Kids online : Opportunities and risks for children

Edited by Sonia Livingstone and Leslie Haddon

ISBN 978 1 84742438 9 paperback
ISBN 978 1 84742439 6 hardcover
© The Policy Press 2009

Published by The Policy Press in 2009, Kids Online was an outcome of a research funding by the European Commission’s Safer Internet Plus Programme from 2006 to 2009. The project began with extensive research about the impact of children going online. 45 contributors including them, from 21 countries evaluated over 400 research studies to find out the methodological and policy implications of research on children and the internet.

Studying the impact of internet on children was conceived through EU Kids Online over a decade ago in Europe and the expanding research group has advanced to studying even Toddlers with Tablets lately. In India, the attention of media and communication researchers is directed towards the impact of Internet only recently. When compared to Europe, it could look like a delayed attention to such a rapid medium, but the social implications and consequences of use of the internet is only beginning to show in India now.

With the growing number of internet users in India, substantial among them belonging to the younger generation, it is but appropriate to refer to the model proposed by the EU Kids online project while explaining the risks and opportunities. The book provides enormous evidence based findings that supports academicians, parents, researchers and other stake holders to understand the nature of anxiety that stems from the new media and look beyond it to identify the opportunities and risks involved.

Online technologies have offered its users a different world view because it makes everything always available for them. Meeting people, accessing information, transacting and entertaining are on the fingertips, in the comfort of the user’s room, in complete privacy, and therefore needs no physical movement or interaction with others. Though its needs are presented positively with opening up of new opportunities, expanding horizons, the negatives like its association with the dangers that looms large make grander headlines. Hence, a large academic study of this scale demanded a thorough empirical research to explore what children and young people were actually doing online, what they liked and learnt, what they disliked and found challenging online. Mapping the research carried out in all the participating countries showed that children and internet were being studied since 2000. It also showed that most of the studies were conducted on teenagers as participants, probably linking the idea that teenagers were the naïve group of most exposed to the new medium, the internet and also for the reason that they could very easily handle the new technology and were also easy recruits for a study when compared to children younger and older to them. The review of existing literature also showed that studies over the years started focusing on the risks, maybe as an indicator of a proposing demand from the public for more knowledge on the issue. Other issues those studies presented were about information about access and usage of internet.

The book presents insights on the various methodologies used in those studies. From employing purely quantitative or only qualitative methodologies, the reviews showed a rising need for a mixed method with a combination of both methodologies, encouraging a broader range of methodological approaches suggesting that a systematic combination of various methods could result in improved validity and enabling a researcher to present ‘multi layered’, multidimensional’ perspectives.

The knowledge base built up through the research mapping addressed the gaps and outlined clear research agendas. Internet access, though a pre requisite to use does not mean use was gathered pointing the gaps towards what influences children to use the internet. How the internet influences its users cannot be established as it exists and evolves in socio cultural contexts which could differ was implicit. It further showed gaps in the study of risks involved in internet usage, internets role in everyday life and that internet effects are indeed very different from the other media effects and therefore requires exclusive attention.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section titled Researching European children online with four chapters presents the review of the European literature on internet and users, more so children, the culture of research and policy in Europe and the prospects and pitfalls of huge cross national research. The second section called the Going Online : New opportunities through its four chapters broadly summarizes the numerous opportunities the young people derive from the online world also identifying gender, age and other perspectives. The third section titled Going Online : new risks in its five chapters directs the readers attention towards the various serious risks dealing with inappropriate content and problematic content. Parental mediation in explaining the experiences of risk is also dealt with. The final section is on policy implications that discusses maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks for children online in addition to the use of ICT for learning in schools.

With the emergence of a highly mediated world today, Media Literacy in the digital world is proposed as an essential need, enabling each individual to examine the mediated message, explore the opportunities presented and reject or stay alert of the involved risks. What children perceive as opportunities can be perceived by adults as risks, for instance making new friends, disclosing personal information. These issues give rise to misunderstandings within families and many a times pose difficulty in framing safety guidelines. Search engines, by design cannot distinguish between a young and an older user and unless directed to do so, will not filter the searches. Policies designed for enhanced opportunities cannot be designed without understanding such intricate sensitive inter-relations and could carry consequences for risks.

Hence in conclusion, the editors identify two ways ahead. One would be to study the available range of policy tools to identify whether the evidence supports the initiatives and the other to examine whether the online risks or the opportunities are greater than the other that would determine which factors make the difference. The editors also call for more public debate over the opportunities for children online.

For those who advocate the opportunities online, this book is a reassurance of the many ‘positive’ and ‘beneficial’ vision of the online environment and online engagement of children. For the critiques, it is a theoretically sound evaluation with research from European countries about young peoples engagement with the internet, clearly presenting the risks along with the opportunities, also discussing the implications and solutions to the risks. The identified solution to the adults anxiety about children using internet lies in involvement through Media Literacy and parental mediation along with appropriate contextualized policy decisions.

This research on young people using Internet is encouraging for the researchers in India opening up immense concepts. The book puts forth definite directions for research showing the international research agendas on study of new media effects.