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The Experience of EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile in Europe: Lessons from Research and Future Challenges

(by Giovanna Mascheroni)

Giovanna Mascheroni is a Lecturer in Sociology of Communication in the Department of Sociology, Catholic University of Milan, and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. She is part of the management team of EU Kids Online network, of which she has been the national contact since 2007, and she coordinated the Net Children Go Mobile project in 2012-2014.

EU Kids Online is a research network and knowledge enhancement project co-funded by the Safer Internet Programme (now Better Internet for Kids) of the European Commission to inform evidence-based policy initiatives to make the Internet a better place for children. From 2006-09, as a thematic network of 21 countries, EU Kids Online identified and evaluated the findings of nearly 400 research studies to draw out substantive, methodological and policy implications. The literature review informed the classification of Internet risks based on the position of the child in the communicative relationship: we therefore identified content risks, where the child is a receiver of mass-produced content (e.g. pornography); contact risks, where the child participates in an adult-initiated interaction (e.g. grooming or ideological persuasion); and conduct risks, in which the child is involved as an actor (e.g. cyberbullying, sexting). From 2009-11, as a knowledge enhancement project across 25 countries, the network surveyed 25,000 children and parents to produce original, rigorous data on online opportunities and risk of harm.

From 2011-14, the network expanded to 33 countries to conduct targeted analyses of the quantitative survey and new qualitative interviews with children. In 2015 the network coordination passed from Prof. Sonia Livingstone, Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to Prof. Uwe Hasebrink and the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research, University of Hamburg.  

In 2012 the European Commission also co-funded the Net Children Go Mobile with the aim of understanding whether access to the Internet by means of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) posed new or more risks to children, and new challenges for parents and teachers. Coordinated by Giovanna Mascheroni at the Catholic University of Milan, the Net Children Go Mobile project replicated major parts of EU Kids Online’s qualitative and quantitative research in selected countries in 2012-14, adding a focus on mobile devices.

In almost ten years of research the EU Kids Online network developed a framework that contextualises the opportunities and risks of the Internet in the context of children’s everyday lives. In other words, children’s online experiences are shaped by socio-demographic (age, gender and socio-economic status) and psychological characteristics (such as the propensity to sensation-seeking, or relational difficulties), but also by the location and frequency of Internet use, the online activities, their digital skills. Beyond the individual level, we also focused on social mediation - parents, school and peer group – that influence children’s online experiences. The third set of influences that helped understand online opportunities and risks for children is a number of structural factors at the country level, namely the technological infrastructure that supports their communities and schools, or the national regulation of the Internet and the media system, or the religious and cultural values that inform the society. This combined model found empirical support in the main findings of the EU Kids Online survey:

  • The more children use the Internet, the more online activities they undertake, the more digital skills they gain and the more likely they are to climb the ‘ladder of online opportunities’ progressing from basic to participatory and creative uses of the Internet.  Relatedly, the more children use the Internet, the more risk factors they encounter, and the higher the likelihood of self-reported harm.
  • Not all Internet use results in benefits. Online activities are neither beneficial nor risky per se. The chance of a child gaining the benefits depends on their age, gender and socio-economic status, on how their parents, teachers, siblings and peers support them, and on the positive content available to them.
  • Not all risk results in harm: the chance of a child being upset or harmed by online experiences depends partly on their age, gender and socio-economic status, and also on their resilience and resources (including digital and social skills) to cope with what happens on the Internet. So, the social mediation they receive as national regulation and cultural values shape the way children deal with online risks.
  • Age, socio-economic status, psychological characteristics, inequalities in digital skills and, partially, gender are factors that differentiate among individual children: children who are older, engage in more online activities, are higher in self-efficacy and sensation seeking, and have more psychological problems, encounter more risks of all kinds online. In contrast, younger children, who undertake fewer online activities, have fewer skills, are lower in self-efficacy and sensation seeking, or have more psychological problems are exposed to less risks on the Internet but find them more harmful.

The recent replication of key parts of the survey by the Net Children Go Mobile project shows the degree to which children’s engagement with the Internet and mobile technologies is in fact changing rapidly: the smartphone is now the preferred device to go online for an increasing number of children. While providing access on the move, the smartphone is actually used most in the privacy of the child’s bedroom, thus fostering the privatisation of Internet access and use, and posing new challenges to parents in their attempts to manage children’s engagement with digital media. The comparison between the Net Children Go Mobile and EU Kids Online findings also shows that the correlation between risks and opportunities can actually be changed through policy interventions: whereas in Denmark, Italy and Romania the likelihood that a child is exposed to online risks increases as children take up more activities on a daily basis, in Belgium, Portugal and the UK more opportunities have not been accompanied by a rise in risks. This difference can be partially attributed to the e-safety curricula in schools, awareness raising initiatives, and a restrictive-protective approach by parents (which, nonetheless, is also commonly observed in Italy).

Finally, the qualitative study conducted in both projects helped us go beyond statistics and understand that not all the online practices that adults perceive as risky are considered problematic by children, and not by all children. Exploring the consequences of Internet use for children, then, meant also recognising that children are far from homogeneous and that they belong to different youth subcultures (fans, geeks, civics, sharers, and experimenters).

We also learned that future research is needed in order to better understand the (positive and negative) outcomes of children’s engagement with the Internet, at a variety of levels.

 

All EU Kids Online report are available at: lse.ac.uk/EUKidsOnlineReports

All Net Children Go Mobile reports are available at: netchildrengomobile.eu/reports/

The EU Kids Online methodological toolkit is available at: lse.ac.uk/EUKidsOnlineDataMethods

 

Contact info: Giovanna Mascheroni, Giovanna.mascheroni@unicatt.it 

 



29.09.2015