We are doing science for policy
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.
Belgian social geographer Stephane Chaudron is an expert on digital technologies and children’s learning, play, safety and security.
Since the start of coronavirus lockdown, Stephane and her team at the JRC have turned that expertise to exploring how the relationship between children and the digital world is changing, and what it might mean for the future. We spoke to Stephane to find out more.
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, we’ve completely shifted our efforts to focus on an international research project, based on surveys and interviews with families in Europe. Our research focuses on five aspects:
In these times of unprecedented crisis, most children in Europe and beyond were affected by lockdown. Schooling, leisure time and social contact have all taken place at home and very often on digital platforms. This means that children are, more than ever, consumers of digital media and content.
Previous research has shown that increased time spent online increases the likelihood of negative experiences, while also increasing opportunities.
One can expect that the more time children spend online, the more online risks increase: things like encountering inappropriate content, overuse, commercial pressure, unwanted contact, cyberbullying, and the impact on physical and mental health. But the situation also opens them to new opportunities to socialise, learn and communicate.
In the context of this pandemic, we are exploring issues like: do cyberbullying and hate speech messages happen more or less often, and at what ages? Do these things occur only on social media or other platforms too? What role is there for parents, friends and schools when it comes to online safety, privacy and well-being at this time?
By answering these questions, we hope to provide useful data on how this period is affecting children, and to help Europe prioritise actions that can be taken to improve children’s online experiences at home. We call our project Kids' Digital lives in CoVID-19 times (KiDiCoTi).
Just recently (on 30 September), the European Commission adopted a new Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), which supports education and training systems, but also students and teachers to adapt to the digital transformation, learning from the unprecedented switch to distance and online learning during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Action Plan fosters the creation of an effective digital education ecosystem and enhancing the digital skills of citizens from an early age, by boosting digital literacy among students of all ages and promoting safe and secure online learning environments.
We worked quickly to get our research started. In less than three months we managed to team up with researchers across Europe and built surveys and interview protocols – a task that would usually take at least half a year.
On a practical level, like everyone else we interact with our colleagues online these days. When we meet with others in different time zones, it means we have to either get up very early or work late into the night. But it also means we are travelling less, which saves time.
Working from home, I do miss the casual meetings between colleagues; the unplanned discussions that quite often happen over a cup of tea and lead to new ideas or help us see a problem from a different perspective.
On the other hand, in some cases, teleworking has enhanced and strengthened collaborations, especially with European and international researchers. In a way, we are opening our homes on every videoconference, which has made us feel closer to one another.
The project is ongoing but we have already been collaborating with the JRC’s digital education and digital skills experts, who analysed some of the survey data on remote schooling during the pandemic.
They found that children in some countries seem to be more worried than others about keeping up with their schoolwork due to the coronavirus. More than half of the surveyed children aged between 10 and 18 are worried about this to some extent.
Cross-national differences are notable, for example children in Norway, Slovenia and Portugal show more optimism with around half of children saying that they are not worried. On the other hand, Romanian, Spanish and Irish children express more concerns.
Together with our partners, we sent surveys to a pool of 12 000 respondents – 6,000 parents and 6,000 children across eleven countries: Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
We’ve also conducted nearly one hundred interviews of families of children aged 6 to 12 years in ten countries in May-June 2020: Austria, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovenia; either online or face to face, depending on the context.
At this stage of the research, our Irish partner published a press release on the results of the survey for Ireland, with interesting reflections on online risks and cyber bullying.
Our Italian partners have teamed up with UNICEF teams to work on the Italian data. They plan to release a report on school matters by the end of September, followed possibly by our Romanian partner.
In fact, we are now collaborating with 24 research centres in 15 European countries, plus the research office of UNICEF.
The first KiDiCOTi report will present the preliminary findings before the end of 2020.