Video games are important social arenas for children and adolescents in Norway. Playing video games is one of the most popular leisure activities (Medietilsynet, 2022) where young people can meet and hang out with their friends, have fun, learn new skills, feel a sense of belonging, relax, and explore.
In contrast to the positive aspects of video games, recent concerns have emerged about the understudied economic elements that children are required to navigate (e.g. Grimes, 2021). The literature highlights ongoing trends within the video game industry toward developing new revenue models through an increased sale of virtual products (Wardyga, 2023). New revenue strategies and in particular “dark patterns” have been argued as problematic. But what are dark patterns? How can they be researched and what do they look like? And what can be done about them?
The Norwegian Council (2022) writes that dark patterns, also referred to as manipulative design, aim to guide, deceive, or pressure consumers to make choices that are mainly beneficial for the business and not the consumer. The OECD (2022) uses a similar term which they term «dark commercial patterns». They describe them as an economic practice that uses elements of digital choice architecture to hinder or disrupt consumer’s choice, autonomy, and ability to make informed choices. This often intends to encourage the consumer to leave more time, money, and personal data in digital platforms than planned. In video games, this is also called «dark game design patterns” which are used intentionally by game developers (King & Delfabbrio, 2018).
Researching manipulative design in video games
In the “Pay-to-Play” project, manipulative design in video games was studied through a nethnographic approach. Specifically, three commercial video games that are popular among children and adolescents in Norway were mapped. This involved a mapping of the items for purchase and an analysis of the game interfaces related to purchasing. To better understand young people’s perspectives, 19 play-along interviews were conducted. The participants were aged 10-15 and lived in different parts of Norway.
What does manipulative design in video games look like?
In the games, thirteen manipulative design strategies were mapped. These were grouped into four major categories.
This illustrates that manipulative design can take many shapes and be combined with various techniques to make players spend more time and money than intended in video games. Yet, it should be noted that not all video games have (all) manipulative design strategies and sometimes it can be challenging to distinguish between manipulative and engaging design. Further, it should be noted that some video games have fair design or what can be called “anti-manipulative design”.
What to do about dark patterns?
As video games are an important social arena it is important to ensure that young people can safely navigate them. Here are three suggestions that might contribute towards this goal:
Increasing both parents and their children’s level of digital competence especially their critical consumer competence to better navigate unpleasant social encounters and manipulative design in video games.
There is a need for policymakers to regulate manipulative design to better protect consumer rights. As many popular commercial video game companies are international, we suggest that laws should be developed across national borders to ensure their effectiveness.
Further research is needed to gain a more detailed understanding of how manipulative design works in different games, which effect it has, and how it can be distinguished from engaging design.
Tesen var at unges tilhørighet til mennesker, steder, aktiviteter og ting i varierende grad forutsetter tilstrekkelig økonomi og tilgang til klær, utstyr og annet. Dersom disse økonomiske og materielle inngangsportene mangler, kan enkelte unge være villige til å begå lovovertredelser for å skaffe seg dem. Hvis så, kan økt kunnskap om unges tilhørighet bidra i utviklingen av mer effektive, politiske tiltak med mål om å redusere ungdomskriminalitet blant unge.
Ser en bort fra pandemiårene, har nemlig ungdomskriminaliteten økt i Oslo siden 2014. Hvorfor det er slik, vet vi lite om. Som tittelen tilsier, avgrenser oppgaven seg til å omhandle unges oppfatninger om lovovertredelser og deres årsaksforklaringer. Studien baserer seg på intervjuer av seks 16-18-åringer bosatt på Oslo øst. Etnisk/territoriell tilhørighet er blant årsaksfaktorene som studeres, ved siden av økonomi og sosial ulikhet, sosial status og anerkjennelse.
Studien viser at unges syn på lovovertredelser er et resultat av et komplekst samspill mellom økonomiske, sosiale og territorielle faktorer. Blant annet fremkommer det at lovovertredelser anses som normalt blant unge og at slike overtredelser i enkelte miljøer kan være en kilde til sosial status og anerkjennelse. Trang økonomi og sosial ulikhet bidrar til å legitimere lovovertredelser. Også stedstilhørighet synes å påvirke unges syn på lovovertredelser fordi den skaper et skille mellom «oss» og «de andre», blant annet mellom «dem som har for mye» (stort sett bosatt på vestkanten) og «dem som har for lite» (som regel bosatt på østkanten). Kiving om ressurser av mer eller mindre lovlydig art (f.eks. salg av narkotika) kan også forekomme blant territorielt forankrede grupperinger av unge på østkanten.
Children in Norway will have on average 1165 pictures of themselves on the Internet by the time they are 12 years old, according to UNICEF (2020). This shows that a lot of content is shared about children in Norway, often by their family members and friends. The practice of parents sharing information about their children is referred to as sharenting, a termderived from the words sharing and parenting. This practice is common both internationally and in Norway (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2017; Elvestad et al., 2021; Jorge et al., 2022; Otero, 2017). Analyzing sharenting from the perspective of both children and parents and bringing forth young people’s views is understudied (Lipu & Siibak, 2019; Verswijvel et al. 2019). Further, there is a lack of research in a Norwegian context (Bhroin et al., 2022).
The project “Sharenting – in the best interest of the child?” was conducted by Clara Julia Reich, Live Bøyum, Helene Fiane Teigen, and Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes, and the results build on the report they published (2023). The project aimed to fill the identified research gaps by conducting three focus groups and a workshop:
ten children aged 9-12;
seven adolescents aged 13-18;
nine guardians aged 34-47 and
a workshop where five parents brought along one child each to discuss sharenting.
Why do Norwegian parents share?
In the project, we found a variety of motivations behind why parents share. Parents mainly share to collect memories of valued moments, keep in touch with friends and families, show off their kids, and get feedback. Parents may also share to mark special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, or the first day at school.
What are the issues?
Children and adolescents are particularly worried about any potential negative effects on their lives from sharenting. They wish to control their own digital identities and are concerned about sharenting leading to bullying. The views on what “good” content is differ between children and their parents which can lead to conflicts. Moreover, parents and their children also acknowledged that sharenting can lead to risks due to the possibility of it being misused in criminal activities such as deepfakes, sexual abuse, or kidnapping. Further, the participants were worried about potential abuse of the shared content in the future. However, parents pointed out that they do not want to harm their children and have good intentions when sharing.
How to improve sharenting?
Children and adolescents want to be asked for consent before parents share content about them. They would like to know what, with whom, and where content about them is shared. Further, children and adolescents would like their parents to ask for their consent from an early age and wish that their parents respect their boundaries when they disapprove of sharing. The young participants also suggested a need to increase their parents’ digital competence, for instance through school programs in Norway. Further, they wish to reduce the amount of sharing to a few selected special moments.
Clara Julia Reich, Live Standal Bøyum, and Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes are all Ph.D. candidates at Consumption Research Norway and have an interest in digitalization and everyday lives.
Blum-Ross, A., & Livingstone, S. (2017). “Sharenting,” parent blogging, and the boundaries of the digital self. Popular Communication, 15(2), 110-125.
Bhroin, N. N., Dinh, T., Thiel, K., Lampert, C., Staksrud, E. & Olafsson, K. (2022). The Privacy Paradox by Proxy: Considering Predictors of Sharenting. Media and communication (Lisboa), 10(1S2), 371-383. Doi: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v10i1.4858.
Elvestad, E., Staksrud, E. & Ólafsson, K. (2021). Digitalt foreldreskap i Norge. Institutt for medier og kommunikasjon, UiO/Universitetet i Sørøst-Norge
Lipu, M. and Siibak, A. (2019). ‘“Take it down!”: Estonian parents’ and preteens’ opinions and experiences with sharenting’, Media International Australia, 170(1), 1–11. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X1982836
Elvestad, E., Staksrud, E. & Ólafsson, K. (2021). Digitalt foreldreskap i Norge. Institutt for medier og kommunikasjon, UiO/Universitetet i Sørøst-Norge.
Jorge, A., Marôpo, L., Coelho, A. M., & Novello, L. (2022). Mummy influencers and professional sharenting. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 25(1), 166–182.Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/13675494211004593
Otero, P. (2017). Sharenting… should children’s lives be disclosed on social media. Arch Argent Pediatr, 115(5), 412-413.
UNICEF (2020). 6 råd om deling av bilder av barn. Hentet fra: https://www.unicef.no/norge/oppvekst/eksponering-av-barn-i-sosiale-medier/rad-tilforeldre.
Verswijvel, K., Walrave, M., Hardies, K., & Heirman, W. (2019). Sharenting, is it a good or a bad thing? Understanding how adolescents think and feel about sharenting on social network sites. Children and Youth Services Review, 104, 104401. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104401
Children spend more and more time in school. By the turn of the 20th century, many countries had made schooling compulsory, as mass schooling had accompanied the industrial revolution (Leonard, 2016). In Norway, there has been a drastic increase in yearly teaching hours from 6,904 in 1997 to 7,686 in 2022 (Moen, 2023). This is both due to the enrollment of six-year-olds in school in 1997, lowering the starting age by one year, and due to the average school day consisting of more teaching hours. This development has led to Norwegian children spending five times as much time in various educational institutions before they turn ten, compared to 40−50 years ago (Nordahl, 2012).
A feature of late modernity is its high degree of dynamism, characterized by rapid change, growth, and innovation brought about by cumulative social, technological, and cultural acceleration (Rosa et al., 2016). This ever-increasing production and consumption, demand an acceleration in knowledge. As a lack of education can bar someone from the labor market, schools have evolved from a selection system for some and a retention system for many to a selection system for all (Frønes, 2018). Never before have more individuals dedicated so much time, resources, and energy to becoming educated, as in this “schooled society” (Baker, 2014). The downfall of late modernity’s high pace is desynchronization, causing individual burnout.
The core goal of the education system is to prepare children for their future, as an investment in human capital. A sense of belonging in school has been found to have a positive impact on academic achievement (Hodges et al., 2018; Slaten et al., 2016), being an important predictor of future outcomes. When spending as much time during childhood in school, belonging also matters for how children are doing in the present, not only a matter for the future. When school belonging is found to be decreasing (Allen et al., 2018; Bakken, 2023; OECD, 2019), this should be of concern both for children’s future and children’s lives in the present.
What is school belonging?
In 1993, Goodenow and Grady defined the term school belonging as: «the extent to which pupils feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment». Since then, school belonging has been described using various definitions and terminology, such as bonding, engagement, and connectedness (Allen et al., 2018). Goodenow and Grady’s definition emphasizes the multiple features of school belonging, and the various definitions tend to share three similar aspects:
(i) School-based relationships and experiences with peers
(ii) Pupil-teacher relationships
(iii) Pupil’s general feelings about school as a whole
These aspects do not simply exist within the individual. Previous research on school belonging has been focused on individual and personal factors, but recent years have highlighted the importance of understanding context (Allen et al., 2018). There is the influence of family, teachers, and peers, and the interactions between these people and the school’s social and organizational culture. Schools exist within a neighborhood, and external contexts influence school belonging. Parents’ workplace could both affect the family economy and how much time a child spends with their parents, and socioeconomic background and parent-child relationships are found to influence numerous aspects of children’s lives. The macrosystem brings in aspects from the development in society, understanding the school system not as an isolated institution, but as a part of this greater society. Policies, norms, and values are gradually shifting. A recent example of a temporal aspect that influences the system, and potential school belonging, is the COVID-19 pandemic. The policies and restrictions in this regard changed everyday life almost overnight, and after some time these restrictions were repealed, changing it again.
Studies find that school belonging is connected to several arenas in children’s lives, both in the present and in the future. It can affect well-being and mental health, as studies find it connected to reducing depression and anxiety (Allen et al., 2018; Shochet et al., 2011), and Parr et al. (2020) even find it to be the largest known correlate with adolescent depression. It’s also been found to increase life satisfaction, trust, and tolerance of others (O’Connor et al., 2011), and diminish doctor’s visits and chronic health conditions later in life (Caspi et al., 2006). Regarding school, it has been found to have a positive impact on academic achievement (Hodges et al., 2018; Slaten et al., 2016), being an important predictor of future well-being. As these are only a selection of studies that find school belonging in connection to other aspects of life, this clearly states the importance both for children’s well-being in the present and in the future.
Decreasing school belonging
Since PISA started measuring school belonging in 2003, it has shown a decrease (OECD, 2019). On average, one in four adolescents have low levels of school belonging (Allen et al., 2018). In Oslo, the same trends are found in the Ungdata survey among pupils in secondary school and high school. The first aspect (i) of school belonging can be measured by the claim “I feel like I fit in among the pupils at school”, which has decreased from 87 % in 2015 to 81 % in 2023. The second aspect (ii) can be measured by the claim “my teacher cares about me”, has decreased from 88 % to 80 % in the same years, and third (iii) “I enjoy school” has decreased from 95 % to 88 % (Bakken, 2023). As the variables that relate to school belonging positively have decreased, the variables related negatively have had a similar increase in the Ungdata survey. Pupils agreeing with “I often dread going to school” has increased from 16 % in 2015 to 26 % in 2023 (Bakken, 2023). Although research has found that school belonging significantly declines during adolescence, there is less research trying to explain this downfall.
