for shopping and social networking.
Technology is central to students’ leisure time in the Urban Elite School, dominating most of their leisure activities and school activities. Their aspirational list consists of technology-related objects. This centrality of technology is not observed in the lives of students of the Rural Elite School or Elite Residential School, although they too place enormous value on computers and internet and use them widely. The leisure activities of students of the Rural Elite School and Urban Elite School are divided between activities using and not using technology. Non-technology activities consist of boys playing outdoor games and girls playing indoor games. Digital activities include playing games and solving puzzles on computers. Engagement with reading is negligible at the Urban Elite School, whereas reading is a frequent practice at the Elite Residential and Rural Elite Schools. Their aspiration list, regardless of gender, is a mix of gadgets (PlayStations, smart phones and tablets) as well as toys, story books, eatables and so on.
In these three schools, students are comfortable using computers and internet and are active users. Students have access to the internet on a daily basis. Their schools are also technology-rich. They have a well-furnished computer and internet lab and multimedia classrooms. The Urban and Rural Elite Schools encourage students to use computers at home to learn from the internet and gather information for homework and project work. The Elite Residential School encourages the use of the internet for projects, homework, presentations and communicating with parents, siblings and friends through email.
At the Urban and Rural Elite schools, the leisure time of students is spent on the internet, downloading games, music, and visiting sports-related websites. At the Elite Residential School participants use the internet to pursue hobbies such as automobiles, sport or travel. This school does not allow the use of internet for games, music and movies. Students of this school use internet for these purposes during their visits home during the vacations.
Students at the Urban and Rural Elite Schools also use the internet to shop for toys, books, schoolbags and accessories, with the help of parents. The use of the internet for shopping is very low at the Elite Residential School. Since the participants are on the residential campus, their opportunities for shopping online are limited. Even though these students are from upper-income families, shopping online is limited even when they are at home. Only three participants in Grade 6 have experience with shopping online and that too in the presence of parents.
Parents and siblings are major influencers for first-time internet use. They encourage the use of the internet for school-related activities. They also mentor students in the use of technology and shape the use of technology. In cases where parents use the internet for shopping, children also tend to follow. The gender groups do not differ in the use of technology.
The schools differ in the frequency with which the internet is used. Students of the Urban Elite School use the internet with high frequency compared to other schools. At the Rural Elite School, within school spaces students use the internet after obtaining permission from teachers and sometimes under the supervision of teachers. This limits the frequency of use. At the Elite Residential School, while the school helps the children create email ids, it does not encourage playing games on the internet, and social media sites are blocked. This again limits the use of the internet within school spaces.
There are a few differences in the pattern of computer and internet use. Students of the Urban Elite School have access to a variety of technology resources such as smart phones, laptops, PlayStations, videogames and tablets, and for most of them Google, gaming sites and YouTube are favourite websites. Students of the Rural Elite School are digitally skilled, and use search engines to locate text and images for learning. They do not have access to a variety of digital resources like students of the Urban Elite School.
Another difference in the pattern of internet use is that students of the Urban Elite School in Grades 4 and 5 have Facebook accounts. In fact, students have faked their age to register. Regardless of gender differences, Facebook is their favourite website. Their awareness of Facebook comes from their parents’ frequent use of this social network whereas the use of Facebook is not prevalent among students of the Rural Elite or Elite Residential Schools. Students of the Urban Elite and Elite Residential Schools have email accounts. While students of the Elite Residential School use it for communication, students of the Urban Elite School use it for chatting with friends and relatives in addition to communication.
Group 2 consists of the City Public and Valley Schools. Both are English-medium schools. The City Public School is a government school and the Valley School is a private school. Students who come to these schools are from the middle and lower-middle socioeconomic background. Their parents are graduates, post-graduates, or have completed education up to Grade 10. In most cases, the mothers are homemakers. At the Valley School, students largely belong to the better-off Badaga community (a tribal community and one of the five traditional hill groups of the Nilgiris). Their parents work as farmers (mostly in Ooty) and a few are teachers in government Tamil-medium schools. Some students are from the Monpa tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (parents live in Ooty) and the others are from Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking families whose parents are employed. The motivation for sending children to these schools is aspirational, since they offer education in the English medium.
Seventeen of the 18 participants at the City Public School own a computer at home and have internet connectivity. Their parents also use the internet. Seven of the 18 student participants at the Valley School have computers and internet at home, and have used them. While students of the City Public School have their first glimpse of computers at home, most of the students of the Valley School have their first glimpse at a relative’s house or in school.
The drawings of students depicting how they spend their leisure time show that most of the leisure time of students at the City Public School and Valley School is spent outdoors. The drawings of students of the Valley School depict greenery and hills. For the students of the City Public School, besides watching television, doing homework (one student goes for tuitions) and reading, the leisure time of boys is spent playing football, basketball, cricket and swimming, and of girls in playing basketball, badminton, and swimming. Some girls also help their mothers in domestic work. They play games on mobile phones and their wish list consists of both digital and non-digital objects.
