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

Abstract

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.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Partnership with BT Heritage & Archives 
Organisation BT Group
Department BT Archives
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The partnership is focused on enabling the research team's access to an under-researched area of BT's archival collection, and in turn is supporting the objectives of BT Heritage & Archives of engaging with new audiences, specifically children and families. BT's physical archive (Holborn, London) closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and only re-opened to academic researchers in mid-February 2022, meaning the research team was not able to access items in the physical archive throughout that period. However, the research team have been able to access some digitised materials from BT's archival collections and have used these in both digital and in-person engagement and co-research settings. These materials have prompted discussion, educational and creative opportunities with family audiences and young people, which is opening up access to BT's archival collections amongst new audiences. The research team has also used digitised materials from BT's collection in project social media content (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), which has had very good engagement from the wider academic community, as well as the regional creative arts sector.
Collaborator Contribution BT Heritage & Archives Team has provided access to digitised materials in BT's archival collections for use in the project's crowd-sourced and engaged research. These materials have been used prominently on the research team's website (www.telephonicyouth.co.uk) and in social media content generated by the research team. BT Heritage & Archives have also loaned objects for use in the project's in-person engagement, including in activities which have generated new research data. The research team has found that tactile and interactive activities using these loaned items has supported data collection, especially in inter-generational settings.
Impact Outputs have been delayed because of the impact of Covid-19 on the access to the partner's archive.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Partnership with John Hansard Gallery 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department John Hansard Gallery
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The partnership has focused on developing arts engagement and research participation opportunities for families and young people at a regional level. PI Eve Colpus has provided expertise around engaged research methods and research governance, which has provided new insight into how the gallery could collaborate with academic partners in the future. PI Eve Colpus has also given intellectual input into designing the arts engagement activities offered via the partnership, including providing access to heritage resources drawn from the project's research. Research team members have worked collaboratively with the Engagement Team at John Hansard Gallery and the commissioned artists to deliver creative workshops with family audiences and young people.
Collaborator Contribution John Hansard Gallery has provided expertise through the commitment of time and professional and intellectual input from members of its Engagement Team. The Gallery co-wrote with PI Eve Colpus a call-out for an artist-educator to lead a series of family-friendly workshops for the project, and an early-career artist was commissioned in April 2021 for this role. The workshops ran from May-November 2021 as part of the Gallery's free cultural engagement offering in its Space to Create! programme, and reached 68 adults and children. The Gallery provided its bespoke Active Space for these workshops, and the Gallery's Engagement Team worked collaboratively with the artist and PI Eve Colpus to design the engagement activities. The Gallery's Engagement Team also organised access to the arts materials for these workshops. In July 2021, John Hansard Gallery published a call-out for a second artist-educator on the project, also co-written with PI Eve Colpus, to lead a ten-week programme of creative workshops with young people aged 14-19 living in Southampton. The workshops are to culminate in two free community exhibitions of the artwork made by the young people in Southampton in 2022, including an exhibition at John Hansard Gallery. The artist was commissioned in August 2021, and the Gallery provided its bespoke Active Space for the programme of workshops, which ran from November 2021-March 2022. John Hansard Gallery's Engagement Team provided expertise around arts engagement work with young people, and developed existing local partnerships to publicise the opportunity. John Hansard Gallery is adding further value to the impact of the young people's participation in the workshops by supporting them to complete their Bronze Arts Award. This will involve the young people in identifying different art and cultural forms, visiting and experiencing a cultural experience, developing and sharing a skill and researching an artist. John Hansard Gallery has contributed additionally to this partnership by publishing resources to build awareness of the research project among regional and national audiences via the Gallery's digital presence. This has included posting about the collaboration in John Hansard Gallery social media content and publishing bespoke arts and heritage resources created through the partnership on the Gallery's website.
Impact Telephonic Youth Space to Create! workshops and Telephonic Youth Art Workshops with 14-19-year-olds. Both of these activities were multi-disciplinary in nature, and used arts methods and practice to support participants' engagement with historical content.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Interactive exhibit at Hands-On Humanities Day, University of Southampton 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the project team and student volunteers set up a stall on the University of Southampton's Avenue Campus as part of the Southampton Arts and Humanities Festival (20 November 2021). The stall combined tactile and interactive activities for an inter-generational audience and the opportunity for those aged over 16 to share memories on the project website as part of the crowd-sourced research. The event was useful in reaching a wider public audience and generated significant research data. It was also a very useful learning process for the research team in recognising that participants' interpretations of our research interests are shaped by their own experiences, i.e. a number of submissions were linked to non-UK locations despite the UK focus of engagement materials.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.southamptonartshumfest.co.uk/HOHD/whats-on/?id=35
 
Description Pop up stalls in local libraries 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Beginning in February 2022, members of the research team ran pop-up stalls at local libraries across Southampton. Building on the successful format used in the project's exhibit at the Southampton Arts and Humanities Festival, the stalls used interactive activities aimed at children and family audiences and offered the opportunity for those aged over 16 to contribute to the crowd-sourced research via the project's website. At the time of submitting this return, events have been run in three library locations. The events have generated research data, and have also been very useful in widening the project's connections within the local community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Telephonic Youth Art Workshops with 14-19 year olds 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact A professional artist was commissioned to run a creative workshops programme with a group of 14-19-year-olds living in Southampton, responding to research materials identified by the PI Eve Colpus on the project. The programme included 10 2-hour workshops, which ran from November 2021 to March 2022, and was led by the professional artist in collaboration with John Hansard Gallery Engagement Team members and Eve Colpus. The workshop activities were designed in conversation with the young people and in response to their particular interests, and included photography activities, creative writing and zine-making tasks. The workshops also embedded discussion activities around themes such as the differences and similarities between young people's phone use in the 1980s and 1990s and today, the spaces in which young people use phones, and what a phone is, as well as how research data is generated.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
URL https://jhg.art/resources/
 
Description Telephonic Youth Space to Create! workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Five family-friendly creative workshops were led by a professional artist, in collaboration with John Hansard Gallery Engagement Team and members of the research team. The workshops were run in-person at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, as part of the Gallery's free Space to Create! programme. Each workshop used a different creative activity to encourage engagement with research themes and materials, including mono-printing, collage, cyanotype printing, and an audio creation workshop. The workshops generated local interest in the research, and, as the audience was comprised of families, the activities prompted inter-generational discussions around the heritage of telephones and communication practices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Telephonic Youth website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In August 2021, the research team launched their project website https://telephonicyouth.co.uk/ which is used to (1) collect and make available memories submitted by members of the public; (2) publish news posts about the project; and (3) publish other public-facing outputs including, in the future, an online exhibition of items from BT's archival collection. The website was developed by boxChilli and has been approved through institutional ethics and research integrity processes. The website has received high levels of traffic. As of 8 March 2022, it had received 2909 visits since its launch.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
URL https://telephonicyouth.co.uk/