Young people are often seen to be frequently online or on their phones, rapidly speeding through online content and flicking through digital apps with ease (Gardner & Davis, 2013). Accessing the internet on the go, in the privacy of a bedroom and simultaneously across different digital devices. However, this depiction of young people speeding online excludes experiences of young people with disabilities, as their uptake of digital media devices is lower, and they spend less time online in comparison to able bodied young people (Ofcom, 2013). Disability is said to place young people in a slower lane, where they require assistive technologies to access digital media devices and move online (Söderström, 2013).
In our study (Kaur et al, 2017), we explored how young people with physical disabilities moved in and between digital media and found significant differences, which shed light to inequalities in digital media use from a different angle. As virtual travel takes place alongside manual bodily movements (Moores, 2014) we followed the everyday embodied media practices that often go unnoticed (picking up a digital device, scrolling, tapping and clicking) and the number of times these repeated movements take place. We found integral to moving in and between digital media is the way in which this experience unfolds at a quick or slow pace with moments of being immobile.
One of our participants, we call him Scott, behaved much like we would expect many able-bodied young people to do. Lying comfortably on his bed, in his dark bedroom at night, alone with music playing on his music system, he quickly moved three times, back and forth between exchanging messages with his girlfriend on Facebook Messenger and checking his Facebook Newsfeed. Moving then to finding lyrics to a song he sings along to playing on his music player, to showing and talking through his online history. He next picks up his iPod Touch to tap and select the photo gallery, browsing through, Scott then selects an image of himself. He then again browses through enhancing image filters eight times back and forth before pausing, selecting and uploading the final image on Instagram. All the while his laptop alerts him with sound notifications to new messages. Returning to the unfolding conversation with his girlfriend on Facebook Messenger, he moves back to the laptop, replies to the messages and returns to scrolling through his Facebook Newsfeed. All these activities take place within a five-minute journey of moving in and between digital media. His everyday use of digital media entails the same quick flicking back and forth the same sites and devices with intermittent pauses.
Not all young people with physical disabilities use the internet in the way described above. Take the example of another participant, we call him Noah. He accesses a desktop computer from the comfort of his living room to engage with a platform game. It takes two minutes for the computer to start up and for him to log on. After which he clicks the mouse to start the internet, taps on the keyboard to feed in the name of the game Extreme Pamplona on a search engine. Next, he clicks on the first site that is suggested by the search. Another click begins the game, and Noah becomes embroiled in repetitious game play. In each level Noah repeatedly taps on the keyboard in front of him to move a male character running away from (a bull, a policeman etc.) who try to chase him until he successfully crosses over the finishing line. After two minutes of gameplay Noah completes the first three levels to the game in quick succession, before becoming stuck.
With each level to the game Noah is introduced to new obstacles and difficult chases which slow Noah’s pace of moving to the next level. He replays the fourth level three times within three minutes before he successfully moves on to the fifth level, again taking him another three minutes. After eleven minutes of gameplay he reaches the final level, which he successfully completes on his second attempt. After completing all levels to the game, Noah then carries out another search for Facebook, he clicks on the first suggested link and logs on. He takes little notice of the newsfeed and messages received from friends, and moves onto playing another platform game.
This type of slowing down by increasing difficulty of the game, is probably typical of able bodied gamers as well. However, unlike Scott who engages with several online activities in and between digital media devices, Noah engages in one activity at a time and on one device. He replays several levels and engages in the same repetitive embodied media practices of tapping on the keyboard, which he intermittently finds difficult with each level to the game. Throughout Scott’s time in and between digital media, he remains in control. For instance, he can direct his journey moving fluidly and quickly from one site and between devices without being stuck. This stands in contrast to Noah, whose game playing is driven by the pace of the game. Noah does move in quick successions from one level to another in the initial levels to the game. However, he remains stuck on one gaming site for eleven minutes, continuously repeating the same cycle of the game and continuously tapping on the keyboard. We do not argue that gaming is necessarily a sign of lack of power or privilege, but it is the way in which the game is habitually performed by Noah which illustrates him being hooked by the repetition of the game rather than driving his own journey.
There are several reasons as to why young people may move about at a slow pace online.
Our study shows moving slowly in and between digital media can result from disruptions such as a weak internet connection, or being intermittently interrupted from online activities by unfolding offline events. Or moments of waiting i.e. as illustrated by Scott’s journey, waiting for a response to chat notifications. While Scott passes the time by switching in and between digital media, not all young people with physical disabilities are able to fill in time in this way. With another example in our study we show Mick, another young male with physical disabilities accesses the internet from his living room, from a desktop computer while seated in his wheelchair. He relies on his father for the occasional assistance while being engaged in a multi-user online role-playing game, Dawn of the Dragons. Mick fills time during moments of waiting by fidgeting, shuffling in his chair and holding sporadic conversations with his parents as he anticipates opponents to make their next move.
There is a tendency to equate fast pace and movement with privilege, young people with physical disabilities who habitually engaged with several activities in or between digital media, like Scott, are privileged internet users. At times however, they too were found to be moving about slowly online. Rather than considering slow movement as an online disadvantage, being slow was also found to be a response for users like Scott to give mindful attention to online activities i.e. when pausing to observe and upload online content.
Less privileged young people are found to use the internet via a mobile phone, which gives them restricted access (Thornham and Cruz, 2016). Ellcessor (2016) has argued for a broader concept of access to digital media in relation to people with disabilities, which would encompass regulation, form, user experience and content. Drawing on these works, we suggest access can be understood in terms of being able to move in and between digital media. In our study, we also suggest a framework for analysing young peoples embodied media practices and their journeys within the digital that opens up an additional perspective on how inequalities are embedded and reproduced through the use of digital media. Our findings suggest young people with physical disabilities habitually engage with the same activities, repeating the same embodied media practices as they move about at a fast and slow pace.
Ellcessor, E. 2016. Restricted Access. London: New York University Press.
Gardner, H. & Davis, K. (2013) The app generation: how today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy and imagination in a digital world. London: Yale University Press.
Kaur, H., Saukko, P. and Lumsden, K. (2017) Rhythms of moving in and between digital media: a study on video diaries by young people with physical disabilities. Mobilities.
Moores, S. (2014) Digital orientations: “Ways of the hand” and practical knowing in media uses and other manual activities. Mobile Media & Communications, 2 (2), 196-208.
Herminder Kaur completed her doctoral study from Loughborough University on internet use by young people with physical disabilities. She now works as an Associate Lecturer in Digital Sociology at Middlesex University, London. She has co-authored a recent publication on how young people with physical disabilities move in and between digital media with Paula Saukko, Reader in Social Science and Medicine, and Karen Lumsden, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, from the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University.
Image Credit: Illustration provided by independent artist @Kiranjit_