One possible key to understanding the decrease in school belonging could be through a better understanding of why school-related stress is increasing. School-related stress is very widespread among young people (Haug et al., 2020), and the experience of stress depends on socioeconomic conditions (Frydenberg et al., 2017). A study from Sweden shows that the decline in school belonging was driven by students from disadvantaged social backgrounds, low-achieving students, and foreign-born students (Högberg et al., 2021). The authors of this study emphasize the fact that the decline coincided with a major educational reform, characterized by an increased use of summative evaluation, and an overall stronger performance orientation. How pupils manage stress and regulate emotions depends on their social and emotional skills. This skill is not something that simply pupils possess but is affected by contexts and processes of interactions and relationships. This increased stress, categorized as negative stress, is of concern in schools, as this is put in the context of increased testing in schools, increasing involuntary school absences, and general increases in mental problems among pupils.
Modern society is speeding up, but the motor of this acceleration is not human desire alone, it’s a systemic necessity. The downfall of this acceleration is desynchronization, causing individual burnout. There is a knowledge gap in the research explaining the reasons for declining school belonging, and one key to understanding this could be the increased stress. Given that children spend a significant amount of their childhood in school, it is crucial to comprehend the concept of decreasing school belonging to bring resonance into children’s lives in the present, as well as in the future.
Author’s bio: Mathilde Bjørnset is a PhD Candidate in Educational Sciences at Oslo Metropolitan University and a researcher at the Department for Youth Research at NOVA. In her PhD, she investigates school belonging and well-being through Ungdata Junior, a nationwide survey among middle schoolers in Norway (5.-7.th grade).
Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What Schools Need to Know About Fostering School Belonging: a Meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1-34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8
Baker, D. P. (2014). The schooled society: the educational transformation of global culture. Stanford University Press.
Bakken, A. (2023). Ung i Oslo 2023. Ungdomsskolen og videregående skole. (NOVA-rapport, Issue. 6/23.
Caspi, A., Harrington, H., Moffitt, T. E., Milne, B. J., & Poulton, R. (2006). Socially Isolated Children 20 Years Later: Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160(8), 805-811. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.160.8.805
Frydenberg, E., Martin, A. J., & Collie, R. J. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning in Australia and the Asia-Pacific. Perspectives, Programs, and Approaches. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-3394-0
Frønes, I. (2018). Den krevende barndommen. Om barndom, sosialisering og politikk for barn. Cappelen Damm Akademisk.
Haug, E., Robson-Wold, C., Helland, T., Jåstad, A., Torsheim, T., Fismen, A.-S., Wold, B., & Samdal, O. (2020). Barn og unges helse og trivsel: Forekomst og sosial ulikhet i Norge og Norden (HEMIL-rapport 2020. Institutt for helse, miljø og likeverd – HEMIL. Universitetet i Bergen, Issue.
Hodges, A., Cordier, R., Joosten, A., Bourke-Taylor, H., & Speyer, R. (2018). Evaluating the psychometric quality of school connectedness measures: A systematic review. PLOS ONE, 13(9), e0203373. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203373
Högberg, B., Petersen, S., Strandh, M., & Johansson, K. (2021). Determinants of Declining School Belonging 2000–2018: The Case of Sweden. Social Indicators Research, 157(2), 783-802. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-021-02662-2
Leonard, M. (2016). The Sociology of Children, Childhood and Generation. Sage: London.
Moen, O. M. (2023). Skolens omsorgssvikt (Vol. 2). Cappelen Damm AS.
Nordahl, T. (2012). Dette vet vi om klasseledelse. Gyldendal Akademisk.
O’Connor, M., Sanson, A., Hawkins, M. T., Letcher, P., Toumbourou, J. W., Smart, D., Vassallo, S., & Olsson, C. A. (2011). Predictors of positive development in emerging adulthood. J Youth Adolesc, 40(7), 860-874. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-010-9593-7
Parr, E. J., Shochet, I. M., Cockshaw, W. D., & Kelly, R. L. (2020). General Belonging is a Key Predictor of Adolescent Depressive Symptoms and Partially Mediates School Belonging. School Mental Health, 12(3), 626-637. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-020-09371-0
Rosa, H., Dörre, K., & Lessenich, S. (2016). Appropriation, Activation, and Acceleration: The Escalatory Logics of Capitalist Modernity and the Crises of Dynamic Stabilization. Theory, Culture & Society, 34(1), 53-73. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276416657600
Shochet, I. M., Smith, C. L., Furlong, M. J., & Homel, R. (2011). A prospective study investigating the impact of school belonging factors on negative affect in adolescents. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol, 40(4), 586-595. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2011.581616
Slaten, C. D., Ferguson, J. K., Allen, K.-A., Brodrick, D.-V., & Waters, L. (2016). School Belonging: A Review of the History, Current Trends, and Future Directions. Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2016.6
In August 2023, my colleague, Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes, and I published a SIFO report addressing male gamers’ (16-18 y.o.a.) relationship to loot boxes (Borch and Steinnes, 2023). Loot boxes can be defined as “mystery packages” of digital content in video games that give them advantages (e.g., skills like being stronger and running faster) or cosmetic items (e.g., a nice sword or shining armour) for use within the context of the game. Most loot boxes cost money. If so, gamers spend sums of money for a chance to receive a desirable reward (Forbrukerrådet (FR), 2022).
Young people and loot boxes
The report was financed by the Norwegian Media Authority (Mediatilsynet) with money reserved for gambling research. The funding must be seen in the context of a growing concern regarding the sale and marketing of loot boxes in games played by children and youth, especially on mobile phones (Steinnes, 2022). The first loot boxes were launched in 2004 (Vito, 2021). In 2020, the gross turnover of loot boxes was 15 billion US dollars (FR, 2022). In 2022, the estimated gross turnover had increased to 50 billion US dollars (Uddin, 2021). Children and youth are regarded as vulnerable consumer groups who need special protection by law (FR, 2022). Currently, national governments around the world discuss if and, if so, how lootboxes should be regulated. In Belgium and the Netherlands, loot boxes are perceived as a form of gambling and regulated accordingly (FR, 2022).
