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6 things parents and policy-makers need to know about children and the internet

Sonia Livingstone has been researching children’s internet use for 20 years, and based on this research and that of many others, she’s come to six evidence-based conclusions that should be of value to parents and policy-makers who seek to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risk of harm. Sonia is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and has more than 25 years of experience in media research with a particular focus on children and young people. She is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project.

1. Internet access as a right. As children go online for longer, ever younger, and in more countries across the globe, the nature of internet use is changing – more mobile and personalized, more embedded in everyday life, harder to supervise by parents yet ever more tracked by companies. As children see it,internet access is now a right, and so, too, is digital literacy. They claim these as rights out of both enthusiasm and necessity – not so much because they value engaging with the internet in its own right, but because they engage with the world through the internet. And this they see as their route to wellbeing now and to better life chances in the future. However, not all online opportunities are automatically translated into demonstrable benefits for children, as too many have gained access to hardware but not know-how, to lessons but no lasting learning, or to chances to express their voices that go unheard.

2. Addressing the participation gap. Children’s enthusiasm alone is not enough. Even in the world’s wealthier countries, most tend to use the internet primarily as a medium of mass communication, and mainly receive (view, stream, download) content produced by others, most of it commercial. It is only the minority of children – more of them older and relatively privileged – who are genuinely creative or participatory in their online contributions. Many therefore fail to gain the benefit of the internet, and don’t have the chance to see their own experiences and culture reflected in the digital environment. This raises two challenges: (i) to media literacy educators, and the ministries of education that support them, to facilitate creative, embedded, ambitious uses of digital media, and (ii) to the creative industries, to build more imaginative and ambitious pathways for children to explore online and fewer walled gardens, sticky sites and standardized contents.

3. Beyond digital natives and digital immigrants. In the early days of the internet, parents and teachers tended to feel disempowered as their children knew more about it than they did. But as the internet has become a familiar part of everyday life, the reverse generation gap (in which children’s digital skills outweigh those of their parents’) has tended to reduce, with parents and teachers increasingly able to share in and guide children’s internet use. Evidence shows that if parents are knowledgeable and confident in using the internet themselves, they offer the kind of guidance that children themselves accept as useful (and you can tell if that’s the case by reflecting on whether your child spontaneously shows you, or asks for help with, what they’re doing online). This means more authoritative guidance – sharing, discussing, setting some limits – and fewer top-down restrictions or bans that children are likely to evade. So efforts to build parents’ digital literacy will help parents, children and teachers in using the internet wisely (and that, in turn, might help regulators who prefer not to intervene).

4. Getting online risk in perspective. Society has become used to media headlines panicking about media risks online, and clinical and law enforcement sources do show that these are real and potentially deeply problematic for a small minority of children. But for the vast majority of children, the online world is no more risky – and perhaps even less risky – than the offline world. Reliable evidence suggests that the incidence of risk of harm for most internet-using children is relatively low – in Europe and the US, for instance, between 5% and 25% of adolescents have encountered online bullying, pornography, sexting or self-harm sites.

5. Risk is (only) the probability of harm. Research also shows that online (and offline) risks are generally positively correlated – for example, children who encounter online bullying are more likely to see online pornography or meet new online contacts offline, and vice versa. Moreover, offline risk seems to extend (and sometimes get amplified) online, while online risk of harm is often felt (and made manifest) in offline settings. However, not all risk results in actual harm. Indeed, some evidence suggests that exposure to some degree of risk is, for many children, associated with the development ofdigital skills and coping strategies, as children build up resilience through their online experiences. Children are no more homogeneous than the adult population, so a host of factors as diverse as gender norms, family resources and regulatory context all make a difference in the distribution of risk and harm, vulnerability and resilience.

6. Risks and opportunities go hand in hand. The more often children use the internet, the more digital skills and literacies they generally gain, the more online opportunities they enjoy and – the tricky part for policy-makers – the more risks they encounter. In short, the more, the more: so internet use, skills, opportunities and risks are all positively correlated. This means that policy efforts to promote use, skills and opportunities are also likely to engender more risk. It also means that efforts to reduce risk (by policy-makers, parents and other stakeholders) are likely to constrain children’s internet use, skills and opportunities. This poses a conundrum that demands recognition and careful thought. How much risk is society ready to tolerate to support children’s digital opportunities? And, most important, can governments and industry take action to redesign children’s online experience so as to enhance their well-being and rights?

These points are all illustrated in the graph below, which shows the positive correlation for children in seven European countries between online opportunities and risks in 2010. It also shows the same correlation a few years later. While the overall picture remains similar, we might ask ourselves, how have some countries (e.g. UK and Italy) managed to increase children’s online opportunities without substantially adding to their risks, while other countries have increased children’s opportunities only at the cost of also increasing their risks? And how will societies reach this balance, in different countries and for different children, in the future?

Graphic for WEF Agenda Blog