Friday, 3 December 2010

Risks and safety for children on the internet

“29% of European children aged 9-16 who use the internet have communicated in the past with someone they have not met face-to-face before, an activity which may be risky but may be fun.” This is a quote from the report Risks and safety on the internet. The perspective of European children Initial findings from the EU Kids Online survey of 9-16 year olds and their parents. This report was published on 21 October 2010. It presents the initial findings for the “EU Kids Online II” project which is funded by the European Commission Safer Internet Programme. Its authors are Coordinator Sonia Livingstone plus Leslie Haddon, Anke Görzig and Kjartan Ólafsson.

Over its 127 pages it covers the topics of usage (where and how children use the internet), activities (what they do), and the risks (seeing sexual material, sexual messages, bullying, meeting new people, personal data misuse and potentially harmful content of other types.

Obviously I don’t have space to deal with it in detail here, so I’ll just choose some of the highlights to draw to your attention. Hopefully you will go away and read the full report yourself.

The report draws its analysis and conclusions from a survey held during spring and summer 2010 of 23,420 children aged 9-16 from 23 European countries, covering the above mentioned risks. Countries included in the report: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the UK.

The statistics in general

Only 12% of the children say they are bothered or upset by something they have encountered on the internet. On the face of things, this looks like a good result, but not being bothered or upset doesn’t mean not being affected. For example early exposure to sexual material could perhaps make children less sensitive and thus more open to abuse (this is my opinion, not a finding of the report).

The more important statistic is how many children have actually encountered one or more of these risks: the result is 39% - perhaps lower than we might expect given media hype, but still worryingly high. Not surprisingly, the heavier the use of the internet, the greater the proportion of children who encounter the risks. My personal view is that this trend is likely to increase as children get more ease of access through mobile technology, and they get it younger.

33% of 9-10 year olds and 77% of 15-16 year olds who use the internet go online daily. Although 85% of children access the internet from home, 48% do it from their bedroom and 31% use a mobile phone.
This means that most parents won’t be aware of when their children are online, or easily able to monitor their usage. So another worrying result is that between 40% and 60% of parents are unaware that their children have experienced these risks (the percentage varies according to risk type, e.g. it’s 41% for sexual images and 61% for sexual messages). So this means that roughly half the parents of children who are encountering these risks are unaware that it’s happening!

Which takes me back to the quote at the start of this piece. Would you want to know that your child is potentially “meeting” someone they don’t know over the internet? Your child may think this is fun (because it’s risky?), but do you? Do you know whether this is true of your child? If not, perhaps it’s time you should. For example in my home we insist that our children make us Facebook friends – that way we can monitor their online conversations: not to spy on them, but to check safety.

29% of children (43% in the UK) who use social networking sites like Facebook have more than 100 contacts – just how many of them do they really know? Here’s a quote from a 16 year old Swedish girl: “older guys from other countries add you on Facebook. But then again, you don’t have to accept.”
Here are some really sobering statistics, which I quote direct from the report: “22% of 11-16 year olds have been exposed to one or more types of potentially harmful user generated content: hate (12%), pro-anorexia (11%), self-harm (8%), drug-taking (7%), suicide (5%)”.

Sexual images

I have already noted above that children may encounter these risks and not be bothered by them, and thus actually become desensitised. The report doesn’t say this directly, but the following quote speaks for itself: “14% of 9-16 year olds have in the past 12 months seen images online that are ‘obviously sexual – for example, showing people naked or people having sex.’ Of those who have seen sexual or pornographic images online, one in three were bothered by the experience and, of those, half (i.e. one sixth of those exposed to sexual images or around 2% of all children) were either fairly or very upset by what they saw.” This means that the vast majority of children who encountered such sexual material weren’t bothered by it! Not surprisingly older teenagers, especially males, are both more likely to have seen such material and are less likely to have been bothered (in fact they probably were actively seeking it out: again my opinion).
Of those who were bothered, only about half told someone, and only 18% told a parent.

Sexual messages

Sexual messages seem more likely to upset – perhaps because they might be unsolicited (i.e. the child isn’t actively trying to find the material). According to the report 15% of 11-16 year olds have received such messages, nearly 25% of whom were bothered by them (with around 12% being very upset). Only around a third of the children blocked the sender or deleted the messages and the report suggests this is an area for education (i.e. to encourage children to develop blocking skills).


Online bullying seems thankfully less prevalent: only 5% of 9-16 have received nasty or hurtful messages. 66% of children who receive such messages are upset by them, and around half of them deleted the messages or blocked the bullies. The report says that offline bullying is more common than online, but this isn’t anything to celebrate – bullying in any form over any medium is bad.

Some final statistics

30% of 11-16 year olds report that their internet activities impact negatively on their relationships with friends, school work and sleep.

Children use the internet for a wide range of activities, not all of which are risky or bad: 84% for school work and 74% for playing games (though many of these can be quite violent in nature, something the report does not cover).

This is a valuable piece of research that is reported in a highly accessible form: please read it and pass it on.

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