Findings from a Norwegian context
Special attention was in this report paid to the young gamers’ knowledge, experiences and attitudes associated with loot boxes, as well as their opinions about how loot boxes should be regulated by law. An observation from this study is that gamers have high knowledge about loot boxes and that this knowledge primarily is based on their own experiences as gamers obtained without guidance from adults. Most gamers bought their first loot box at the age of 12 and became more critical of loot boxes as they got older. From their point of view, loot boxes should not be forbidden, but more strictly regulated. For example, an age limit should be set, and the loot boxes should be bought with real money rather than in-game currency. When paying for loot boxes, it should be more difficult to use the bank account number of their parents without their consent, and the extra sum that often remains after loot boxes are bought should be forbidden as the money only can be spent on more loot boxes. The loot boxes’ use of gambling mechanisms to trigger sales is easily recognizable. Among others, the gamers do not know what they get. Whether they win or lose, they are predicted to play more, respectively to exploit their winning luck, or to win back some of the loss. The excitement of buying loot boxes increases over time (it takes up to 10 seconds to open a loot box), and many loot boxes are designed to create a “near-winning”-illusion triggering gamers to try once again if they lose.
Belonging and loot boxes
However, as a “belonging researcher”, I was not primarily struck by the gamers’ knowledge and opinions about loot boxes, nor the obvious gambling mechanisms underpinning them. No, what struck me most were the social aspect and the strong motivation to belong that seemed to lay behind the young gamers’ purchase of loot boxes. I have never bought a loot box myself. Nor am I a gamer. Before we did the research, I had the understanding that gamers primarily played and, hence, bought loot boxes because they wanted to be entertained and/or to compete. Now, I got the impression that they, ultimately, did it to belong to other gamers – mostly friends they also met in their physical lives. In gaming theory, games are often categorized as either multi-player or single-player, in which the former games are played together with others and the latter are played alone. Symptomatically, loot boxes are only offered in multi-player games. If they were offered in single-player games, very few would buy them because they have no one to show their new skills or looks to. To belong, people need to be visible to others (Pugh, 2009). From this point of view, gamers may buy loot boxes to become visible to others either by showing them that they possess the same skills and cosmetics as them. For some, having the same skills or cosmetics is not enough. They need better skills or better cosmetics, either because they want a higher position in the group, or because they think they need to be better to deserve a position in the group at all. In the latter case, being better is not necessarily a sign of self-esteem and strength, but rather the opposite.
Games as social arenas
Games are not only a social arena in which gamers meet friends. They are also arenas about which people can socialize by being a common topic of conversation. The research on young gamers was based on focus group interviews. Researching young men in potentially unwell situations like this is not always easy. In this case, however, it was. Seldom have young people talked more freely and engaged in focus groups. At one point in the conversation, I asked them if gaming is “the new football” in the sense of being a topic for conversation about which all can talk, for example when eating lunch at the canteen. The answer was something like “We know what you mean. Yes, but no. It isn’t that wide yet”. If gaming is “almost football”, gaming has the potential to become a common cultural phenomenon with the power of binding people together and thereby be one of many components building cultures that go far beyond that of a game or a group of friends. Loot boxes may not be a key component in these conversations, but definitely part of it. For this reason, the role of loot boxes in society should not be underestimated. A report from the Norwegian Media Authority (2022) shows that children start gaming in early age. 9-10 y.o.a. 95% boys and 88% girls report that they are gaming. This indicates that gaming plays an important role in children’s everyday life. For most children, loot boxes represent an innocent introduction to gambling-like entertainment. Further for some children, however, they may be the first stepping stone to a long career as “gambling addicted”. It makes me sad thinking about the possibility that it, ultimately, was the children’s fundamental need to belong that released this career – triggered by innovative gaming businesses exploiting their vulnerability as (minor) human beings, and by politicians letting them do so.
Anita Borch er prosjektleder av Belong-prosjektet. Hun er utdannet sosiolog ved Universitetet i Oslo og tok sin doktorgrad ved Universitetet i Helsinki. Borch er i dag ansatt som forsker I ved SIFO. Hun har jobbet med en rekke tema, blant annet kjøpestopp, matsikkerhet, energiforbruk i hjemmet, julegavegiving, forbrukerkunnskap blant unge, økonomisk likestilling, digitale medier og barn og reklame.
Borch, A. and Steinnes, K. K. (2023) Unges forhold til kjøp av overraskelsespakker (lootboxes) i dataspill. SIFO-Rapport 4 – 2023. Forbruksforskningsinstituttet SIFO OsloMet – storbyuniversitetet.
Forbrukerrådet (2022) Insert coin. How the gaming industry exploits consumers using loot boxes. Forbrukerrådet, 31.5.2022.
Medietilsynet (2022) Spillfrelste tenåringsgutter og jenter som faller fra. Slik gamer barn og unge. Barn og Medier 2022. November 2022.
Pugh, A. (2009) Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture. University of California Press, Berkley, CA.
Pugh, A. (2010) Distinction, boundaries or bridges?: Children, inequality and the uses of consumer culture. Poetics, 39, 1-18.
Steinnes, K. K. (2022). “Free to play – pay to win”: How games are designed to incentivize consumption of virtual goods in-game. Submitted manuscript.
Uddin, S. (2021). Loot the children: The need to regulate predatory loot box mechanics in video games that target young audiences. Family Court Review 59(4): 870-885.
Vito, J. (2021) The Evolution of Loot Boxes, Crates, and UT Cards, PSU.com. https://www.psu.com/news/the-evolution-of-loot-boxes-crates-and-ut-cards/
Television, digital devices, and the Internet have been part of our lives for a considerable time. Their relevance continues to grow, and there is no indication that this trend will slow down soon. Since the advent of television, families worldwide have grappled with common questions, such as:
When should children begin consuming screen media?
What constitutes suitable content for children, and how much screen time is appropriate?
What are the consequences of unsupervised technology use by children?
Can children develop technology “addiction”?
What educational value can children derive from their use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)?
New developments and ambiguities
During the 2010s, three interconnected developments have increased the significance of such questions for families: First, the introduction of portable touchscreen devices has enabled children to engage with ICTs long before they acquire reading and writing skills. These mobile devices can be used in various settings, both inside and outside the home, such as in the backseat of a car, at a restaurant, or in a waiting room.