These differences in owning computers at home are mirrored in the use of internet and computers at school. When asked to describe the internet and draw a picture of it, all the participants at the City Public School except a girl in Grade 3 could draw and describe the internet. The visuals of both boys and girls mostly showed a computer screen, keyboard, mouse, laptop, internet data card, internet screen showing the Google search page and pen drive. Students at the Valley School have a different perception of the internet. For Grade 3 and Grade 4 students, the computer and internet are synonymous. They do not differentiate between the two.
The City Public School encourages students to use the internet at home. They use the internet for projects and schoolwork. “Doing schoolwork” typically means searching for information or pictures, downloading and pasting, and most of the participants in all grades said they take pictures for EVS (environmental science). However, these students mostly use computers to get information on their interest areas like sports or movies and Google and Yahoo are their favourite websites. Within school spaces, they use the computer and internet in the lab for information search or project work.
In contrast to this pattern of use, Grade 3 students of the Valley School have seen their teachers draw using the draw tool but have not used it themselves. Three Grade 4 boys say they have used computers for drawing in school. Boys use the internet predominantly for entertainment while girls tend to use it for gathering information. This implies that some gender difference exists in the case of Valley School students. This is in contrast to the City Public School, where all student participants used the internet for information and entertainment, irrespective of gender.
Students of the City Public School have email accounts and interact with friends through email, Skype and chat. None of the Valley School student participants have an email account or use the internet for communication. Students of the Valley School are aware of Facebook but do not have Facebook accounts. They do not use the internet for shopping either. The City Public School presents a different picture. Six of the 18 participants use the internet for shopping with the help of their parents. It is pertinent to note that this use is slightly more than the use in the Rural Elite School. The parents of the City Public School students can be categorised as the “new rich”, with an increase in income and spending power. Given this, it is not surprising that use of the internet for shopping is higher for City Public School students compared to students of the Rural Elite School.
The third group comprises three schools—the Community School, Village Public School and Hill School. Tamil is the medium of education in these schools. While the Village Public School is a government school, the Community School and the Hill School are aided schools. Students going to these three schools are from the lower socioeconomic strata. Of the three schools, children going to the Community School are relatively better-off than the students of the Village Public School or Hill School. Their parents are goldsmiths, drivers, painters and plumbers. Most parents of students of this school and of the Village Public School are school dropouts. Parents of children from the Village Public School were daily wagers working at farms, workshops or on construction sites, and they were not employed throughout the year. Children studying at the Hill School came from very poor neighbourhoods and their parents were labourers, except for one boy in Grade 5 whose father is a farmer. Another feature is that both the parents are employed. The mothers of children at the Community School were engaged in cottage industry jobs, which they did at home. Mothers of children going to the other two schools also worked as daily labourers.
The parents of Group 3 schools share a similar motivation for educating their children. They sent their children to school because of access to free education, midday meals, uniforms and books. Parents of the Community School saw education as enabling their children to take up “office jobs”. Parents of the Hill School students see schools as a safe place for their children where they are taken care of while the parents are at work.
None of the students at the three schools had computers at home. Computers did not figure in their list of priorities, given their socioeconomic conditions. They did not consider the computer a necessity, nor did they value it. The parents of students of the Village Public School owned mobile phones and almost all homes had a television but not computers. All students were aware of computers because they were available at their school, but only two of the 18 Village Public School participants studying in Grade 5 were aware of the internet. None of the participants were aware of social networking sites. They had seen computers for the first time at a relative’s house. Students of Grade 5 used computers for drawing, though none of the girls had used the computer. Two boys in Grade 5 used computers at a relative’s house to play games.
Students of the Hill School were inclined towards computers. Several relatives and friends of these students owned laptops, thanks to the Free Laptop scheme launched by the state government in September 2011.1
The leisure time activity of student participants in these three schools is mainly outdoor games, homework and television (students of the Hill School did not have TVs in their homes). Girls, particularly the older ones (studying in Grade 5), help with domestic work such as washing dishes, sweeping and chopping vegetables. Technology-related activity is limited to playing games on mobile phones.
The pattern of using computers and internet reflected these differences. Students of the Hill School were aware of the computer in Grade 5 but not in Grade 3. This awareness comes from talking to older siblings, and seeing computers owned by their friends and cousins. They were also aware that computers and internet are used for learning as well as entertainment. Among students of the Village Public School, most of those in Grade 5 are aware of the internet but not of social networking sites. In Grade 3, this awareness is limited to computers. Teachers of Grade 3 students had taught them to draw on computers but students themselves did not use this function. In Grade 4, five boys but no girls had used computers for drawing. The boys had also used computers at their relatives’ homes and played games.
