The final report of EU Kids Online III, the result of a study on 33 countries, was released at the 2014 Safer Internet Forum in Brussels earlier this month. This interactive report links to all findings, methods and recommendations over the past three years, and includes a YouTube playlist with EU Kids Online researchers presenting their findings in 26 languages. Project director Professor Sonia Livingstone explains the key findings.

During the course of the project, from 2011 till 2014, children’s online patterns have changed considerably and they are now using the internet in more places in their daily lives. In particular, new internet-enabled devices, like tablets and phones, are making children’s usage more private than ever. But, despite all the efforts in recent years directed towards increased safety, awareness and digital literacy, our research finds that compared with 2010, European 11- to 16-year-olds are now more likely to be exposed to hate messages (from 13% to 20%), pro-anorexia sites (9% to 13%), self-harm sites (7% to 11%) and cyberbullying (7% to 12%).

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The project also studied how European countries differ in terms of kids’ internet use. Looking at children and online risk, cross-national differences are greatest in the incidence of sexual content risks. Children who are bullied or who give away personal data are evenly distributed across Europe. European policy makers differ in their responses too – in the countries we call ‘protected by restrictions’, children are often safer because their parents, teachers and other policy makers are very safety-conscious, sometimes at the cost of children’s freedom to explore, experiment and express themselves online. This contrasts with the Nordic countries, where children are more likely to be ‘supported risky explorers’, able to explore more widely and gain skills and resilience, albeit at a possible cost of increased risk of harm.

Of course these are just a few of the challenges of effective policymaking for online safety. Understanding children’s internet use is akin to chasing a moving target and, as I have written elsewhere, children’s experiences of internet use in one country or region cannot necessarily be generalized from one country or region to another. Nevertheless, this is why long term, multi-country research is so important to understanding changes in children’s internet use and differences across countries. Our key findings reflect changes in internet use and experiences across a range of countries.

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The 10 key findings: 

  1. The more children use the internet, the more digital skills they gain, and the higher they climb the ‘ladder of online opportunities’ to gain the benefits.
  2. Not all internet use results in benefits: the chance of a child gaining the benefits depends on their age, gender and socio-economic status, on how their parents support them, and on the positive content available to them.
  3. Children’s use, skills and opportunities are also linked to online risks; the more of these, the more risk of harm; thus as internet use increases, ever greater efforts are needed to prevent risk also increasing.
  4. Not all risk results in harm: the chance of a child being upset or harmed by online experiences depends partly on their age, gender and socio-economic status, and also on their resilience and resources to cope with what happens on the internet.
  5. Also important is the role played by parents, school and peers, and on national provision for regulation, content provision, cultural values and the education system.
  6. Pornography tops children’s online concerns.
  7. Violent, aggressive, cruel or gory content came a close second – although violence receives less public attention than sexual material.
  8. What particularly upsets them is real (or realistic) rather than fictional violence, and violence against vulnerable victims such as children or animals.
  9. Children’s concern about online risks rises markedly from nine to 12 years old. Younger children are more concerned about content risks, and as they get older they become more concerned about conduct and contact risks.
  10. Children see video-sharing websites as most linked with violent, pornographic and other content risks.

Meeting our goals: supporting evidence based policy

One of the key goals of the project has been to ensure an active dialogue with stakeholders to supply a robust evidence base for policy making. Questions on children and media tend to provoke strong fears and feelings. As researchers we try to get a clear picture of what children actually do, feel and what is harmful for them in order to support evidence-based policy recommendations. Former European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes stated: ‘EU Kids Online has been hugely important for European stakeholders as the key provider of trusted evidence to help us make the internet a better place for kids.’

The key conclusion of the report was that as kids’ internet use becomes more private than ever, and as risks continue to evolve, so too must parenting and all the other stakeholder activities that are trying to keep up with the pace of change.

In addition to our advice to parents, it is vital that each country co-ordinates its multi-stakeholder efforts to bring about greater levels of internet safety – as recently established in Ireland, for instance. Ideally too, such coordination should ensure there is meaningful youth participation in all relevant multi-stakeholder groupings. There’s plenty for the internet industry to be doing also. That is why our evidence-based recommendations call on industry to:

  • Ensure ‘safety by default’ and enable customisable, easy-to-use safety features, accessible to those with only basic digital literacy.
  • Promote greater standardisation in classification and advisory labels to guide parents.
  • Ensure age limits are real and effective using appropriate methods of age verification where possible and accompanied by sufficient safety information.
  • Implement tools so that under-18s can remove content that may be damaging to their reputation and/or personal integrity.
  • Ensure commercial content is clearly distinguishable, is age-appropriate, ethical and sensitive to local cultural values, gender and race.
  • Support independent evaluation and testing of all specified safety tools and features.
  • Develop a shared resource of standardised industry data regarding the reporting of risks.

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.