With under 18 year olds making up nearly a third of all internet users around the world, childhood is increasingly affected by digital technology. Two new reports have been published which explore the opportunities created by technological developments and connectivity alongside the challenges that come from children’s use of the internet and presence online.
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The benefits and drawbacks of digital technologies use by children
The study discusses the positive impact of internet use including the development of digital skills to improve employability.
However, the potential negative aspects of internet use are also identified, such as growing inequalities and digital divides, and the potential dangers and harm that can result from being online.
Growing digital divides
Reporting findings from the Report on Digital literacy and safety skills, the Report EU Kids Online and the 2015 OECD PISA results, the UNICEF study shows that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to use internet for a broader range of activities compared with children from families with lower socio-economic backgrounds.
In addition to playing games and chatting online, this wider ‘repertoire’ of online activities among better-off children includes obtaining practical information or reading news.
These differences in internet usage can later translate into further socio-economic disadvantage and digital divide.
Which children are most vulnerable to online harm?
The report’s chapter on the dangers of being online emphasises the borderless nature of online crimes. Referencing findings from the Internet Watch Foundation, the report states that of the 57,335 URLs containing child sexual abuse material in 2016, 60 per cent were hosted in Europe. The Netherlands, France and the Russian Federation were in the top five countries that hosted such URLs. Staggeringly, 53% of the victims of such abuse were 10 years old or younger.
The report also noted a rise in the number of images of 11- to 15-year-olds, in part due to the increase in self-produced content shared online. Not only are the URLs predominantly hosted in Europe, the 2016 NetClean Report found that material investigated across 26 countries primarily depicted children from Europe and North America.
One respondent to the NetClean survey suggested that victims are most likely to either be from countries with high number of internet devices per person and reliable internet service or from countries with poor laws prohibiting sex offences against children.
The UNICEF report suggested that in addition to this, children who are more vulnerable offline are more vulnerable online. Children from minority groups are especially vulnerable to harm stemming from online violence and exploitation.
The existing evidence shows that girls, children from poor households, children with disabilities and children who suffer from mental health problems are among those most vulnerable to online harms.
The links between online and offline harm are particularly apparent in the context of cyberbullying. UNICEF reports the findings of a large scale study in the United Kingdom that found that very few children experienced cyberbullying without also being bullied offline.
The difference with cyberbullying is that, due to constant connectivity, it can arrive at any time while potentially providing bullies with a degree of anonymity.
Awareness and safety online
With so many dangers that can arise, it is important for children to be aware of online safety. A new report from England’s Children’s Commissioner, 'Life in Likes’, looked at how 8- to 12-year-olds use social media and their online safety awareness.
The study found that while children knew how to protect themselves from predators and physical risks, for example by not posting any photos that could identify their location, they were less aware of how to stay safe on a more emotional level – especially when it came to cyberbullying.
The report also found that while messages of online safety were ingrained in children from a young age, as children aged their priorities switched. Children of age 11-12 were found to be conscious about how to stay safe online, but were more concerned about making sure they ‘looked good’ in what they shared, rather than about concealing identifiable information.
EPIC’s coverage of practices related to digital technologies
Several programmes featured on the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC) website relate to the children’s use of digital technologies and the risks of internet use:
- Code Club – is a network of after-school coding clubs teaching children the skills needed to make computer games, animations and websites.
- Kiva Antibullying Programme – a programme with both in-person and digital elements to teach children how to deal with the negative effects of bullying at school.
This news item was written for the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC).