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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
Children learning remotely report that they face negative online content on average more often than before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent JRC report, part of the "Kids' Digital lives in Covid-19 Times (KiDiCoTi)" project.
Common side effects of navigating the digital world, such as cyberbullying, exposure to gory or inappropriate material, or even missing meals due to excessive immersion in online content, occurred more often during the increased time spent at home in the course of the spring 2020 lockdown than beforehand.
Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, said: “The safety of our children – online and offline – is a priority and a source of concern for us all. The study carried out by the Joint Research Centre helps us to understand better the risks posed to children online and to find improved ways to protect them. These factual findings are invaluable to our science-based policymaking, contributing to tackling issues with the appropriate solutions.”
At the same time, however, the techniques used by the parents to deal with such risks also became more refined.
The JRC coordinated KiDiCoTi, which was conducted and supported by 26 research centres in 15 countries across Europe.
The project relied on surveys based on self-reporting by children between the ages 10 and 18, as well as by their parents. Survey-takers could indicate whether certain digital phenomena never happened at all, happened less in comparison to the time before the pandemic, happened the same amount, or happened more during the imposed lockdowns in the spring of 2020.
The results offer a unique glimpse into the experiences of children and parents as the Covid-19 crisis made closer engagement with the digital realm inevitable.
Nearly half of the parents surveyed reported worrying more about the dangers of their children’s excessive internet use in the wake of Covid-19-induced lockdowns.
Indeed, surveyed children spent an average of six-and-a-half hours daily online, more than half of which on strictly school-related activities. 48% of the children felt that they spent too much time online during the pandemic
A quarter of the children overall, but as much as 40 % in Romania and 36 % in Ireland, admitted to skipping meals and sleep more frequently during lockdown.
Similarly, 21 % of pupils also experienced more often during the first lockdown in spring 2020 some sort of cyberbullying, such as receiving nasty, hurtful, or threatening messages, or getting excluded from a group, more often during the pandemic than previously. 13% of children also admitted to themselves being cyberbullies more often.
28% reported having seen an increase in the same period of hate messages related to people of different race, religion, nationality or sexuality during the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020.
29% had their personal data used online in a way they did not like, that is their passwords were misused or their personal information was exploited for hurtful purposes. More than one in ten children reported an increase of such an experience during the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020.
Exposure to disinformation increased as well. More than a third of those surveyed, almost half of the Irish ones, reported coming across claims suspected to be untrue more frequently during lockdown.
However, children’s digital experience during the 2020 spring lockdown had positive sides as well.
Most children (61%) feel safe online, although this is less than in school (70%), or at home (88 %).
Almost three-quarters of children did not suffer misuse of personal data, or unauthorised use of their passwords, either before or during the pandemic. Two-thirds of them never had to deal with viruses or spyware.
Half of the children surveyed had never been affected personally by cyberbullying.
Some of this success is down to parents more proactively mediating their children’s use of digital technology and mitigating the associated risks.
'Scaffolding' parenting approaches, where parents try to enable children to learn strategies to cope with digital risks by explanation, and using the internet together, were previously more typical in Northern Europe among parents of young children. Now they are increasingly employed by parents elsewhere as well, as opposed to ‘gatekeeping’ approaches, which predominantly consist of restricting time spent online or using filters to block certain websites, which had been more widespread.
58 % of parents in Spain, 57% in Romania and 53 % in Italy indicated that after the onset of lockdown, they talked more with their children about safety in digital lives, and a similar number of them offered more advice.
Gatekeeping tactics, such as blocking of content, or keeping track of visited websites or apps, were employed more frequently than before the pandemic had hit, 29 % of parents claiming to be carrying them out more.
The EU commitment to children’s wellbeing both offline and online remains a key priority. In this regard, the European Commission has adopted a comprehensive EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child - within which is proposed an update of the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children.
Through it, the EU co-funds a network of Safer Internet Centres providing information and resources to families and offering free counselling on online risks for children. In 2020 during the lockdown, the Safer Internet Centres run via the betterinternetforkids.eu platform, a specific awareness-raising campaign to support young users and their families in safe and responsible use of digital services.
Insights from KiDiCoTi fed into the Strategy on the Rights of the child, which puts forward measures to address the rights of the most vulnerable children; children’s rights in the digital age; the prevention of and fight against violence; and the promotion of child-friendly justice.
The strategy takes the KiDiCoTi findings on board by looking at the online world not merely as a space with potential dangers, but also a provider of opportunities in maintaining educational and social life during lockdown and enhancing digital competences.
In addition, the JRC has been closely involved in offering solutions to make children’s digital lives safer. Alongside the KiDiCoTi project, it developed Happy Onlife, a game designed to get players thinking about how to make the most of the opportunities of the internet while avoiding potential dangers.
Another European Commission initiative, adopted last year, the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 supports the development of digital skills and competences for the digital transition for people of all ages. In particular, as a way to ensure that young people are equipped with the necessary skills and competence to navigate safely and confidently online, the Commission will work on common guidelines for teachers and educators to promote digital literacy and address disinformation through education and training.