Among students of the Village Public School, there is a marked lack of awareness of computers. The difference becomes sharper when we consider that the Hill School is more geographically remote than the Village Public School, and yet students have some awareness of the internet. This suggests that computer awareness comes not just from home and school but from other spaces that students frequent (for instance, friends’ and relatives’ homes). Students of the Community School are aware of computers and most of them are aware of the internet, having used it to watch movies at a relative’s house. An important finding is that although the Community School is located within city limits and the Village Public School is in a remote area, internet awareness is more widespread among students of the Village Public School than among students of the Community School. This suggests that awareness of computers and the internet may not be only through school but from other spaces that children inhabit like neighbours’ or relatives’ homes.
The findings of the study indicate that the pattern of internet use is majorly influenced by the socioeconomic ethos in the family rather than whether the school is private or government or aided. The influence of the private or government or aided school is mediated by the home background. It is also influenced by the medium of education, but the influence of medium of education is subordinated to the socioeconomic conditions at home. This implies that digital inequity is a layered concept. Socioeconomic disadvantages are accentuated by the type of school the student goes to, and the medium of education. Together, these factors perpetuate digital inequities. These findings are important from a policy perspective because they show that access and use are important, but not the only factors to consider when addressing digital inequities.
Language, along with home background, acts as a barrier to effective use of the internet, as communication in regional languages is important for social inclusion and expression of cultural identities, especially when the medium of instruction in some schools is not English. The fact that the dominant language on the internet is English and not regional languages, barring a few exceptions like the Tamil educational website www.kalvisolai.com, exacerbates the existing inequalities.
When we look at gender dynamics in the use of internet, there is almost no gender difference in the pattern of accessing and using computers and internet. There appears to be a slight disparity between boys and girls in the Group 3 school, the Village Public School. But this could be because of differences in socio-cultural influences in upbringing in these homes. There is also a slight difference in perception among gender groups in use of internet. For boys at the Village Public School, the internet is perceived as a means of entertainment, whereas girls perceived it as a means of information. Gender dynamics are at play in the nature of websites visited and the use of the internet for entertainment and the kind of games played by boys and girls.
Another finding that merits attention is that ownership of gadgets creates new hierarchies, and these digital gadgets (besides the computer with internet connectivity), such as tablets, PlayStations and smart phones, are increasingly being associated with status and prestige. Home spaces are being transformed into digital environments with WiFi connectivity and access to the internet on mobile phones. This is more so in the case of the Urban Elite School. One needs to be cautious about computers and internet taking over the school and home space. While it is important that computers play an important role in these spaces, it is equally important that this be balanced with outdoor and indoor games, reading and social activities not related to digital technology. Thinking along this direction, one finds that while the use of computers and the internet is integral to the lives of children studying at the Rural Elite and Elite Residential schools, this is not achieved at the cost of other activities, which is the case with the Urban Elite School. What we need is a balance between the two. Such a view demands that ICT policy be integrated into the larger educational policy rather than being a standalone.
The internet exists within a capitalist world driven by profit-seeking and dominated by a powerful consumer culture, and researchers have coined the terms “cyber capitalism”, “digital imperialism”, “new elite digerati” and “digital subaltern” to reflect the disparities that exist in present times (Kumar 2004; Pieterse 2010; Gajjala and Birzescu 2011; Gajjala 2013). There is an undoubtable influence of other cultures in the digital games being played as well as the resources available to the children and brand names such as Google and YouTube are now household names. The use of gadgets, the practice of receiving them as gifts, and the children’s aspirations for gadgets indicates that the tablet, smart phone and related devices are becoming social accessories. However, there appears to be little emphasis on using the internet in more creative ways, to stimulate curiosity and problem-solving abilities and increase lateral knowledge beyond the classroom. How technology and the internet can be used to enhance the quality of access and create opportunities for interaction, originality and creativity needs to be explored more actively by both parents and teachers.
Sudha Venkataswamy has a PhD from the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This paper is based on her PhD thesis titled “Digital Opportunities and Disparities: Children, School Spaces and Internet Experiences.” Parts of this paper have been published as a journal article titled “Digital Access and Inequality among Primary School Children in Rural Coimbatore,” in Media Watch, Vol 6, No 1, 2015.
 The Tamil Nadu government sanctioned Rs 912 crore for free distribution of 9.12 lakh laptop computers to students studying in government and government-aided schools and colleges in 2011. The Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT) was entrusted with the task of finalising the specifications and procurement of laptops under this scheme. Students studying in government and government-aided schools and colleges and students in government and government-aided arts and science colleges, engineering colleges and polytechnics will be eligible under the scheme (http://www.tn.gov.in/go_view/dept/41).
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