Second, an explosion in the development of learning applications and software for all age groups has greatly expanded the opportunities for children’s educational ICT use. This growth offers nearly limitless possibilities for accessing tailored content to suit individual needs. Third, both the educational and occupational systems increasingly require (and foster) the use of ICTs. In combination with ICT-related societal debates (e.g., around fake news), there has emerged a widely accepted social imperative for young people to become “digitally literate”.
As many qualitative studies have reported, parents often perceive high pressure around their children’s ICT use. Calls for fostering children’s digital literacy clash with moral panics around screen time and the dangers of social media and the Internet. Given these ambiguities and the increased salience of the issue, it is an exciting endeavor to investigate the different ways in which children use ICTs. In a way, such differences represent the answers that families give to the questions raised above, given the different contexts and circumstances that they are confronted with.
Children’s ICT (non-)use and their social context
Families are unequal, and so are their incorporations of technology into children’s lives. This contribution draws on recently collected survey data from Switzerland, a technologically advanced and wealthy country, where access barriers to ICT (the primary-level digital divide) have largely vanished. My research is focused on middle childhood (7-10 years).
In my exploration of the diverse types of ICT usage among Swiss 8-year-old children, a significant portion falls into the category of non-users. These children have limited interaction with ICTs beyond watching television. Are they simply late starters? To some extent, yes.
However, what makes them intriguing is that their circumstances differ significantly from the other children in my study: Their parents are more critical towards technology, less confident about their digital abilities and they own fewer digital devices. Importantly, the latter cannot be attributed to socioeconomic factors, as non-users tend to come from more, not less advantaged backgrounds. An interesting observation is that non-users frequently tend to be the oldest siblings. This suggests that how children grow up regarding ICTs is determined by a complex combination of influences.
Embracing new opportunities
In Switzerland, there appears to be a second group of children who embrace educational usage, while exploring the large diversity of use opportunities of digital media: They use learning apps and games, but also try out video calls, or take pictures and videos. Can these children be expected to be the digital elite of tomorrow? At least these children are mostly from very well-educated backgrounds, and their parents themselves are very confident about their own digital skills and optimistic about the educational opportunities of technology use for their children.
Finally, a relatively small group of children can be considered heavy users. They heavily engage with games and entertainment activities, but also with educational apps or games. Again, this use type is strongly related to children’s broader social context. Their parents are often low-educated, and they are less likely to pursue structured leisure activities, like attending sports clubs.
Complex technologies, complex inequalities
An interesting takeaway from a social inequality perspective is this: Yes, socioeconomic background matters, in making certain patterns of ICT use more likely. Regarding the use of educational apps and games, these differences resemble the patterns we have been observing in the past: Children in advantaged contexts tend to play video games less, watch more educational TV, and are more likely to use the computer to support schoolwork. However, when we only look at families with highly educated parents, there are very different ways of children’s ICT use, even on a very general level.
Beyond the digital divide
After the dismantling of most access barriers (the “primary-level digital divide”), the non-use of technology among pre-adolescent children has apparently changed from affecting the less privileged to being a matter of privilege. Arguably, this voluntary disengagement from ICT up to a certain age is in line with a larger development in the 21st century: Since (almost) everybody is connected all the time, being able to disconnect, either from time to time or in this case, up to a certain age, represents the new privilege.
Finally, children’s different ways of using ICT across all levels of parental education mirror the ambiguities around them: There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach in sight, and families lack the unambiguous expert guidance that they may sometimes wish for. Consequently, even the most advantaged families apply different strategies that work best in their individual circumstances.
To what extent these patterns hold for other geographical and societal contexts, remains to be studied. Swiss children tend to start very late with technology use in comparison to children in other countries. In any case, the world that today’s children grow up in is a world full of technology. How to prepare children best for life in this world is a difficult question, and the answers that families as the primary socialization institution give to that question, are fascinatingly varied. Whether certain answers will pay off more for children’s future educational and occupational outcomes, is an important research question to be addressed in the future.
Leo Röhlke is a Ph.D. student (Sociology) at the University of Bern, Switzerland. In his dissertation, he studies social inequalities in young people’s use of ICT, with a special emphasis on education and learning. As a member of the DigiPrim research team he investigates the ongoing digitalization of Swiss primary schools. He has previously worked on issues of family and educational sociology, with a focus on socioeconomic inequalities.
Bowles N (2018) The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected. NY Times, 26 October.
Camerini A-L, Schulz PJ and Jeannet A-M (2018) The social inequalities of Internet access, its use, and the impact on children’s academic performance: Evidence from a longitu-dinal study in Switzerland. New Media & Society 20(7): 2489–2508.
Hassinger-Das B, Brennan S, Dore RA, et al. (2020) Children and screens. Annual Review of Developmental Psychology 2: 69–92.
Helsper EJ (2021) The digital disconnect: The social causes and consequences of digital inequalities. Sage.
Hirsh-Pasek K, Zosh JM, Golinkoff RM, et al. (2015) Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Inter-est 16(1): 3–34.
Juhaňák L, Zounek J, Záleská K, et al. (2019) The relationship between the age at first computer use and students’ perceived competence and autonomy in ICT usage: A me-diation analysis. Computers & Education 141: 103614.
Kuntsman A and Miyake E (2022) Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement. University of Westminster Press.
Lareau A (2011) Unequal childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. University of California Press.
Livingstone S and Blum-Ross A (2020) Parenting for a digital future: How hopes and fears about technology shape children’s lives. Oxford University Press, USA.
Mollborn S, Limburg A, Pace J, et al. (2022) Family socioeconomic status and children’s screen time. Journal of Marriage and Family. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12834.
Oakes K (2022) What’s the right age to get a smartphone? BBC Future, 15 September.
OECD (2021) 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World.
Ollier-Malaterre A, Jacobs JA and Rothbard NP (2019) Technology, work, and family: Digital cultural capital and boundary management. Annual review of sociology 45(1): 425–447.
Stiglic N and Viner RM (2019) Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews. BMJ open 9(1): e023191.
van de Werfhorst HG, Kessenich E and Geven S (2022) The digital divide in online educa-tion: Inequality in digital readiness of students and schools. Computers and Education Open 3: 100100.
van Dijk JA (2020) The Digital Divide. Polity Press.
Jeg heter Signe Sveen Andresen, er 25 år og utdannet sykepleier siden 2021. Nå studerer jeg master i helsevitenskap, studieretning helsesykepleie ved OsloMet. Jeg blir ferdig utdannet helsesykepleier til jul 2023, og skal skrive masteroppgave våren 2024. Ved siden av studier tar jeg ekstravakter som sykepleier ved Oslo Universitetssykehus.
