Digital refuseniks and mugging proof phones

Digital refuseniks and mugging proof phones

One of the perils of being related to a PhD student is that at some point you might be seen as research fodder, or to put it more politely, an informant. This was the case over the holidays.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spectrum of digital refuseniks; from people who don’t want to be online at all to the ‘non-upgraders’ who refuse to swap their antique but reliable Nokia’s for a smartphone. This led me to quiz the non-upgraders amongst my family and friends about why they were sticking with their distinctly non-smart phones. An 18 year old living in West London wanted a mugging proof phone (a smart decision in a city where phones make you a target for assault), whilst busy women in their forties were sticking with the phones they knew how to use.

Others were being forced by their partners to turn off their phones over Christmas – expressive of a broader cultural shift into a more considered, measured use of technology – a digital diet.

The crudest interpretation of digital inclusion – which is one of the framing ideas of my research – equates familiarity and ease of access to technology with economic and social benefits. Whilst some great work has been done on ‘typologies’ and gradations of internet of use (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007) examining the degrees and types of engagement with digital tools, where does that leave the people who just don’t want to play the digital game?

I enjoyed Haddon’s work on domestication (2011) as he grounds an understanding of what people are doing with technology in the context of the non-technological aspects of their lives, and suggests that this may be a way to view these non-users as rational, critical consumers. What could be more rational than refusing to carry a device which might get you mugged? Or refusing to upgrade to a phone which has an unfamiliar – and probably unintuitive – user interface?

John Holmes (2011) has done some great work analysing Ofcom data on internet use by young people. He suggests that the ‘cyberkid’ discourse – which assumes that all young people are digital natives – disguises more complex truths about how our use of technology is informed more by our societal location than our peers.

In an important policy brief published last year Ellen Helsper (2011) warned of the emergence of a digital underclass characterised by socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, who might become unable to access public services which are becoming digital by default. My research is framed around the idea that young people who are ‘digitally excluded’ in some way might use their phones to get access to services.

I’m interested in finding out about how young people are playing the ‘cyberkid game’ with their phones. Are they playing it differently by sticking with their mugging-proof phones or not using the internet to access information? Are girls only interested in using their phones to maintain relationships ­ through BBM and Facebook?


Haddon, L. 2011. Domestication analysis, objects of study, and the centrality of technologies in everyday life. Canadian Journal of Communication, 36, 311-323.

Helsper, E. 2011. The Emergence of a Digital Underclass Digital Policies in the UK and Evidence for Inclusion, LSE Media Policy Project: Media policy brief

Holmes, J. 2011. Cyberkids or divided generations? Characterising young people’s internet use in the uk with generic, continuum or typological models. New Media & Society, 13, 1104-1122.

Livingstone, S. & Helsper, E. 2007. Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 9, 671-696.


2 thoughts on “Digital refuseniks and mugging proof phones

  1. Dan – thanks for being my first commenter! The more I think about refuseniks the more complex the picture becomes. I think we have to start thinking about people ‘refusing’ from all kinds of different perspectives: digital privacy, environmental or stubborn upgrade refusers.

    With regard to the ‘digital by default’issue, I was recently kept waiting for an hour for a mobile phone refusenik friend who couldn’t park his car in Southwark as he couldn’t pay for parking without a mobile phone!

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