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Young People, Smartphones, and Invisible Illiteracies

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Young People, Smartphones, and Invisible Illiteracies

This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
Young people, smartphones and invisible illiteracies:
Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media
Sun Sun Lim and Renae Sze Ming Loh
There has been considerable euphoria surrounding smartphones and their ability to make mobile
internet access a reality for previously disconnected communities, offering them exciting
possibilities in terms of communication, education, health and consumer services. However, is
this optimism warranted or is there a chasm between the inherent potentiality in how these
devices can be fully exploited and the actual ways in which they are utilised by individual
adopters? In the current chapter, we report our findings on underprivileged youths in Singapore,
a country with affordable and widespread internet access. We find evidence of young people
who are ostensibly connected to the internet, but whose online repertoire is relatively limited
compared to that of their peers. Eschewing laptops and computers in favour of smartphones,
these young people’s internet use is largely confined to social media and communication apps
such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram, and entertainment apps such as YouTube,
Dubsmash and Musical.ly, with minimal exploration of the World Wide Web’s rich offerings.
While statistical measures would classify these youths as internet users, their limited navigation
and usage of the online space does not fully optimise the medium’s affordances for learning,
participating, creating and “produsing”. To rectify these trends and symptoms of “invisible
illiteracies”, media literacy education in mobile-only or mobile-heavy media environments needs
to be urgently refined to better prepare young people for the full complement of online
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
opportunities. We explain our study’s approach and findings against the broader context of class
distinctions in Singapore.
The changing face of digital literacy
The notion of digital literacy is not new. Indeed, arguments for computer literacy date back to at
least the 1980s. Computer literacy entails the proficiency to operate a computer and perform
various everyday tasks using email, internet browsers, word processing software and others1. It
constitutes a part of digital literacy, a much broader concept that involves not only the ability to
handle computing devices and consume computer-based entertainment and interactions, but to
also critically consume the content presented on various digital platforms2. This critical
awareness of distinguishing authoritative from non-authoritative and relevant from irrelevant
sources3 calls not only for users to possess multi-modal literacy, the ability to make sense of all
forms of media including graphs, images and videos, but also for information literacy, the ability
to analyse and assess the information4. Underlying this critical awareness is discernment about
information–sourcing, creating and evaluating information–which contributes to an individual’s
options for participating in the political, social and economic spheres of modern societies as a
citizen5.
Indeed, a new dynamic order is forming, as is a new mode of how society functions.
Where we were previously constrained to a desktop computer with an internet connection, today,
the permanent and ubiquitous connection to data networks has granted portable digital devices
and mobile applications a high degree of accessibility and convenience. Additionally, with Wi-Fi
infrastructures installed in many public spaces and buildings, and the growing saturation of
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
smartphones and tablets, we are never “disconnected”. We seem to live in an age where our
actions are frequently mediated by digital tools, and the objects we encounter are frequently
shaped by digital intervention6. For example, we now use digital devices to manage work
obligations, schedule our meetings, search for directions, keep up with friends, consume content,
and purchase physical goods, among many other activities. We also use global digital platforms
such as LinkedIn to apply for jobs, Coursera to attend courses, Wordpress to chronicle our lives,
Dropbox to store our files, and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to build our digital profiles and
personal networks. At the global level, the world is more connected than ever. The amount of
cross-border bandwidth has increased by 45 times since 20057. Flows of users, information,
communication, video, transactions and other digital traffic looks set to increase as digital device
use and ownership proliferates. These streams of information and ideas enable the movement of
goods, services, capital, and people. Some 900 million people have international connections on
social media, and 360 million take part in cross-border e-commerce8. Much like our daily lives,
almost every type of international action now consists of a digital component. However, to
assume that this growth in digitalization is homogenous across the globe would be to neglect
some critical issues pertaining to inequalities in internet access and usage.
Whither literacy and class
Indeed, as the subsequent discussion will seek to demonstrate, social inequality and class divides
are both reflected in and exacerbated by uneven patterns in young people’s internet usage. The
field of research surrounding digital literacy can be said to be dominated by two threads. One
sheds light on how internet usage could play a key role in addressing socioeconomic issues.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
From this salutary perspective, the internet helps us to connect with people and resources from
all over the world, and interact across different socioeconomic backgrounds9. Social media, in
particular, makes it easy for lay users to publish diverse content–in the form of texts, pictures,
videos or audio–to a (potentially) sizeable audience10, regardless of one’s own socioeconomic
background. Furthermore, the content disseminated via the internet is often blind to one’s
cultural, economic and educational background. The internet and digital devices are thus
regarded as facilitators and promoters of communication, bridging all backgrounds. On the other
hand, the second thread views internet access through the lens of social barriers11. Some scholars
have raised critical concerns about how internet usage and the new emphasis on digital literacy,
particularly in education, may well be deeply imbricated with economic inequalities and power
relations. These inequalities occur at two levels access and skills.
