Sonia LivingstoneOfcom just published its 2013 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report. As usual this is a wealth of information on how children are using the internet, their attitudes towards it, and their understanding of how it works and what the risks to them online might be. The data shows a decline in skills associated with online safety and signals several other unfolding trends on children’s media literacy that those interested in protection children online should pay close attention to:

    • For young children, the tablet is rapidly becoming the device of choice, with use of tablet computers at home having tripled among 5-15 year olds since 2012 (from 14% to 42%). Breaking the historical rule that new devices supplement rather than displace older devices, the rise of tablets seems to be at the expense of basic mobile phones (i.e. no internet) as well as televisions and games machines in children’s bedrooms. One in five 8-11 year olds now say they use the internet mainly in their bedroom.
    • For very young children, things are changing very fast – 14% of parents of 3-4 year olds think their child knows more about the internet than they do. For the latest research on the benefits and risks of pre-school internet users.
    • For teenagers, the smart phone is now the most popular way of accessing social networking sites, so all that safety advice about putting the computer in the living room or checking your child’s history or looking over their shoulder is rapidly becoming obsolete. Time, instead, for parents to learn for themselves about social networking sites, and to find a way to broach the difficult subjects of sex and violence with their children directly, instead of turning to covert monitoring software.
    • Still, it’s interesting to observe that four in ten parents say they have installed parental controls – this is the crucial figure to watch as, following the strong steer of the Prime Minister, ISPs will roll out parental controls to all new subscribers and then existing subscribers over the coming months. As I’ve argued before, ensuring that the consequences are transparent and beneficial will be crucial.
    • Parents are more aware of Facebook’s minimum age requirement, and they can feel empowered in insisting upon it for, as EU Kids Online research shows, children do take note of their parents’ rules in this regard. This is encouraging for parents, and should also reinforce UKCCIS’s efforts towards effective age verification on a range of potentially harmful services currently accessible to young children.
    • However, social networking is seems to have peaked – now only 68% of 12-15 year olds (vs. 81% last year) have a profile. And social networking no longer necessarily means Facebook, and as teenagers diversify the social networking sites they use.  It is vital not only for parents to ‘keep up’ but also for regulators and NGOs to help in this task – the Safer Internet Centre, for instance, does a great job in advising parents on the latest trend.
    • Nearly half of 12-15 year olds are unsure about or unaware of online personalised advertising, which is grounds for concern – especially as new services like Instagram and Twitter may start advertising soon.
    • Most significant of all, Ofcom is beginning to track children’s reported risk experiences. The finding that girls are more at risk of online negative experiences is no surprise – echoing the research I and colleagues conducted last year for the NSPCC – but it demands particular attention.

Children are increasingly using the internet on more personal and less easily supervised devices such as tablets and smartphones. At the same time they are reaching into new platforms faster than protections can be put in place. That Ofcom’s survey also reveals a decline in children’s digital safety skills is thus a particular concern. Much rests on the role to be played by the new computing curriculum mandated to teach e-safety.

In the above comments, I have pulled out a few key points – but there are many more to be mined from the report. Indeed, its very complexity – all 212 pages of it – invites policy makers concerned with children’s media literacy and digital safety to develop a nuanced account of living in a media-rich society. We must move beyond the simple opposition of digital natives vs. children-at-risk, or of pointing the finger of responsibility simply at parents or governments or industry. Instead, we must work harder to ensure that policy tools – from parental guidance to industry safety provisions are equally nuanced: evidence—based, up to date, fit for purpose.

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. 

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