Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone looks at the findings in Ofcom’s recently published report, 2014 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes, and goes beyond the statistics presented to ask how we should interpret the prevalence of tablets in the home and changing media literacy behaviours among UK kids. 

As Ofcom releases another mammoth report charting children and parents’ media uses and attitudes in the UK, readers will surely be asking themselves – what’s changing, what’s surprising, what’s problematic? Since Ofcom’s own executive summary does an admirable job of summarising the many statistics contained in the main report, let me take a shot at these key questions. Given my role as Evidence Champion for the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, I often comb Ofcom reports for findings about risk and safety – and I am often disappointed that they ask so few questions that try to understand risk of harm in depth (although see their recent research on risk and trust), which is one reason why we ask in our EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile studies.

  • What we can glean from the Ofcom report is that children’s reporting negative activities remain fairly low and unchanging (Fig 77), although the array of online risks is broad – including bullying, sexting, scary content and reputational threats (16% of 12-15 year olds report any of a list of such risks; Fig 80). This is encouraging for those many worried parents, and may even reflect the effectiveness of recent policy efforts.
  • On the other hand, safety measures seem to be declining among kids (Fig 82) which Ofcom suggest could be due to the move from laptops to personal devices with new (and more complex?) demands in terms of safety settings.

But increasingly, I’m interested in widening our gaze to encompass children’s rights in the digital age – rights not only to protection but also to provision and participation, as specified in the UN CRC. It seems to me that in this country especially, we have an increasingly well-articulated public and policy dialogue about risks but we remain vague about what good really looks like – what do we want for our children in the digital age? And does this new Ofcom report suggest they are getting it?

One indicator is the list of top 50 web entities accessed by 6-14 year olds (Table 1). This changes little year on year, and kids’ top 10 are, in this rank order:

  • Google, YouTube, Yahoo, BBC, Facebook, Windows Live, Disney, MSN, Amazon and Wikipedia.

In other words, they search, view, play, chat, buy (not unlike the adults around them). But is this enough? Our research suggests that British parents are becoming so fearful of the internet that children are ‘protected by restrictions’, reducing their freedom to explore, express themselves and participate. Of course, one can upload to YouTube as well as download. One can use Facebook for civic as well as social purposes. But do they?

  • One quarter of 8-11 year olds say they make videos using a smartphone or tablet (Fig 47), as do nearly half of 12-15 year olds (Fig 48). But few upload this to share with others – 8% and 16%, these figures being largely unchanged over recent years.
  • As for civic or participatory activities, we don’t know much (Ofcom asks just a couple of questions about this – Fig 47 &48 – and the results suggest very little such activity, despite children’s CRC rights to participation).

There’s nothing wrong with kids having fun online as offline; indeed, it’s important that they do. But as a means of advancing children’s rights – which the internet is often celebrated for – the reality lags behind the promise. And how are they to gain good ideas of what to do online?

  • The majority find out new things to do online from their friends or from just browsing (Fig 63).

Nothing wrong there either, but it’s odd that society doesn’t try to mediate. In the age of books, we had children’s librarians, teachers, book shop proprietors, and others making recommendations for imaginative or diverse or creative materials. It seems this just isn’t happening for the internet (though since Ofcom doesn’t ask about these possibilities, we cannot rule this out). Also problematic is that an interest in new stuff isn’t very common. Most kids visit websites they’ve been to before (Fig 65), and this is stratified by socioeconomic status – middle class kids explore new content more than poor kids.

We want our children to be discerning critics of the wealth of information now available to them, not gullible fools. Ofcom’s report certainly shows them to be wising up in this regard:

  • The percentage who think information on the internet is true is steadily dropping (Fig 55), while more are critical of search engine results (Fig 58); still, over a quarter of 12-15 year olds say they just don’t think about whether search engines produce truthful information.

So, whether through experience or education, progress is being made in media literacy, it seems. How will the changing devices make a difference here? Just as more diverse and personal devices may be reducing safety skills (among children and parents), we can also ask about the implications for opportunities. Ofcom’s main finding in this report is that for children (and doubtless for adults also) the tablet is taking over from the laptop as the preferred device at home. It’s not clear what follows from this – is it easier to create, upload, share or collaborate via a tablet? Do the differences in hardware and software alter what people actually do online? And does the device have any implications for media literacy – in terms of ease-of-use, critical grasp of how things work or where information comes from? We just don’t know, and will have to watch and see.

This post 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.