The first level concerns the extent and nature of access. In order to gain access to the
wealth of online information, fundamentally, one must first have access to ICTs. Considerable
academic work has been undertaken on this aspect, and this division between ICT haves and
have-nots has been widely referred to as the digital divide12. Lack of access has been found to
correlate with disadvantages in financial, educational or cultural resources that extensive
research has revealed to exist between nations13, and within developed nations and regions14, as
well as along the lines of age15, ethnicity16 and income differences 17. Most studies however, have
focused mainly on adult populations. Yet, the degree to which young people’s lives are
increasingly mediated by ICTs at home, at school and in the community, certainly warrants
greater academic attention. While scholarly fervour has been trained on the consequences of
internet use, particular attention should also be paid to the reasons why some avidly utilize the
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
internet while others do not, and the discrepancies in ways they use the internet18. The relative
paucity of youth-centred research is perhaps attributed to the common perception of this
generation as “digital natives” – the generation who were born into the internet era, where their
technological inclinations and skills are (often mistakenly) assumed19.
And while many “digital natives” revel in the presumption that they are online experts,
research has shown this to be misplaced20. The legitimacy of assuming that a whole generation
would possess common digital traits in terms of access and use of technologies has been
challenged at the theoretical21 and empirical levels22. For example, Livingstone, Bober and
Helsper (2005)23 found that differences in engaging in online communication, information-
seeking and peer-to-peer connection occur along the lines of gender, class and age. Lim (2016)24
found that in Singapore, at-risk youths, as compared to their more academically achieved peers,
did not fare significantly worse in their access to ICT. While both groups of youths had access to
the same range of apps, the differences lay in how they used their devices and which apps were
considered their mainstay. Their uses of technology primarily centred around socialising and
entertainment, and manifested less information-seeking behaviour. These studies indicate that
simply belonging to the generation of “digital natives” does not automatically vest individuals
with digital literacy or access to digital tools. A further assertion that this generation can be
characterised by active online engagement also fails to capture how many young people’s uses of
digital technologies are actually far less extensive in scope, and actually more passive,
pedestrian, and mundane than is widely believed25. Such claims also gloss over the huge
variation between what youths are able to do with technology and what they know about
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
technology26. What persists here is a secondary digital divide27 which occurs on the skills level,
separating those with the competencies to benefit from computer use, from those without.
Delving deeper into technology-related practices of youths can further illuminate the
discussion. There are two kinds of online activities that have been identified as having the
potential to enhance one’s economic, social and cultural capital28. The first kind is capital-
enhancing use which involves marshalling online resources to improve educational outcomes,
seek employment, advance careers, and enhance physical and mental health. Another kind of
Internet use mainly involves using the internet for entertainment, such as gaming, shopping and
gambling online. Such use is generally believed to have little potential for increasing economic,
social and cultural capital29. Bourdieu’s research on social inequalities suggests that individuals
tend to develop practices and dispositions that reflect their social positions and thereby reproduce
existing advantages and disadvantages30. In the case of the internet, disadvantaged youth not
only have less access to devices but also may be less likely to use the internet to enhance their
education, and more likely to use the internet for entertainment. Previous research has provided
some evidence for disadvantaged youths’ greater propensity to use the internet for entertainment
and converges around several explanations31. Principally, it is argued that lower engagement in
capital-enhancing use of the internet reflects socioeconomic inequalities. These inequalities are
further perpetuated because digital literacy levels affect their performance in school, thereby
being systematically encoded into disparities in educational credentials. Going beyond these
general trends, it is worthwhile exploring the nexus of digital literacy and socioeconomic
differences in the specific context of a highly digitalized country such as Singapore.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
Technology adoption in Singapore
Singapore has amongst the highest internet and mobile phone penetration rates in the world. As
of 2017, the overall wireless broadband penetration rate stands at 206.7% and residential
broadband penetration rate at 94.5%. With 8.46 million mobile phone subscriptions for its
approximately 5.61 million residents, Singapore’s mobile phone penetration rate stands at
150.8%32 and household computer ownership was 86% in 201433. These statistics give a good
indication of a preference for, or perhaps the greater accessibility of, mobile phones for the
general population.
In recognising ICTs’ impact on the economy and workplace of the 21st century and its
potential to enhance learning, the Singapore government committed S$2 billion to provide, in its
initial phase (1997 – 2002), one computer per five students, and subsequently, one for every two
students. To further integrate ICTs into learning and teaching, the Ministry of Education
stipulated that up to 30% of instruction time should be enriched through the use of ICTs. All
teacher trainees have compulsory and elective modules to equip them with ICT skills34. These
efforts are geared towards development of what the Ministry of Education terms “21st Century
Competencies”, which encompasses communication, collaboration and information skills - these
emphasize the development of skills required to function and indeed to thrive in a society and
workplace permeated by ICT and internet-enabled services.
Given Singapore’s technology adoption climate, and the evidence uncovered by extant
research on how young people’s digital literacy is imbricated with issues of class, the present
study seeks to address the following research questions:
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
1. What was distinctive about the technology use of disadvantaged youths ?
2. How does the nature of their technology access influence their digital skills?
Research method
For this study, a qualitative research method was chosen over a quantitative one in order to allow
for more in-depth understanding of internet and device use of youths from disadvantaged
families. More specifically, we conducted semi-structured in-home interviews. The approach of
in-home interviews has been used in other studies regarding media usage among less-advantaged
populations and yielded appreciable results35. A semi-structured approach affords the interviewer
the flexibility needed to follow any relevant trajectories that arise during the interview, while still
maintaining a focus on the core issue at hand. This proves beneficial in two ways – interviews
become opportunities for gleaning new ideas, and it encourages two-way communication,
making the interviewee more comfortable and thus more willing to share.
The interviews were conducted in the homes of these youths between November 2015
and April 2016 by the two authors, either individually or together, in the presence of a social
worker. The social worker was always someone who had visited the family before and therefore
known to them, and this greatly contributed to how comfortable the family was with having
interviewer(s) in their home. This previous experience with the social worker further helped the
interviewees, especially the younger ones, feel more at ease and less under scrutiny.
Disadvantaged youths were chosen as our primary focus because relatively little academic
attention has been paid to this demographic group in comparison to that for mainstream youths.
The interviews opened with an introduction to the research, and an assurance that there were no
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
right or wrong answers. In order to learn about their technology use, the respondents were first
requested to note down their media use via a media map to represent how they were connected to
the most important people in their lives through their devices and apps. As this is not a common
concept, the interviewer would first construct her own media map by drawing it out on a piece of
paper. The interviewee’s mind map served as a springboard for further discussion and ensured
that the interviewer did not overlook any aspect of their media use. A complementary list of
questions regarding their media usage and practices was also prepared beforehand. A total of 18
youths, aged 12-17, were interviewed. Although a larger number was targeted, the challenges of
soliciting participation and parental support from this group which had very unpredictable
schedules and relatively limited communication channels made it difficult to attain the target.
Each interview lasted between 45 to 90 minutes and was audio-recorded and later transcribed.
Findings and discussion
This section will first provide an overview of the respondents’ internet access, device ownership
and environment, followed by their technology use, and digital skills. Where appropriate,
illustrative interview excerpts will be furnished, with respondents indicated by their first initial,
and the interviewer by the letter ‘I’.
In terms of internet access, all of our respondents owned smartphones and had internet
access mostly at home, at school, tapping into Wi-Fi hotspots such as those in fast food outlets,
or with prepaid phone packages. Many of them preferred smartphones to laptops and desktops,
manifesting a mobile-first user behaviour. Their phones were mostly rewards for doing well in
school or gifts vested upon crossing significant milestones such as birthdays. Most used prepaid
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
packages funded by their parents, while the older interviewees tended to pay for their own phone
bills using their savings or income from part-time jobs. There were also respondents who would
pay for their own phone bills if and when they could afford it, especially if they had exceeded
certain limits such as mobile data allowances. Paying for their own phone bills seemed to be a
badge of honour for most of the respondents, perhaps as a potent indicator of their independence
and maturity.
S: For me, I pay by myself. Because I am working part-time.
I: And then if you don’t have enough savings?
S: That won’t happen.
I: Because you plan your money well?
S: Yeah, I think so. I think because of the faith that I get from my mom, my dad also give
me allowance every month. And then I always save the money, use it wisely, depends on
what I need to buy.
Interviewee S [17 years old], upper secondary school student, working part-time
Most of the younger interviewees reported that their parents regulated their smartphone
usage through rules such as “no phones when working on homework”, and the confiscation of
the phone was often used as a form of punishment.
With regard to other devices, not all respondents had access to either desktops or laptops
at home. Of the few who did, it was access to laptops rather than desktops. The laptops often
either belonged to another family member, such as a parent or older sibling, or was a shared
family laptop. Shared laptops tended to be placed in common areas such as the living room so
that usage could be monitored by authority figures such as parents or older siblings. A handful of
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
respondents who did not have access to desktops or laptops at home stated that they could
borrow a tablet belonging to their older sibling. However, their older sibling was often already
working, so they would have to wait for them to return from work before asking for permission
to use the tablet. Even then, use of the tablet was not always guaranteed. On the other hand,
there were also those who lived in device-rich households.
I: Do you have any other devices at home besides everybody’s phones? Any laptops,
tablets?
S: Yes. Tablet, laptop. For my siblings, my father has a laptop. My mother has a phone.
My younger siblings like my second brother, he have phone. My third one have a tablet.
Even my younger sister, she’s only 7, she has a tablet. So everyone has their own.
Interviewee S [17 years old], upper secondary school student, working part-time.
Consistent with other studies of less-privileged youths, our respondents’ online repertoire
was largely confined to social media and communication apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp,
Snapchat and Instagram, and entertainment apps such as YouTube, Dubsmash, Ask.fm and
Musical.ly. Briefly, Dubsmash is a video messaging mobile app where users can choose from a
range of audio clips from movies, TV shows, songs and the like and film themselves while
dubbing over the audio clip. Ask.fm is a social networking site, with an accompanying mobile
app, where users can ask each other questions that, in essence, prompt disclosure of some degree.
For example, some may post questions such as “what do you want to do in the future?” and
“what is your favourite food?” Musical.ly is a video ‘prosuming’ social media site, which also
has an associated mobile application. Users can create videos that last from 15 seconds to a
minute, which they can also edit with inbuilt video editing tools such as filters, speed
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
adjustments (for e.g., time-lapse, slow-motion) and tack on an accompanying soundtrack. Our
respondents used these services primarily, if not solely through the mobile apps, instead of the
website. Overall, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram were by far the most
common and widely used mobile applications among our respondents. However, Facebook was
sharply decreasing in popularity as numerous respondents indicated that they did not check or
use Facebook as much given that their peers were also slowly withdrawing from Facebook,
especially among the younger respondents.
Many of our interviewees reported that they often turned to social media, and in some
cases, mobile games, when they were bored. Previous studies have suggested that disadvantaged
children may play games to escape from the drudgery of school work, poor peer interaction and
other life stresses36. However, this may be well true for youths from any socioeconomic
background.
Beyond entertainment, our respondents’ online activities mainly revolved around
communicating with peers and family members. Not surprisingly, their communication with
peers was principally social in nature, including activities such as keeping up with friends after
school and engaging in gossip. With their family, it was mostly to keep them updated on their
whereabouts.
We noted that our respondents’ mobile-centred and indeed, app-centric usage had
implications for the development of their digital skills. While most if not all of our respondents
were adept with social media, video splicing apps and other entertainment apps and platforms,
not many were as skilled with the computer. Some would use the laptops at home or computers
in their school libraries to complete school assignments, mostly if the assignment required use of
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
the school’s e-learning platform, or if it was a group project involving collaborative platforms
such as Google Docs. If they required any assistance, either with the homework or the computer
itself, their first instinct was to turn to their peers, parents, older siblings and perhaps relatives
rather than searching for help online. This was often done face-to-face with parents, but more
frequently via communication apps with friends.
I: Let’s say you need help with your homework, do you normally google for information
or do you ask your parents or friends?
A: Sometimes I did ask my parents, but they.. she [my mother] doesn’t really know. Then
I say never mind, I try by myself.
Interviewee A [13 years old], lower secondary school student
A rare few do turn to Google should they require information, such as to obtain
definitions and formulae. This was mostly if their other mobile applications, such as dictionary
apps, did not work or if their parents or older siblings could not answer their questions. This was
despite their having Wi-Fi access at home. Their use of Google was more to retrieve certain
pieces of information such as formulae they had forgotten, rather than for more extensive
research. Most used Google in order to access other entertainment platforms such as YouTube,
Tumblr and online streaming services in order to watch content ranging from anime to Korean
dramas.
Instead of using Google, other search engines or crowdsourcing platforms such as
Wikipedia, our respondents revealed a preference for app-based communication tools such as
WhatsApp to solicit information from people in their personal networks. Some of the
respondents brought up how many of their classes had group chats hosted on apps such as
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
WhatsApp, where students and sometimes teachers were included. These served as avenues not
only for students to seek updates from the teacher or perhaps a student representative of the
class, but also provided them with the opportunity to ask questions regarding homework. There
was thus a reliance on seeking solutions from friends rather than independent information-
seeking that leveraged the internet’s repository of knowledge.
P: I will ask my friends for answers, then we share.
I: So, how do you normally ask for answers?
P: WhatsApp.
I: WhatsApp. And, let’s say your homework, for example, you come to a very difficult
question that you don’t know how to do. Who do you ask?
P: My friends.
I: You’ll ask your friends. If all your friends don’t know?
P: If like… If it is very urgent, I will text the teacher. If not, I will just wait until the next
morning. If there’s class, I will ask the teacher.
I: Then do you go on the internet and Google for answers, like how to do the questions.
P: No. No.
I: Ok. Do you ask your parents for help?
P: No.
Interviewee P [16 years old], upper secondary school student
In terms of access to news, our interviews also revealed that Facebook was the primary
source of news and information, although the older interviewees tended to also watch the news
on television. Their fact-checking practices were based on what their peers share, comment and
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
say in real life or via communication apps or social media platforms. A handful of the
interviewees discussed the news with their friends, older siblings or a parent. The older youths in
particular showcased an awareness of what constitutes an authoritative and reliable source and
what does not.
S: If I’m not sure it’s real, I’ll ask my sister if she has learnt this. And if she has heard it,
then okay. Then maybe talk about it.
I: Do you use Google for more information or search for news?
S: Uh, no. I don’t google. I just like… because I follow the news, like ChannelNewsAsia,
and also the Malay Berita [news] on Facebook. So they will just update what is
happening in the world, so I will just read it and open and they will give all the
information.
Interviewee S [17 years old], upper secondary school student, working part-time
Due to our respondents’ mobile-first user profiles, the digital skills they possessed, while
not limited, centred around smartphones and their app centric ecosystem. Communication apps
such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram, and entertainment apps such as YouTube,
Dubsmash and Musical.ly were thus their mainstay. Of the respondents interviewed, a handful
were satisfied with using just these apps, and shared them with their peers. They were adept at
producing short clips, and were quick to pick up these skills. Unfortunately, these are not
necessarily the skills that are well-appreciated in educational or vocational settings. In Singapore,
as with other developed countries, digital skills that are more valued in the school or workplace
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
tend to relate broadly to research skills such as the gathering, compilation and critical evaluation
of information as well as effective communication and online collaboration.
Even as our respondents possessed rich digital skills of a particular entertainment-centric
nature, they therefore manifested illiteracies in more academically- and professionally-valorised
digital skills. Yet these youths’ digital illiteracies are invisiblebecause their active use of the
smartphone and internet access qualifies them as internet users by broad statistical measures of
online activity. Conventional data on internet access and use belies the relatively superficial and
narrow nature of these youths’ digital repertoire. Indeed, the common fallacy of equating internet
access to digital literacy means that these underprivileged youths’ digital illiteracies are not
effectively identified and, regrettably, not consequently addressed.
Our interviews thus indicate that for our respondents, these digital devices seem to be just
another conduit to entertainment and an avenue for keeping in contact with family and friends.
Given the limited range of their online activity, we observe that they did not actively harness the
internet and its rich stock of information to enhance their learning or employment opportunities.
This echoes Bourdieu’s37 observation that individuals tend to develop practices and dispositions
that satisfy their social positions and thus reproduce existing advantages and disadvantages.
In view of our respondents’ family profiles, there was also the absence of ‘warm
experts’38 to share their expertise with them. Our findings revealed that the parents and older
siblings in these households did not themselves possess extensive technological skills. Some of
our interviewees noted that they would not instinctively turn to their parents for help regarding
their smartphone because their parents would not know enough to offer any substantial aid. This
echoes the findings of Hollingworth and colleagues (2011)39 that children in disadvantaged
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
families may lack supervision and guidance in enriching use of the internet because their parents
have limited technological skills themselves. For some of our respondents, their parents had long
working hours, or worked two jobs, and were thus are not available when help was needed.
The nature of mobile-only internet usage should also be taken into consideration.
Desktops and laptops allow for the use of multiple applications at a time. For example, internet
browsers on laptops permit users to open multiple tabs concurrently, thus allowing for better
cross-referencing. Conversely, internet browsers on the small screens of smartphones permit
only one application to be open at any one time, and only one tab at a time. In both cases, users
are accessing the internet, however with a stark difference in efficiency and quality of
engagement. Our respondents’ mobile-first usage behaviour was therefore shaping their
technological repertoires in particular (limiting) ways.
