Children and young people's telephone use and telephone cultures in Britain c. 1984-1999

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Humanities


The shift in young people's use of telephones from one-to-one voice communication to written and visual communication through texting and engagement with social media represents a pivotal cultural development. While the potentially harmful effects on young people of excessive mobile phone use continue to be studied, the COVID-19 emergency is emphasising further the importance of telephone technologies as tools for young people's social connection, education and skills development. These developments in young people's distanced communication have a vital, yet largely unstudied, history. My research is the first study of young people's telephone use in modern Britain, covering the period c.1984-1999. Through combining archival research, oral history research and research with community participants and in contemporary youth contexts, I investigate young people's access (and restrictions) to using telephones in this era, incorporating the landline, public telephone and mobile phone. I examine the significance of telephones in diverse facets of young people's lives, including in play cultures; leisure; the construction of home; mediation of family life and friendships; the assertion of fashionable identities; as an educational tool; in the workplace; and for locating advice and help. In doing so, I trace how young people's telephone use has been historically at the heart of debates over the meanings of privacy, protection, dependency, and social inequality.

Young people's current-day phone use is analysed typically as an expression of individualisation. I ask what this illuminates and overlooks about the historical connection between telephony and children and young people's empowerment; their negotiation of family and community surveillance; their socialisation; and construction of selfhood. These connections evolved particularly rapidly in the years between 1984 and 1999, linked to changes in the marketization of the UK telecommunications sector; the rise of mobile phone ownership; and new ethical formulations of children's and young people's rights. Potentially unmediated by adults, telephone use was mobilised by the media, state and market in this era as a tool for young people's self-expression and social participation. This research centres children's own experiences and feelings in its analysis, moving between examples as varied as five-year-olds learning how to dial '999' and telephone providers' advertisements encouraging teenage boys to talk to their girlfriends. Tracing contestations between corporately-prescribed messages; those constructed in the media and popular culture; and informal ('everyday') education, I examine young people's telephone use in the 1980s/90s as both an activity in itself and its contribution to identity formation.

The value of this research extends beyond historical scholarship. The Fellowship enables deeper understandings of the affective, cultural, and social impact of young people's telephone use upon modern debates about the relationship between telephones and young people's wellbeing and safety. I am collaborating with BT Heritage & Archives and the John Hansard Gallery, and the project combines historical research and co-research with community groups and young people in three strands: i) archival research in local and national collections, and research in cultural and media sources, to recover historical voices of children in relation to telephone use across diverse settings; ii) oral history research, collecting adults' childhood memories about their experiences using telephones; and iii) co-research using arts practice in contemporary youth settings, and crowd-sourced research using digital humanities methods to create an interactive online map of young people's 'phone spaces' in Southampton since the 1980s. The map is a pilot-study for a planned UK-wide project mapping where, when and how young people have used telephones, to be conducted after the Fellowship.


10 25 50