Piloting a research toolkit on child internet use in rural South Africa

When the scope of a research project on child internet use spans multiple countries with vast cultural, economic and social variation, navigating the differences presents formidable challenges.

For the Global Kids Online network, a research initiative led by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in partnership with the London School of Economics, tackling these challenges is crucial. Our goal is to develop a survey that will enable researchers anywhere on earth to explore how internet use enhances or undermines children’s well-being.

Recently we managed to complete the pilot phase of this survey in Argentina, Philippines, Serbia and South Africa. Four different continents, countries, cultures and research teams, all using the same tools to generate comparable data.

As the project coordinator I’ve had the challenging but enjoyable task of supporting this effort. My previous research experience, mostly in the global North, limited my understanding of rural communities. A big question for me was how can we make the most out of working in relatively unfamiliar contexts? The answer I found was to listen, participate and learn from local knowledge.

I recently travelled to the Eastern Cape in South Africa to support the implementation of our Global Kids Online survey, courtesy of UNICEF South Africa and our research partners, the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP). CJCP works exclusively with local enumerators who are familiar with the communities where the research is conducted – a model that ought to be non-negotiable.

Since we carry papers

Whenever our team arrived at a field site our enumerators would visit every single house, starting with the ones closest to where we parked, even though there were no children to interview. I asked why we did this, as we were there specifically to interview children. One of the enumerators explained that going to each house serves two purposes: first, we show everyone respect by visiting their home, giving us credibility and trust in the community. Once we gain people’s trust, they will be more inclined to help us find out where children from the community live and perhaps even facilitate some interviews.

Second, if we only visit certain houses people might get suspicious, in particular since we carry papers, which could indicate that we are there on official government business. This could make it more difficult for us to talk to children and parents in the community.

Through their awareness of the local way of life, the enumerators both improved our success with recruiting respondents and also helped us to avoid unintentionally offending community members. These insights have some interesting implications for popular sampling methods such as “random walk” procedures, where enumerators only visit certain households based on numbering or other criteria. Such methods might have less success with recruitment because they do not align well with local customs, and could also damage the reputation of the organization conducting the work.

Asking if they play games on an X-Box

Our local research team informed us they had issues with some of our survey questions. Since the field site was located in a lower socio-economic area, they pointed out that it reflected badly on them when they asked children questions that everyone should know are not applicable. They emphasized “when we ask children here, in very poor communities, if they often play games on an X-box, it makes us look stupid and the child becomes uncomfortable…”

A field research site outside Mdantsane in Eastern Cape province, South Africa.
Daniel Kardefelt-WintherA field research site on child internet use outside Mdantsane in Eastern Cape province, South Africa.

We had anticipated that some questions would have low response rates in some areas. But we did not foresee that asking those questions might negatively impact the relationship between interviewer and child. If the interviewers had not been from the community, they may not have picked up on this subtle but important point and we would have failed to make our instrument more appropriate.

By being upfront about my lack of familiarity with the local context and making clear that I was there to learn – not to oversee and control – I managed to open up an honest dialogue with the team.

It is not always easy to gather direct feedback if you are participating from a coordinator position. But recognizing and admitting my own lack of understanding and expressing a willingness to learn seemed like a good starting point. I explicitly invited criticism of our assumptions. When conducting research across multiple contexts it is rarely possible to have a good understanding of every country, but working together with the community, listening and making good use of local wisdom and skills has been crucial.

My work on the Global Kids Online project has been an eye-opening experience that has taught me many new things about the world, but it has also shown me that there is some truth to the saying, “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.”

Special Note: South Africa Kids Online, the first major Global Kids Online pilot study, was recently launched in Johannesburg. The full report is available here.

Daniel Kardefelt-Winther supports Innocenti’s research on children’s internet use, online safety and child rights. He coordinates the Global Kids Online project, developing methodological tools to support global research on the risks and opportunities of children’s internet use. The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre undertaking research on emerging and current priorities to shape policy and practice for children. Subscribe to UNICEF Innocenti emails on any web page. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter @UNICEFInnocenti. Access our research catalogue here.

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