Conclusion
As technological advancement charges ever rapidly forward, and technology becomes more
pervasive in our everyday lives, it would be specious to claim that internet access would
necessarily lead to an enhancement of technological skills. Consistent with extant literature40,
our research has revealed that there can be great variability in the digital skills of the purported
digital natives. A number of factors, rooted in one’s socioeconomic background, come into play
when assessing media literacy skills, even in a hyperconnected urban city-state such as
Singapore. Whereas access inequalities were not salient, the digital divide in Singapore relates
more to the quality of internet use and engagement. Most jarringly, the digital practices of
disadvantaged youths tend to be mobile-centred and highly app-centric, and mostly extending
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
and reproducing their existing practices of communication and entertainment rather than for
capital-enhancing purposes, as postulated by Bordieu (1990)41. Corresponding to their
disadvantaged circumstances, the absence of ‘warm experts’ for guidance and supervision further
exacerbates and reinforces the existing situation. These inequalities in turn affect their
performance in an educational system and professional environment that appreciates a different
set of digital skills, one revolving around information-based competencies that prize the effective
and critical marshalling of diverse bodies of knowledge. Set against a backdrop of extant
research indicating how one’s socioeconomic background has a profound impact on educational
attainment and career trajectories, we could perhaps see how the seemingly innocuous disparities
in device usage which stem from socioeconomic inequalities can in turn manifest as disparities in
educational achievement.
More broadly, our findings suggest that the nature of the digital divide has changed along
with technological advancement, diffusion and usage. Consequently, our research efforts should
also evolve accordingly so as to better capture and represent current digital divides, with a view
towards effectively addressing these invisible illiteracies. To begin with, a revision of current
statistical measures would enable us to more accurately reflect the extent and quality of internet
use. Greater granularity in data on internet use should be sought so as to offer clearer distinctions
in the usage patterns of mobile-only versus mobile-first users who complement smartphone use
with devices such as laptops and desktops. Furthermore, given the increasingly mobile-centric
media environments youths inhabit, media literacy education and perhaps technology-enhanced
education approach in general, is in need of an urgent review and revamp. It has to take into
account how today’s youths access, utilize and understand the internet, in order to better equip
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
them for exploiting the plenitude of online opportunities. In so doing, they can more effectively
manoeuvre in an increasingly complicated digital landscape, regardless of their socioeconomic
background.
1 Estelle Taylor, Roelien Goede, and Tjaart Steyn, "Reshaping computer literacy teaching in
higher education: Identification of critical success factors," Interactive Technology and Smart
Education 8, no. 1 (2011): 28-38.
2 Christoph Klimmt, "Key dimensions of contemporary video game literacy: Towards a
normative model of the competent digital gamer," Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game
Culture 3, no. 1 (2009): 23-31; John Potter, "New literacies, new practices and learner research:
across the semi-permeable membrane between home," LLinE 3 (2011): 174-181.
3 Sonia Livingstone, Magdalena Bober, and Ellen J. Helsper, "Active participation or just more
information? Young people's take-up of opportunities to act and interact on the Internet,"
Information, Community & Society 8, no. 3 (2005): 287-314.
4 Markus Appel, "Are heavy users of computer games and social media more computer
literate?," Computers & Education 59, no. 4 (2012): 1339-1349.
5 Zizi Papacharissi, "The virtual sphere: The internet as a public sphere," New Media & Society
4, no. 1 (2002): 9-27.
6 Allan Martin, "Digital literacy and the “digital society”," Digital literacies: Concepts, policies
and practices 30 (2008): 151-176.
7 James Manyika, Susan Lund, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Kalin Stamenov, and Dhruv
Dhingra, "Digital globalization: The new era of global flows,” McKinsey Digital, February 2016,
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/digital-
globalization-the-new-era-of-global-flows
8 Ibid.
9 Peter Kearns, and John Grant, The enabling pillars: learning, technology, community,
partnership: a report on Australian policies for information and communication technologies in
education and training (Australia: Global Learning Services, 2002).
10 Grant Blank, and Bianca C. Reisdorf, "The participatory web: A user perspective on Web 2.0,"
Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 4 (2012): 537-554; Eszter Hargittai, and Gina
Walejko, "The participation divide: Content creation and sharing in the digital age," Information,
Community and Society 11, no. 2 (2008): 239-256.
11 Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, "Escaping or connecting?
Characteristics of youth who form close online relationships," Journal of Adolescence 26, no. 1
(2003): 105-119; Michele L. Ybarra, and Kimberly J. Mitchell, "Youth engaging in online
harassment: Associations with caregiver–child relationships, Internet use, and personal
characteristics," Journal of Adolescence 27, no. 3 (2004): 319-336.
