Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone originally delivered these remarks on a panel chaired by European Commission Director-General, Robert Madelin, at a Safer Internet Day event in Brussels.

Despite the efforts of Better Internet for Kids and others, the newly released findings in Net Children Go Mobile show that compared with EU Kids Online findings a few years ago, the incidence of online risks is growing – though evidence for harm is more uneven – while the level of digital skills, and satisfaction with the online offer, is not showing the improvements we would hope.

So, we want to create a better internet together: are we guiding children towards great content – inspiring, imaginative, challenging, entertaining, and inviting of exploration and depth? Trends regarding changing risks may continue, if children just don’t know where to go online. Parents and teachers don’t know either. Only a minority of kids ever really create, code, participate online with much depth or imagination or excitement.

This is not the kids’ fault: how do we expect anyone to find the good stuff that’s out there? Have we told them which sites we think could be inspiring (do we even know)? No wonder they all go to social networking services or click on the suggested links on YouTube. No wonder getting status updates or trying out dodgy new sites seems the most fun thing on offer. We take kids to the library, the cinema, we discuss what to watch on TV with them – but online, few try new sites, and good providers (who generally create branded walled gardens not pathways to exploration) can’t afford the marketing to reach children in significant numbers. We used to talk about portals but that seems old-fashioned. But what has replaced it? What, really, do we think good looks like?

Distinguishing online and offline

The line between opportunities and risks is getting harder to draw, as EU Kids Online’s new report out today shows. Kids see things differently from adults. Outcomes for resilient kids are different from vulnerable kids. Both kids and adults struggle to work out what’s real, what’s honest, what’s going to happen when they click on something, whether they are online or not. New sites and services springing up everywhere exploit the exciting ambiguities of ‘risky opportunities’ that attract young teens especially. Situations get rapidly out of hand, problems escalate, and just walking away gets ever harder.

While the line between online and offline is also getting harder to draw, it would be a mistake to think that kids don’t care about the difference anymore. They are very interested in the different communication opportunities available to them – and they spend a lot of time considering their affordances: more or less private, more or less easy to share, more or less naughty or risky, more or less visible to parents, etc. They are making a lot of meaningful choices. For us, therefore, the first challenge is that of teaching ‘social media literacy’ – how can they make those choices, what’s at stake?

But this could be helped by developing guidelines for best practice in the design of sites and services: if responsible and/or public organisations did this, then the public would know what to expect of all sites, and they could more easily spot when best practice was lacking. So, how can sites make themselves legible, intelligible, for a public striving to become social media literate? And when are we going to help youth and social workers, clinicians and teachers catch up with the private sector, so that they can guide children properly, without always being behind the curve?

Growing commercialization online

The internet is getting ever more commercial. Interest is growing in advertising online, but we have little or no research evidence as yet. Since the beginning of television, we tried to shield young children from advertising, and we tried to teach older children what was advertising, and what its purpose was. Now the youngest children grow up in thoroughly branded environments from which it seems impossible to opt out. Not only is the trend that this will increase, but that, as children’s engagement with brands generates behavioural data, the environments open to them will be differentially structured so as to maximise company profits, not to maximise benefits to children. These interests may be aligned on occasion, but not always.

One result is the commodification of our children, their every move tracked, aggregated and monetised. Another is the narrowing of experience, each of us in our own filter bubble. Another is the growing impossibility of parental supervision – even now, kids go online in their bedroom or at a friend’s house, and as we buy more connected devices, this will increase. Yet another is increased inequality, depending on the spending power and choices of different households. Whose responsibility will it be to look out for children’s interests in this regard? What of children’s rights online – especially for the minorities, the disadvantaged and the marginalised? What are the ethics of the cloud? And when will we ask these questions, and get good research, regarding not only already-present technologies but also the coming ones – the wearable internet, the smart-everything, what some people are already calling ‘the post-human’?

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics