Cybersecurity/Trust | ICT4SDG | SDG10 | SDG4 | Youth
February 5, 2019

Children’s online safety: what is the best approach? Key findings from recent research.

By Mariya Stoilova and Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Safer Internet Day (#SID2019) prompts us to support children’s rights in a digital age. Across the globe, children are spending more time online, at a younger age and often from the privacy of a mobile device. They already account for 1 in 3 internet users and their proportion will continue to grow with the spread of the internet in the Global South.

The use of the internet provides many opportunities for children that contribute to their well-being. But it also amplifies risks that could undermine their well-being. The development of legislation and regulation, along with the provision of child-centred resources lags behind the pace of children’s developing online activities, compelling urgent efforts to ensure a better online environment for children.

The Global Kids Online project is a collaboration between the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE),  UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, and the EU Kids Online network and is working with partners in Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Ghana, Montenegro, the Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, and Uruguay.

Global Kids Online has surveyed over 15,000 children and 12,000 of their caregivers – making it one of the most comprehensive surveys on children’s internet use globally.

Here is what we learned about children’s experiences online.

Firstly, children’s media and digital literacy plays an important part in how children understand, manage and safeguard their safety online:

  • The longer children spend online, the more opportunities they experience, but also more risks.
  • Younger children and those with less-advanced digital skills are disproportionately exposed to online risks of harm.

So, more educational efforts are needed to ensure children develop the skills and capacities allowing them to have positive and beneficial online experiences, taking advantage of the opportunities and limiting the harm.

Second, children often approach the internet playfully and creatively – exploring new opportunities and learning by trial and error. They might approach a risky situation as a learning process, taking measures when risks escalate to a potentially harmful situation. The ability to handle these risks is an important part of the learning and development process, and foreclosing this would limit children’s autonomy and ability to develop.

Indeed, children who are encouraged and supported to use the internet positively and safely have better outcomes while restrictive strategies, such as banning children from using the internet do not have the same positive effect.

Third, when upset by something online, most children turn to friends or family for support and rarely to teachers or other professionals (see Figure 1 below).

  • As parents might lack the skills, knowledge, or awareness to mediate effectively their children’s internet use, they need to be supported to enable them to assist more effectively children’s positive internet use.
  • Improving school access, supported by teacher training, could further link internet use with education and information benefits, specifically by developing children’s – and teachers’ – digital skills.

Fourth, children’s engagement in online spaces serves an important role for their learning, identity formation, social relationships, and participation. But there are big differences in who can take advantage of the opportunities available. Children are not a homogenous group, and their internet use, opportunities and risks are all closely linked to their age, level of digital skills, places of access (school, home or elsewhere), and the support they receive.

Inequalities between and within countries mean that the most disadvantaged groups are falling even further behind their peers. Supporting the more disadvantaged and vulnerable groups to gain online access, acquire digital skills, and achieve tangible positive outcomes can serve to reduce social inequalities.

In conclusion, our ambition is to inform and impact national and international policy and legislation around digital technologies, with a focus on safeguarding children’s rights around the world and encompassing the full range of rights to information, education, protection, privacy and participation.

Children are often the early adopters of new technologies which can put them prematurely in the role of digital experts. So they need an online environment which provides them with accessible and age-appropriate content in a way that supports their changing developmental needs.

More information about Global Kids Online findings and initiatives can be found at: www.globalkidsonline.net

Mariya Stoilova is a Post-doctoral Research Officer in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. With a strong comparative and multi-method focus, her research explores children’s use of digital technologies, online privacy and commercial use of data, social inequalities, and family support. Follow Mariya on Twitter @Mariya_Stoilova
Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications (@MediaLSE) at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S
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Children’s online safety: what is the best approach? Key findings from recent research.

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