12 Neil Selwyn, "Apart from technology: understanding people’s non-use of information and
communication technologies in everyday life," Technology in Society 25, no. 1 (2003): 99-116;
Neil Selwyn, "Reconsidering political and popular understandings of the digital divide," New
Media & Society 6, no. 3 (2004): 341-362; Neil Selwyn, "The information aged: A qualitative
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
study of older adults' use of information and communications technology," Journal of Aging
Studies 18, no. 4 (2004): 369-384; Mark Warschauer, "Dissecting the" digital divide": A case
study in Egypt," The Information Society 19, no. 4 (2003): 297-304.
13 Pippa Norris, Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet
worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
14 Wenhong Chen, and Barry Wellman, "Charting and bridging digital divides: comparing socio-
economic, gender, life stage, and rural-urban Internet access and use in eight countries," AMD
Global Consumer Advisory Board (GSAB) (2003).
15 William E. Loges, and Joo-Young Jung, "Exploring the digital divide: Internet connectedness
and age," Communication Research 28, no. 4 (2001): 536-562.
16 Donna L. Hoffman, Thomas P. Novak, and Ann E. Schlosser, "The evolution of the digital
divide: Examining the relationship of race to Internet access and usage over time," in The digital
divide: Facing a crisis or creating a myth? ed. Benjamin M. Compaine (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2001): 47-97.
17 Ronald E. Rice, and Caroline Haythornthwaite, "Perspectives on Internet use: Access,
involvement and interaction." in The handbook of new media: social shaping and social
consequences of ICTs, 2nd edition, ed. Leah A. Lievrouw and Sonia Livingstone (London: Sage,
2006), 92-113.
18 Agnetha Broos, and Keith Roe, "The digital divide in the playstation generation: Self-efficacy,
locus of control and ICT adoption among adolescents," Poetics 34, no. 4-5 (2006): 306-317.
19 danah boyd, It's complicated: The social lives of networked teens (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2014); Marc Prensky, "Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1," On the
horizon 9, no. 5 (2001): 1-6.
20 Keri Facer, and Ruth Furlong, "Beyond the myth of the 'cyberkid': Young people at the
margins of the information revolution." Journal of Youth Studies 4, no. 4 (2001): 451-469; Ellen
Johanna Helsper, and Rebecca Eynon, "Digital natives: where is the evidence?," British
Educational Research Journal 36, no. 3 (2010): 503-520; Livingstone, Bober, and Helsper,
“Active participation,”.
21 Sue Bennett, Karl Maton, and Lisa Kervin, "The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of
the evidence," British Journal of Educational Technology 39, no. 5 (2008): 775-786; Neil
Selwyn, "The digital nativemyth and reality," Aslib proceedings 61, no. 4 (2009), 364-379.
22 Mark Bullen, Tannis Morgan, and Adnan Qayyum, "Digital learners in higher education:
Looking beyond stereotypes," in Proceedings of EdMedia+ Innovate Learning (Lisbon:
Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, 2011), 678-687.
23 Livingstone, Bober, and Helsper, “Active participation,”.
24 Sun Sun Lim, "Young people and communication technologies: Emerging challenges in
generational analysis,” in Communication Across the Lifespan, ed. Jon F. Nussbaum (New York:
Peter Lang, 2016), 5-19.
25 Sonia Livingstone, Children and the Internet (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2009); Selwyn, "The
digital nativemyth,".
26 Eszter Hargittai, "Digital na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the
“net generation”," Sociological Inquiry 80, no. 1 (2010): 92-113.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
27 E. Dianne Looker, and Victor Thiessen, "Beyond the digital divide in Canadian schools: From
access to competency in the use of information technology," Social Science Computer Review
21, no. 4 (2003): 475-490.
28 Jan A. G. van Dijk, and Alexander J. A. M. van Deursen, Digital Skills: Unlocking the
Information Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
29 Ibid.
30 Pierre Bourdieu, and Jean Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1990).
31 Seth Gershenson, Seth, "Do summer time-use gaps vary by socioeconomic status?," American
Educational Research Journal 50, no. 6 (2013): 1219-1248; Doug Hyun Han, Young Sik Lee,
Churl Na, Jee Young Ahn, Un Sun Chung, Melissa A. Daniels, Charlotte A. Haws, and Perry F.
Renshaw, "The effect of methylphenidate on Internet video game play in children with attention-
deficit/hyperactivity disorder," Comprehensive Psychiatry 50, no. 3 (2009): 251-256; Sumi
Hollingworth, Ayo Mansaray, Kim Allen, and Anthea Rose, "Parents' perspectives on
technology and children's learning in the home: social class and the role of the habitus," Journal
of Computer Assisted Learning 27, no. 4 (2011): 347-360; Linda Jackson, Alexander Von Eye,
Frank Biocca, Gretchen Barbatsis, Yong Zhao, and Hiram Fitzgerald, "How low-income children
use the Internet at home," Journal of Interactive Learning Research 16, no. 3 (2005): 259-271.