Hva skal du skrive masteroppgave om, og når skal den leveres?
Jeg skal skrive masteroppgave om helsesykepleiers rolle i fremming av skoletilhørighet blant skolebarn oppvokst i lavinntektsfamilier. Jeg skal intervjue helsesykepleiere som arbeider i skolehelsetjenesten i bydeler i Oslo med høy andel lavinntektsfamilier, om hvordan de arbeider med å fremme skoletilhørighet og å forebygge utenforskap. Masteroppgaven skal leveres i mai/juni 2024.
Hvorfor ble du interessert i temaet?
Under helsesykepleierstudiet har vi hatt mye fokus på sosial ulikhet i helse som en utfordring for folkehelsen i Norge. Særlig innad i Oslo er ulikhetene store over korte avstander. Betydningen av dette fremkommer blant annet i årets folkehelsemelding som har utjevning av sosiale ulikheter i helse som formål, samt i årets helsesykepleierkongress med tema «barn som vokser opp i lavinntektsfamilier».
Sosiale ulikheter i helse knytter seg til sosioøkonomiske forskjeller der de med høy utdanning og høy inntekt statistisk sett har bedre helse enn de med lav utdanning og lav inntekt. Det er også kjent at sosial ulikhet ofte går «i arv» og øker risikoen for psykiske plager og utenforskap. Skolen er i flere tilfeller utpekt som en viktig arena for utjevning av sosiale ulikheter, og her mener jeg at helsesykepleiere som arbeider i skolehelsetjenesten kan ha en avgjørende rolle. Helsesykepleiere arbeier helsefremmende og forebyggende rettet mot barn og ungdom, og fremming av skoletilhørighet vil være en sentral del av dette arbeidet.
Når jeg sier «tilhørighet», hva tenker du på da?
Jeg knytter det til det psykososiale og tenker umiddelbart på det å føle seg «hjemme», samt å oppleve å være en del av et fellesskap hvor man har en betydningsfull plass.
Belonging is often described as a feeling of being at home. In this blog post, I will explore this by looking at how smart home devices may affect this feeling among people who are not particularly invested in them. These are people who either live with someone who wanted the smart devices or have received them as a gift from other family members, but who express low interest in and/or low confidence with dealing with such devices beyond daily use. Drawing upon an ongoing study of everyday life with smart home technologies, I refer to these people as non-experts and will discuss how their troubleshooting routines reveal dynamics that may affect their sense of belonging at home.
Smart home devices refer to household appliances that can be connected to the Internet and communicate with other devices. Such as light bulbs, vacuums, digital assistants, speakers, and so on.
Digital technologies such as smart home devices require effort from people to manage and repair. In literature, this domestic tech work is often referred to as ‘digital housekeeping’, and the responsibility is often afforded to one person, most often a male dubbed the ‘expert’. However, technological malfunctions and disruptions are normal when living with technology and affect everyone who uses them – not just the one responsible for managing them. Trentmann (2009) further argued that disruptions could illuminate dynamics of everyday life that are otherwise difficult to spot. As such, I am using technological malfunctions as an entry point to look at how smart home devices may affect the sense of belonging of those who are not considered experts.
The non-experts encounter various issues with the technology on an almost daily basis, ranging from temporary loss of Wi-Fi or miscommunication with voice-controlled assistants to more complex interoperability issues. When facing such problems, non-experts had to pause what they were about to do and engage in troubleshooting. I have identified three main steps of non-experts’ troubleshooting routines, which are to identify the issue and a possible cause, performing by engaging with the technology to fix the issue, and if they are not able to do so; delegate the problem-fixing to someone else – either the expert in their family, a network of extended family and friends, or external actors such as the companies behind the products, internet providers and so on.
Material, relational, and cultural aspects of troubleshooting
The non-experts’ troubleshooting routines are shaped by material, relational and cultural dimensions.
The material dimension such as the design and infrastructure of smart home devices affect what and how non-experts can engage with them, often providing an easy interface for use but a complicated system for troubleshooting. Smart home devices have a substantial “black box” operating system, which the non-experts do not engage with and don’t fully understand. This makes it more difficult to locate a cause for the issues and disruption and thus to find a solution. The devices further receive software updates from time to time, changing them, which may generate new and unfamiliar issues. This does not allow the non-experts to gain expertise through routinization.
However, non-experts do have some knowledge and skills to draw upon when facing issues, and they can be creative and resourceful when dealing with smart home devices. They are not completely helpless, but when facing issues they cannot solve themselves, they are dependent on experts to help. This dependency brings me over to the relational dimension.
The work that non-experts engage in, is affected by the household composition and its social dynamics, making out a relational dimension. Giving someone a smart device means also providing them with digital housekeeping tasks. None of the non-experts had brought devices into their home themselves. It was either done by their partners or received as gifts. Moreover, tech enthusiasts tend to create a more complex home network with more devices from different providers, do-it-yourself, and customized solutions. This makes it more difficult for other household members who do not have the skills and knowledge about these solutions and how they work. The result may be that it makes them more dependent on the experts as they may encounter more issues that they cannot fix themselves. As such, being the tech expert at home comes with some power in terms of household control because they control the technology, while the non-expert may lose some of that control as household activities are entangled with smart home devices they are not fully mastering.
This could also result in one person, the expert, spending more time on domestic tech work, leaving more of the traditional housekeeping work to the remaining household members.
However, it is important to mention that this is a negotiation process, where the non-experts have the opportunity to affect what kind and how many devices they receive through for instance communication, expectations, and acceptance. In technology forums, for instance, is often talked about a “Wife Acceptance Factor”, which is the perception of what the tech enthusiasts’ partners will accept of technology.
A cultural dimension also plays a role in terms of gendered ideas about technology and home. Among the five non-experts in this study, there were four women, and two, including one man, belonged to a senior age group. As previously mentioned, these were the study participants that expressed low confidence with or low interest in the smart home devices. Although it could be coincidental, the fact that they represent women and seniors fits well into the gendered and generational perceptions of the home and technology. For instance, the home has traditionally been a female domain, while technology has been a masculine one. The technology industry is still predominantly masculine, making many of the technological devices less suited for women, and the elderly often find it more difficult to keep up with technological development than their younger counterparts. This is reflected in the uptake of smart home technologies, which is higher with young men than women and older age groups. Moreover, the tech expert is in literature most often identified as a man, which can be argued to enroll men into housekeeping through domestic tech work – but can also lead to a reinforcement of traditional gender roles as the remaining household members are left with more of the traditional domestic work.
As the non-experts’ daily doings often are entangled with or sometimes dependent on smart home devices, the technology malfunctions quite often, and the non-experts are not always to solve the issues themselves, they may at times be in a position where they are not able to perform their daily doings as they are used to or wish to do. This creates a dependency on the experts around them to perform simple everyday tasks, preventing them from asserting full agency at home. It may lead to a lack of familiarization, confidence, and ownership of the technology – which may affect their sense of belonging at home. As such, it is important to look at consumption and materials when exploring belonging.
The concept of belonging relates to a sense of place, identity, and relationships. It holds both positive associations, such as warmth, and security, and negative associations, like exclusion. Belonging is also relational and political, constructing boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. With this in mind, the analysis of the non-experts’ troubleshooting routines shows how this may affect their sense of belonging by excluding them from exerting full agency within their home, and further constructing boundaries between the non-experts and their expert counterparts. Those boundaries further represent asymmetric power relations in terms of agency and domestic control, and follow generational and gendered lines.
Helene Fiane Teigen is a Ph.D candidate at Oslo Metropolitan University, at Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) institute. In her doctoral project, she explores the role of smart home technologies in people’s daily lives. Her research interests include the materiality of technology, technology and social relations, privacy, gender, digital competencies, inequalities, and digital marketing.
Nagel, C. (2011). Chapter 7. Belonging. In V. J. Del Casino Jr, M. E. Thomas, P. Cloke, & R. Panelli (Eds.), A Companion to Social Geography (pp. 108–124). Trentmann F. (2009). Disruption is normal. Blackouts, breakdowns and the elasticity of everyday life. In: Shove E, Trentmann F, and Wilk R (eds) Time, Consumption and Everyday Life. Practice, Materiality and Culture. Oxford ; New York: Berg, pp. 67–84.
A while ago, an intense debate flared up between some of Sweden’s leading newspaper columnists. One of them started it all by questioning recurring statements about how children, in the wake of the ongoing inflation with increasing grocery costs as one of the outcomes, show up hungry to school after the weekends because underprivileged parents can´t afford to put enough food on the table. The columnist, also a well-known author, argued that even on a low budget it is perfectly possible – and even a parental responsibility – to prepare meals that are both cheap, nourishing, and filling. Therefore, according to the column, it is misleading to talk about these children’s predicament in terms of hunger per se . The reactions were loud, upset, and immediate. The columnist was accused of stigmatizing poor parents as less knowledgeable and of displaying ‘stone cold moralism’  by questioning if poor families in Sweden are really that poor, but also received some support from other columnists who saw many valid points in her arguments.
All in all, the debate boiled down to whether or not there are parents in Sweden who are so poor that they can’t afford to feed their children lentils and oatmeal, or if it in fact is an issue of parental inabilities in other respects. With a few exceptions, however, the arguments seldom addressed the fact that some Swedish kids, apparently, do not seem to get their basic needs fulfilled. We know from qualitative studies (see e.g. Ridge 2002; Fernqvist 2013) that children in poor households often take social responsibilities towards their parents and understate their needs in order to be less of a burden in financial terms, and it is therefore not unlikely that some children for this reason might eat less at home. An awareness of these kinds of strategies makes a discussion about how much a bag of rice costs and how long it lasts (which was also pedagogically presented to the readers in the column that started the debate) redundant as child poverty in welfare states is less a question of acute starvation and more about the complexities associated with being poor in a well-off context. This, and other nuances, was however rather absent in the recent debate, and now, a few weeks on, the issue seems to be off the agenda altogether.
The issue of child poverty has, at times, received some attention in media and the political debate in Sweden during the last decades. Save the Children Sweden publishes a bi-annual report on the prevalence of the problem and we therefore know that around 196 000 Swedish children live in households that can be defined as poor (Salonen, 2021). Statistics from the Swedish Enforcement Agency show that the number of children who are evicted yearly is slowly increasing. Nevertheless, discussions following e.g. Save the Children’s reports are often tainted with skepticism; is it possible to talk about poverty in a well-off country like Sweden? Isn’t it more a question of socioeconomic inequalities? Peer pressure in terms of consumption, where today’s children are spoiled rather than poor? As in the recent debate, it often seems to end up in a tug-of-war between morally laden opinions (often from opposite sides of the party-political spectrum) but poverty in general, and child poverty in particular, does not have a given place in media or political discourse. This may have something to do with a) that children’s everyday lives and the strategies they use to handle difficulties are less interesting on a whole, and b) a lack of consensus about how poverty in a welfare state in fact is experienced.
Poverty has historically been classified as either absolute, where ”the minimum sum on which physical efficiency could be maintained” (Rowntree 1946:102), or relative, where affected individuals lack ” the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies in which they belong” (Townsend 1979: 31). Is it, then, possible to talk about poverty in an overall prosperous welfare state like Sweden, where children are unlikely to starve but rather run the risk of being excluded among their peers due to material and social inequalities? Should we instead discuss it in terms of the right to consumption, and how this right is linked to different preconditions? Based on this vagueness, is it even possible to talk about welfare state poverty as a social problem?
Knowledge about how poor families manage everyday life has been obtained from several studies over the past decades (e.g. Harju, 2008; Fernqvist, 2013; Hjorth, 2019; Andersson Bruck, 2020), providing evidence that suggests that this issue should be getting more political attention, even in countries like Sweden. In the public debate, however, child poverty and its impact on children’s material and social conditions seem to be of less relevance. For example, the issue was virtually non-existent in the political campaigns leading up to the general election in 2022. Related issues such as e.g. segregation, increasing gang violence, and housing problems are slightly more visible, but there seems to be a reluctance to address persisting problems such as financial inequalities and child poverty. In this process, I would argue that the experiences of children and families living in poverty in Sweden – and how poverty in the Swedish welfare state should be tackled more systematically – remain rather invisible in political discourse. The occasional heated debate between prominent columnists does not change this in any substantial way.
Stina Fernqvist is an associate professor at the Department of Social Work at Uppsala University. Her research deals mainly with different aspects of economic hardship among children and families and institutional interactions in the context of the late modern welfare state. Stina holds a PhD in sociology.
Andersson Bruck, K. (2020). Child poverty in rich contexts: The example of Sweden. Global Studies of Childhood, 10(2), 95–105
Fernqvist, S. (2013). En erfarenhet rikare? [Rich in experience?] Uppsala: Uppsala university.
Harju, A. (2008). Barns vardag med knapp ekonomi. En studie om barns erfarenheter och strategier [Every day life with economic hardship. A study of children’s experiences and strategies]. Växjö: Växjö University Press
Hjort, T. (2019). Vad får en soffa kosta? [How much may a sofa cost?] In T. Hjort, K. Hollertz, H. Johansson, M. Knutagård, & R. Minas (Eds.), Det yttersta skyddsnätet [The last safety net] (pp. 153–178). Studentlitteratur
Ridge, T. (2002). Childhood poverty and social exclusion.From a child´s perspective. Bristol: The Policy Press B.
Rowntree, Seebohm (1946). Poverty and progress : a second social survey of York. London : Longmans, Green
Salonen, T. (2021). Barnfattigdom i Sverige: Årsrapport 2021. Stockholm: Rädda barnen [Save the children]
Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom : a survey of household resources and standards of living. Berkeley: University of California Press
Belonging is a sense of ease with oneself and with the surrounding world, often likened to a feeling of being ‘at home’. Many things can contribute to such a sense of ease: we can feel a sense of belonging to a variety of people, places and things. Belonging in other words has many dimensions. In my own work, I have thought of belonging as having three dimensions: relational, cultural and material.
Relational belonging is something that we feel towards other people, either as individuals or as groups. A person might have a sense of belonging to their family, their neighbourhood or their colleagues.
Cultural belonging refers to belonging at a more abstract level. This is belonging that we feel for example towards our nation or our ethnic group. What binds these groups together is not a personal tie but a shared language, history or outlook on the world. Cultural belonging is also expressed through shared rituals, such as celebrating Christmas, Diwali or Eid.
Material belonging is the sense of belonging that we have with the physical world that we inhabit. For example, we can have a sense of belonging for to particular objects (think for example of important keepsakes you have at home, or photographs of people dear to you), familiar foods or landscapes.
Belonging is thus a cognitive, emotional and embodied experience. It is something that we can, to a degree, consciously think about, rationalise and explain. The sense of belonging or not belonging evokes emotions of empathy, love, hate, revulsion and so on. We can experience belonging in our bodies, through our sense of smell, touch and sight. Because of this complexity of belonging, we are not always consciously aware of it and might find it difficult to explain why we feel a sense of belonging to particular places, situations or persons.
Indeed, I have argued that it is more difficult to see or notice belonging than not belonging. One explanation for this is that belonging is often a feeling that people take for granted and do not necessarily spend much time analysing. As a result, they can find it more difficult to put into words why exactly they belong. People are more likely to notice and therefore to consciously think about and puzzle through those experiences that seem out of the ordinary, such as when their sense of being at home is disturbed in some way. This is reflected in the fact that there exists much more research about people’s experiences of not belonging than about what they do feel a sense of belonging to.
Why should social scientists be interested in belonging?
For social scientists, belonging is an interesting focus of research for several reasons. Belonging tells us something important about a person’s sense of self, such as which groups they align themselves with and which values they espouse. For a relational sociologist such as myself, interested in how people interact with and relate to each other, belonging is a crucial element of being human. This is because humans are not isolated individuals but are instead social beings who grow up as part of groups such as families, friendship networks, religious groups or nationalities. The groups that we grow up in shape us in terms of how we think and how we act in the world. We learn who we are in relationships with others. For example, our parents teach us how to behave and reflect back to us what kind of person they understand us to be, and this, in part, comes to inform our sense of self. To say that humans are relational beings is to say that relationships are fundamental to who we are. What follows on from this is that a sense of belonging is fundamental to being human. Indeed, psychologists have deemed belonging to be a basic human need.
Importantly for social scientists, belonging is not just an individual feeling, but is a thoroughly social experience. This means that belonging is not a feeling that we can achieve on our own. We cannot simply choose to belong to a group, culture or nation. For a claim to belonging to be successful, it must be recognised by others in that group.
There is much important social science research that explores the experiences of groups whose claims to belonging in society have been denied. Examples are many: working-class people, sexual minorities, ethnic minority groups, migrants and refugees.
Whether claims to belonging are recognised or denied is important because this has real consequences for people’s lives. This is why belonging is a political issue. Groups whose claims to belonging are denied are more likely to experience marginalisation and stigmatisation, which can take violent form.
They might also find that they do not benefit from the redistribution of goods in society, meaning that a denial of belonging can have very real material consequences, for example in the form of inadequate housing or poverty. Those who are denied belonging might also find that they are barred from citizenship, which means they are not allowed to fully share in the tangible and intangible common goods to which citizenship ensures access. Who does and does not belong is thus a question of social justice.
Belonging is dynamic
Belonging is not something that once gained is forever there. Instead, a sense of belonging must be constantly negotiated and can wax and wane. A person’s sense of belonging will shift across their lifetime. One reason for this is that people’s relationship to the past, present and future can shift. I found in an analysis of how people of different ages wrote about their sense of belonging that younger people, who assumed they had decades of life ahead of them, tended to be future-oriented when thinking about belonging and spoke of belonging as something very much in the making.
In contrast, older people, who were aware of nearing the end of their lifespan, were more likely to think of belonging as something that they were at risk of losing, due for example to reducing physical and cognitive capacities or the death of peers. When talking about belonging, many older people understandably turned their gaze to the past, nostalgically reflecting on experiences of belonging long gone.
People’s sense of belonging can also shift because of broader social changes. This is exemplified by recent work by the American sociologist Michéle Lamont on hope. She has found that there are some previously marginalised groups towards which social attitudes have become more accepting, such as sexual minorities or people living with HIV. These are groups whose claims to belonging, for long denied, have become more successful over time.
While it is quite right that social scientists focus on the experiences of marginalised groups who lack a sense of belonging, because it is by understanding the mechanisms that create social inequalities that we can hope to ameliorate social injustices, I find Lamont’s work refreshing in its aim to understand how the conditions of marginalised groups can be improved and the ways in which groups previously excluded from a right to belong have successfully claimed belonging in society.
Vanessa May is Professor and Head of Sociology at the University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. Her research interests include the self, belonging, temporality, family relationships, migration and qualitative methods. Vanessa has published in a number of journals including Sociology, Sociological Review, Time & Society and British Journal of Sociology. She is the author of Connecting Self to Society: Belonging in a Changing World (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor of Sociology of Personal Life (2nd edition, Macmillan) and has a forthcoming book Key Concepts: Families (Polity) out in November 2023.