#DigitalParenting: Childwise Monitor Special Report 2010: Digital Lives

The report starts with:

Today’s young children are born into a digital world, and have never known a time without the Internet affecting all aspects of their daily life.

Multi-platform access to a whole range of material blurs the distinction between the real and virtual world, and between different delivery channels, giving an extra dimension to their lives that they take for granted.

This report explores children’s relationship with the Internet and modern technology, and the way that members of this generation perceive and approach the online/offline divide.

With increasing access not under their parents eyes – keeping track of their activity, and ensuring their safety, is a growing challenges. The rate of change means that there are major differences in experience across age groups – those who can remember a time before broadband, before smart phones, before Facebook, before the Nintendo Wii. Experiences of new technologies will be seen as new technology in its own right, as well as viewed through the prism of what has come before.

The report is keen to understand the distinction between online & offline, and whether this has any meaning for this age group; how interacting with others via social networking and social gaming links with their physical-world connections, and do they understand the link between online money and hard cash? The group interviewed are those who are keen internet users, so not necessarily everyday users (and more likely 11+). Most have a noticeably wide range of interests, including physical activities – and the children rarely seemed to make much distinction between different types of media.

Has Digital Taken Over?

Those questioned were more concerned with current events (whether global, or those affecting them personally) than they were with new technology. Those who did mention developments tended to compare their own experiences with those of their parents, especially the changes in speed. They seem to take on board the developments as part of day to day life, and are not overwhelmed in the way that adults seem to be. Online experience builds as children grow – visits are increasingly autonomous – by the age of 14, most are online for around 2 hours. Mobile devices tended to be used for quick checks, with PC/laptop for longer sessions. A large number also have games consoles which are internet enabled, but accessing social networks via that format is not user friendly.

Several children talked about equipment that failed to work reliably, or had broken. This is an issue that is often overlooked, but can have a major impact on true internet accessibility, especially among younger children and those from families where parents are less adept at sorting out problems. (p20)

School internet usage was an initial driver getting many children online, but with near-universal access at home, internet is seen primarily as for leisure by many children – and they don’t consider what they do at school as ‘internet access’.

Explaining the Internet

Children were asked to go back in time and explain to Victorian children what the internet was:

Many of the oldest tried to explain how the internet works, but others, and especially the younger children, focused on what the internet enables them to do  – a place to communicate, to find things out, to play games, to create and have fun. Several referred explicitly to the all-encompassing nature of what is on offer to them via the internet – it lets you do anything… a kingdom… everything in the world put together… part of our life.

How Children Use the Internet

For older children, much of their talk will be with friends living nearby, and attending the same school, who they already see every day – picking up their conversation online, comparing notes about homework, making arrangements for meeting up. For younger children, the focus tips more towards keeping in touch with family and others who live further away, relatives in other countries, friends from previous schools, but they are already sharing time with local friends as well.

The children interviewed had overwhelmingly positive associations with regards to going online – only a minority had thought about risks and dangers, and had focused on the benefits.

Discussing the Internet

The youngest children have had internet from birth. “They talk about this in a very matter-of-fact way, showing close acquaintance with the detail and the mechanic of use, and familiarity with the terminology (scroll, delete, tab, on/off, exit, address)…. The very youngest boys in particular constantly revert to what goes on when they are online, rather than talking about how they use. For them this is a tool, of little interest as a process in its own right.”

Boys 5-6 “I watch films on BBC” “Ooglies! Remember when he got squashed! It comes down boosh! And he floats into the air. And the green egg, nobody likes him because…”

Perceptions of Age Difference 

Those in older groups, who viewed their proficiency as nothing out of the ordinary, were surprised at capability of those younger – which mirrors their concerns in other spaces. “Regardless of their own age, they generally reckon that they themselves are fully able to cope with such events, but are widely protective of those who are younger than they are.”

Social networking has become widespread from age 10 upwards –

  • Girls 11+ = intense users, majority use regularly, build lives around Facebook, few hold serious reservations about use.
  • Boys 11+ = widely signed up, but see it as a tool rather than a focus for their activities. More cynical/more reservations about site safety.
  • Younger children = varies. Majority still work with parents.
    • “Parents who are themselves confident users – helping their child to set up their own profile, and encouraging them to use to communicate with family or friends elsewhere.”
    • “Parents who don’t use/limited use more likely to say that the child must wait until they reach a certain age.

“Main influences encouraging them to sign up are friends, parents, and older siblings or cousins who are already using. This builds interest and familiarity, and makes the site seem more accessible and less intimidating. Indeed, with the internet in general, those children with older family members who accessed the internet frequently seemed to be more comfortable online and more computer literate in general.”

Parents were relaxed about their children signing up for before the official age of 13 on Facebook, and thought that 11 was more of an appropriate age.

Privacy, Safety, Excitement, Friendship

When asked to compare online/real world – children found it difficult to choose – but online seen as offering more opportunities, and potentially safer/more privacy – select own controls about who enters their world (especially if e.g. they share a room).


+ve – in control, set own settings – what others can see

-ve – can get hacked; once you’ve said something – can’t take it back


+ve – certain areas are safe (games/younger); more control who meet; can’t be physically attacked/killed

-ve – Younger less sure about Facebook; be careful who you meet off the internet


+ve – lots goes on on Facebook; looking forward to things; adrenaline rush from games


For most children their online friends are also their offline friends… conversations shift across the elements, although are more likely to discuss “what people are really like” offline.

Older girls noted that “For their friendships that are fully online, different rules apply, and they appreciate that people choose to project an edited version of themselves.”

Buying Things Online

By the age of 7 most have (had) something purchased online, and see it as normal. They are not so convinced into paying for “virtual goods” (including apps/social membership) – especially when there are lots of free alternatives. They have very small amounts of money and have to choose how to spend it.

By Digital Fingerprint

Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture  in the third sector (especially faith). Author of 'Raising Children in a Digital Age', regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.

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