32 "Infocomm Usage-Households and Individuals," Infocomm Media Development Authority
(IMDA), accessed May 1, 2018, https://www.imda.gov.sg/industry-development/facts-and-
figures/infocomm-usage-households-and-individuals
33 "Data.gov.sg," Government of Singapore, accessed May 19, 2018, https://data.gov.sg/
34 Saravanan Gopinathan, "Globalisation, the Singapore developmental state and education
policy: A thesis revisited," Globalisation, Societies and Education 5, no. 1 (2007): 53-70.
35 Sun Sun Lim, Shobha Vadrevu, Yoke Hian Chan, and Iccha Basnyat, "Facework on Facebook:
The online publicness of juvenile delinquents and youths-at-risk," Journal of Broadcasting &
Electronic Media 56, no. 3 (2012): 346-361.
36 Han, Lee, Na, Ahn, Chung, Daniels, Haws, and Renshaw, "The effect of methylphenidate on
Internet video game play,"; Jackson, Von Eye, Biocca, Barbatsis, Zhao, and Fitzgerald, "How
low-income children use the Internet,".
37 Bourdieu, and Passeron, Reproduction in Education.
38 Maria Bakardjieva, Internet society: The Internet in everyday life (London: Sage, 2005).
39 Hollingworth, Mansaray, Allen, and Rose, "Parents' perspectives on technology,".
40 Bullen, Morgan, and Qayyum, "Digital learners in higher education,"; Livingstone, Bober, and
Helsper, “Active participation,”.
41 Bourdieu, and Passeron, Reproduction in Education.
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invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
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invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
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Hargittai, Eszter. "Digital na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the
“net generation”." Sociological Inquiry 80, no. 1 (2010): 92-113.
Hargittai, Eszter, and Gina Walejko. "The participation divide: Content creation and sharing in
the digital age." Information, Community and Society 11, no. 2 (2008): 239-256.
Helsper, Ellen Johanna, and Rebecca Eynon. "Digital natives: where is the evidence?." British
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Hoffman, Donna L., Thomas P. Novak, and Ann E. Schlosser. "The evolution of the digital
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Hollingworth, Sumi, Ayo Mansaray, Kim Allen, and Anthea Rose. "Parents' perspectives on
technology and children's learning in the home: social class and the role of the habitus."
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invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
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Fitzgerald. "How low-income children use the Internet at home." Journal of Interactive
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partnership: a report on Australian policies for information and communication technologies
in education and training. Australia: Global Learning Services, 2002.
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model of the competent digital gamer." Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture 3,
no. 1 (2009): 23-31.
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generational analysis.” In Communication Across the Lifespan, edited by Jon F. Nussbaum,
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Electronic Media 56, no. 3 (2012): 346-361.
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information? Young people's take-up of opportunities to act and interact on the Internet."
Information, Community & Society 8, no. 3 (2005): 287-314.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
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and age." Communication Research 28, no. 4 (2001): 536-562.
Looker, E. Dianne, and Victor Thiessen. "Beyond the digital divide in Canadian schools: From
access to competency in the use of information technology." Social Science Computer
Review 21, no. 4 (2003): 475-490.
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Dhingra. "Digital globalization: The new era of global flows.McKinsey Digital, February
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globalization-the-new-era-of-global-flows
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involvement and interaction." In The handbook of new media: social shaping and social
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113. London: Sage, 2006.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
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communication technologies in everyday life." Technology in Society 25, no. 1 (2003): 99-
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Media & Society 6, no. 3 (2004): 341-362.
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communications technology." Journal of Aging Studies 18, no. 4 (2004): 369-384.
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higher education: Identification of critical success factors." Interactive Technology and Smart
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Characteristics of youth who form close online relationships." Journal of Adolescence 26, no.
1 (2003): 105-119.
Ybarra, Michele L., and Kimberly J. Mitchell. "Youth engaging in online harassment:
Associations with caregiver–child relationships, Internet use, and personal characteristics."
Journal of Adolescence 27, no. 3 (2004): 319-336.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. & Loh, R. S. M. (2020). Young people, smartphones,
invisible illiteracies: Closing the potentiality-actuality chasm in mobile media. In E. Polson, L. S. Clark
& R. Gajjala (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Class (pp. 132-141). New York: Routledge
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