#DigitalParenting 'Children, Risk & Safety on the Internet' (2012)

Book Cover
Children, Risk & Safety on the Internet (2012), based on 2010 survey

Sonia Livingstone is one of the early pioneers investigating the use of computers within the family (when many had focused upon schools), and has been consulted by government on a range of related policies.

This book is deeply interesting, with quite a lot of detail, based upon the ‘EU Kids Online’ Project, where 25,000 children and their families across Europe were interviewed to gain a nuanced idea of (safe) engagement online.

The book deals with the question of childhood, what the ‘digital revolution’ means in practice: not technological determinism, but shaped by social, political and economic changes. Children’s engagement with technology is not ‘inevitable’ – there are interventions that can be made to change the experiences.

Empowerment is required to overcome choices. The Internet is a product of our society, now deeply embedded, but there are many who still fear/can’t really understand it. This book considers ‘safety’ as important, but not the predominant concern, as children’s right, pleasures and opportunities (including the need to make risks) need to be balanced against protection. Much research has focused on the USA, so this study of European nations is important. The book focuses on 3 core areas: the question of ‘digital natives’, ‘risk’ and ‘responsibility’.

The Digital Native?

Have all ideas of friendships changed with social networking, opportunities to research online, etc.? Changes are rooted in 1950s youth culture, which raised the rights of children to play/challenge adult authority, and shapes our desire to encourage education and participation in the digital spaces. The digital world changes our manner/expressions, but the role of parents, teachers, neighbours, friends and cultural values are still important in the socialisation process.

There is not the same experience for all children – for some internet is a

rich, engaging and stimulating resource, while for others, it remains a narrow, sporadically used one.(p5)

Moral Panics: Conceptualising Risk & Harm

There are longstanding debates about childhood freedom and innocence, with anxiety compounded by uncertainty about the power of new/complex technologies – and media tendencies to “generalize from individual instances of harm”. The research/evidence as to the impact of policy measures so far (state intervention, industry self-regulation, education initiatives and awareness raising) is patchy

The focus of risks is child-centred around questions of content, contact and conduct. The range of risks is reaching consensus, but not so much what that the outcome of risks are. E.g. Pornography, is is damaging to children now? to their sexual development? does it damage their innocence or is it something else? The ‘probability of harm’ hasn’t really been established in measurable ways, so total avoidance tends to be the focus of policies – rather than guidance/protection which would allow wider engagement with the social world.

It’s not inevitable that exposure to risk will mean harm, it might also open up new opportunities, and allow space to challenge current thinking in positive ways.

Who is Responsible?

A range of stakeholders, including government, educators, industry, third sector and families would expect to be involved, although there are cultural differences attached to expectations. There are judgements that need to be made about when and how to intervene. Previously advice was to encourage the children to go online under the parents watchful eye, but with increasingly mobile access, it’s now become more important to equip children to work out the solution for themselves – which requires inputs from parents/internet industry.

Further Thoughts

The book uses a ‘child-centred model’, surrounded by circles of influence which both enable and constrain children, and seeks to find their ‘agency’ within this. The book is keen to emphasise that the internet is not seen as the sole cause of changes in children’s lives. The four particular areas of risk identified as already affected by policy/public interest:

  1. Encountering pornography
  2. Bullying/being bullied
  3. ‘Sexting’
  4. Going to offline meetings with those met online.

The book focuses particularly upon ‘safety’, and the authors would like to emphasise that they are not seeking to capture the sum-total of children’s experience on the internet – there are a range of further benefits not addressed here. The research demonstrates that children across Europe are using a range of activities online, a small set encounter risk factors, and of those only a few encounter harm (those need to be addressed, but we need to counter media perceptions of high risk). Further research demonstrates that we no longer need to talk about the digital divide in terms of access/no access, but in terms of ‘graduations of inclusion’.

