Media and spaces: The mobile phone in the geographies of young people

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Studies of children and media rarely foreground space (but see Holloway and Valentine, 2000a, 2000b; Ito and Okabe, 2001). Space, however, is where communication takes place, and it is implicated in the process of maturation. To a large extent, young people are defined by the spaces they are allowed or not allowed to occupy, whether because they are constructed as a threat or as threatened by others, or because their movement is restricted as long as they depend on their parents for transportation and economic support (Holloway and Valentine, 2000a, 2000b; James et al., 1998; Livingstone, 2002). Thus issues relating to youths’ spatial practices and experiences are inherent in their perception of self and in adults’ understanding of their predicament. As Doreen Massey noted, “the control of spatiality is part of the process of defining the social category of ‘youth’ itself” (1998, p. 127). The notion of domestication (Silverstone et al., 1992) offers a spatial lens for considering media adoption and use within households. Specifically, it asks how communication technologies are appropriated by family members, how they are placed in domestic spaces and incorporated into members’ rhythms, and how use becomes valuable in their social relations; importantly, it also highlights the doubly articulated nature of media, which have both material and symbolic dimensions. Developed in the heyday of television, the notion of domestication invites us, in an age of mobile and ubiquitous media, to complement the study of children’s bedroom and living room media use with a study of the outside - the street, the school, the shopping mall (see e.g., Thomas, 2005; Wakeford, 2003). This paper, then, adopts the framework of domestication to explore young people’s media use outside the home, and reflect upon the ways in which their use of mobile technologies complicates the relationships between intimacy and distance, mobility and maturation, medium and content. Young people have been early and keen adopters of mobile media (notably the Walkman, see du Gay et al., 1997), receiving or purchasing devices and using them in both conventional and innovative ways. Personal, location-based technologies, in particular, can be seen as metaphors for, and actual tools of maturation, separation and individuation - as well as control and surveillance (Green, 2001; Ribak, 2009). Already in 1998, Gillard et al. (1998) documented the transition to cordless telephones among young Australians. This new device, they noted, enabled teens to evade their parents’ eavesdropping by taking the receiver to their bedroom or to the veranda: “I am not allowed. .. because they don’t want the neighbors hearing what I talk about ‘cause apparently it’s embarrassing” (p. 142). The quintessential scenario depicted in this account is prescient in that it explores the spatial ramifications of young people’s use of what seems today a rather limited form of mobile telephony, and introduces the protagonists of the studies this paper will discuss: (estranged) teens, their (intimate) friends and the (liberating) telephone vis-à-vis (nosy) parents, against the backdrop of the (bourgeois) family home, the corridor with the landline telephone base, and the porch with its outdoor air and its elusive promise of privacy. This discussion will suggest that space is interpreted in research on young people’s media use outside the home in two distinctive yet complementary ways: When the home is a metaphor of safety and connection, the distance from it is a void that needs to be overcome. In this context, the mobile phone may be likened to a bridge over troubled water. Alternatively, when the home is a place of oppression and control, the street becomes a meaningful site of teen creativity, sociality and liberation. Here, the mobile phone is a means for the intense experience of particular places; it allows young people to stay out farther and longer, to express themselves, to locate their friends, to individuate and to grow.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge International Handbook of Children, Adolescents and Media
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781134060559
ISBN (Print)9780415783682
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2013

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013 Dafna Lemish for selection and editorial matter; individual chapters, the contributors.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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