This thesis examines how human services organisations (HSOs) use the internet as part of their organisational presence and practice to provide services to children. This endeavour is both important and timely as HSOs, like many commercial and government organisations, are increasing their use of the internet to work with and for their customers and clients. However, there has been little analysis of such activity in relation to children-focused services. As the internet is seen by many as an important tool in delivering a growing number of services, it is vital to explore how HSOs use information and communication technologies (ICTs), as well as the influence ICTs have on the community in general and children in particular. The specific purpose of this research then is to better understand how HSOs might enhance their use of the internet, and also make a contribution to the academic debate on the ever changing social construction of childhood at a time when the influence of technology is complex and ever-evolving, while remaining a topic of community concern. This thesis focuses on the websites of HSOs, and has the perspective that such sites are spaces for interaction and service (including information) provision. In addition, the website acts as public statements not only about an organisation, but communicates how an HSO interprets and constructs its child service users. To provide a social and cultural context for this doctoral research the literature on HSOs is examined first, followed by a review of the broad literature on ICTs and then the more relevant but small volume of research literature pertaining to the internet.
This research has been informed by social constructionism, a sociological epistemology that considers how individual identities develop in social contexts, where social processes and cultural practices are the product of a particular social group. This then leads to a consideration of the sociology of childhood literature which positions childhood as a social construct that is dynamic, and shaped by social and cultural practices, including use of ICTs to form individuals acceptable to a particular social group. For western cultures, autonomous and independent individuals able to act in a socially constructive manner constitute the identities that are valued. HSOs contribute to cultural practices by using a range of interventions and technologies (including ICTs and websites) to produce self-regulated and productive individuals. Within a social constructionist perspective, the formation of child identities is theorised through the operations of disciplinary power as articulated by Foucaultian ideas. Disciplinary power is subtle and works to produce or construct individuals in line with the community objectives, with HSOs as well as family and school operating as agents of community using a range of experts and technologies to reach these objectives.
As this doctoral research is focussed on understanding the production of knowledge through websites as texts, a qualitative approach has been chosen for data analysis. However, with the website comprising a mix of media and space for activity/interactivity, and since no recognised methodology exists, an extended approach to textual analysis was devised, called ‘Webtextual Analysis’. The webtext methodology involved four steps (webtext homepage; webtext structure; webtext content; and webtext user activity) with each focussed on a particular aspect of a website to ensure that all data was available for analysis. The webtext methodology used an iterative approach which led to the organising of data into general themes, with those central to the research question examined in increasingly greater detail. The approach also enabled websites to be assessed and compared using a framework for determining online presence, and for the identification of the imagined or general user for whom the website content was targeted. Three Australian HSOs were examined: Kids Help Line (national telephone and online counselling service for children aged five to eighteen years); Create Foundation (national organisation that provides an independent voice specifically for children in out-of-home care); and Commission for Children & Young People & Child Guardian (Queensland Government agency to advocate and protect all Queensland children, especially those children using statutory child protection services). An innovation of this thesis was the examination of organisational websites at two different times (2006 and 2010). This enabled an investigation looking at how the selected HSOs have responded to significant developments on the internet during the four year period, including the growth of social media.
While the research found a number of issues about the general operation of websites, the main findings are summarised under three themes: HSO websites constitute a homogeneous view of childhood; HSOs fail to engage children through websites; and children have been constructed as technologically unsophisticated by HSO websites. Despite the flexibility of ICTs, current social developments, and the generally acknowledged abilities of children with ICTs, the online presence of the HSOs was variable, and the websites did not use the full range of communication and engagement applications made possible with these technologies. Despite the diversity of childhood, in general these websites did not reflect this in their construction and service provision, nor were the websites employed to build upon the ICTs skills that contemporary children possess. The websites did not enable children to actively engage with the organisation to seek or provide opinions and views on issues that affected them, and HSOs constructed them as objects with little to contribute to the wider community setting. The HSOs websites were designed by adults essentially for adult users and did not include applications of functions relevant to contemporary children.
There are a number of recommendations that emerge from this research including: that HSOs develop a clear strategic purpose for their websites rather than being diverse; that web-based services are incorporated into the operation of HSOs, and not simply an adjunct; that websites actively encourage e-participation through a range of social media applications; and that websites facilitate two-way interaction between HSOs and children, and amongst children accessing services. This research demonstrates that HSO websites are an important element of the social and cultural processes that create, shape and mould the identity of individuals who are autonomous and self-governing, with this area of contemporary concern benefiting from ongoing academic attention.