Some Key Quotes

“Research shows that adults who are disadvantaged in traditional, offline ways tend also to be disadvantaged when it comes to engagements with information and communications technology.” Many argue that technology-rich environments mean that’s now not a problem, but all children are not the same, and not all fully online. Research demonstrates that “private, playful access is more likely to lead to learning and skills development than supervised and restricted access.” (p45)

“The vast array of risks and opportunities that confront children in their daily media practices cannot be analysed in isolation from the broader context in which these practices emerge and become meaningful.” (p59)

“The internet is a significant resource for socializing among peers: on the one hand, it supports forms of perpetual contact’ that extends face-to-face encounters beyond physical proximity; on the other hand, it is a resources for co-present interaction, and shared use in face-to-face meetings.” (p63)

“There are certain continuities between children’s online and offline worlds – searching for information, entertainment and gaming and social networking online are, to a large extent, extensions or modifications of practices that are located in everyday life, that is, they are not particularly on one side or the other of the ‘real’/’virtual’ divide. But there is little question that the internet has now added to the breadth and depth of children’s everyday opportunities.” (p73)

“Social networking has changed many people’s everyday lives, and in an extraordinarily short time. Children and young people, especially ,are adopting social networking as a part of their social relationships, learning, consumption and creative practices. What defines children and young people as social beings is happening more and more often in social networking sites (SNS), which are online spaces where people can communicate, play, watch video clips, look at photographs and share their feelings and thoughts with others.” (p99)

“Media and the internet are often seen as partly replacing the role of traditional authorities or agents related to locality, community and family in young people’s lives. However, since the offline and online worlds are intertwined, activity online is regulated and organized in accordance with the offline worlds of home, school or community.” (p102)

“We live in an era of contested conceptualizations of childhood. On the one hand, the commercial imperative of contemporary capitalism has expanded into marketing for and to children. On the other hand, the predominant view of childhood as a natural, universal and biologically inherent period of human development, imagined as an age of innocence where the child is vulnerable to the threat of deviant sexuality, means that we experience a nervous dialectic in which children are held to be ‘naturally’ innocent yes, at the same time, implicated in dangerous sexuality. This means that rather than seeing them as humans going through a complex and contradictory maturation process, we posit children as inherently pure, yet easily corrupted by exposure to explicit image material.” (Kleinhans, 2004, p72) (p165)

“Media representations across Europe affect perceptions of the prevalence of risk by envisaging the online world as hazardous to children, and by focusing public attention disproportionately on risks.” [Evidenced by content analysis of newspapers in countries surveyed] = contribute to public anxiety – leading to moral panics.(p166)

(p192) Defining addiction:

  • Salience: activity most important thing in person’s life
  • Mood Change – subjective experiences affected by activity
  • Tolerance – the process of requiring continually higher doses of an activity to achieve original sensations
  • Withdrawl symptoms – experienced when unable to perform activity/activity terminated.
  • Conflict – with individual’s closest social surroundings (family/school)
  • Relapse & reinstatement – tendency to return to activity after periods of control.

9/10 children whose parents use the internet “receive advice from them about internet use and safety and have to abide by restrictive rules. Monitoring is less frequent, experienced by only one in two children. Only a third of parents use technical mediation to block & filter some types of websites. Parents who are internet users are more proactive about mediation than parents who are not…” (p222)

“The younger children are, the more parental education is required for them to use the internet safely and exploit its potentials . Since lower parental educational status often leads to less confidant parental mediation, we need to provide the resources for children to draw on to build competencies for using the internet and copying with online risks. As children get older, they achieve more unrestricted access to the use of the internet, and parents tend to refrain from intervening in their personal time and space.” (p257)

Sonck et al 2012 – “children with more highly educated parents show higher levels of self-reported skills and diversity of use, but lower levels of self-confidence. Although children are often described as ‘digital natives’, who ‘naturally’ acquire the skills to engage successfully with the newest media technologies, the facts show that the structural inequalities in the information society that prevent socially vulnerable citizens from participating fully in economic, political and cultural life also affect children. These inequalities are highly relevant to the notion of the access rainbow, and parents and children’s ability to engage with their online surroundings or not.” (p267-268)

“As the internet comes into more frequent use, online and offline risks are tending to coincide. There are therefore arguments for treating children’s online reality not as separate from, but rather as part of, their usual reality.” (p306)