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Manage Net risk but focus more on opportunities: Researchers

That’s what the authors of the latest “Net Children Go Mobile” report conclude: It’s great that the UK is “in many ways … leading in children’s Internet safety,” but “complacency would be ill-advised” and this success could be leading to a new kind of risk: reduced opportunity in and with connected media for British children.

“By comparison with some other European countries, the UK appears to prioritise minimising risk over maximising the opportunities of the internet,” the authors write, pointing to reduced opportunities for civic engagement and creative use of digital media, less “age-appropriate and stimulating content” for younger children, and more restrictions on digital media use in school. “Henceforth we suggest that managing risk should continue to be important, but that greater effort should now be devoted to optimising the benefits of the internet for ever more children.”

Here are some of their key findings:

  • Net more individual, personal: Compared with 2010, half as many now use a desktop PC, so that access is more often on a personalised device (smartphone, laptop, games console, tablet as well as desktop). In the UK, smartphones are already more popular than laptops (used daily by 56% and 47% of 9- to 16-year-olds daily).
  • Still early adopters: “Children continue to adopt some of the latest social networking sites (SNSs), and the UK is distinctive in the popularity of Twitter – 14% of all 9- to 16-year-olds use it.
  • More & more Internet: More children do more of most online activities than was the case just a few years ago, and smartphone users use the Net “considerably more … in almost every way.”
  • Not particularly creative. Civic and creative uses of the Net – as in civic engagement or social activism and producing media – “are regularly undertaken only by a minority of children,” the authors write.
  • Less (“classic”) social networking: Though Facebook is No. 1 for UK 9-to-12-year-olds (18% of kids 9-10 and 25% of kids 11-12 use it), they’re using it less. “Since 2010, SNS use has dropped substantially for younger children: safety campaigns have possibly had some effect. Also reflecting increased safety, many children have relatively few online contacts, and the number of online contacts has dropped a little since 2010.
  • Static literacy skill levels: UK children’s “digital literacy and safety skills have not changed much since 2010. The skill levels are higher in Denmark, and – interestingly – the UK researchers suggest that’s “possibly because UK parents practise more restrictive mediation, limiting children’s chance to explore and learn online.” That’s in keeping with their long-held position that reducing risk also means limiting opportunities, including opportunities to develop resilience.
  • Gender & other gaps: 15% of UK 9-16 YOs have been “bothered, uncomfortable or upset by something online in the past year” (up 2% since 2010) but “much more by girls, older teens and those from high socio-economic-status homes.”
  • Cyberbullying surpassed f2f: In the UK, bullying of any kind (online + offline) has not increase, but it “has transferred from face-to-face to online via mobile devices.” Cyberbullying (12%) is now “more common than face-to-face bullying (9%).”
  • Fewer sexual messages: “UK children aged 11-16 report receiving fewer sexual messages (4%) than the European average (11%). This represents a notable decrease since 2010 (when the figure was 12%).”
  • Online socializing, “real life” friends: The numbers have gone down in two key areas Internet safety has been looking at for a long time: socializing online with people kids don’t know offline and going to meet offline with people they only “met” online. In 2010, the percentages in those two categories, respectively, were 27% and 5% of 9-16 YO UK Net users. In 2013 both of those percentages were down: 17% and 3%, respectively.
  • Seeing pornography: This number’s down too, with 17% of UK kids having seen sexual images in the past year vs. 24% in 2010. Twenty-eight percent of kids across Europe have seen sexual images in the past year.
  • Getting help when upset. UK kids are “much more likely than the European average to talk to others” when something they encounter online upsets them – moms 48%, friends 26%, teachers 7%. Twelve percent said they didn’t tell anyone.
  • Good and bad: British kids say the No. 1 benefit of having a smartphones is that they “feel more connected with friends.” But this positive feeling may be diminished by a lack of choice in the matter. A third of the 9-16 YOs surveyed said they “must be always available for contact.”
  • Hands-on parenting. 68% of UK parents say they talk with their kids about Net use, their main form of digital parenting. Their “active mediation” of kids’ Net use is down since 2010, but UK parents do more active mediation and are more restrictive than parents in other European countries; 48% of UK kids say their parents use filtering software compared to 26% of kids in other European countries.

It’s notable that one of the recommendations for policymakers is very close to the digital-age literacy-related recommendations of the just-released report of the Aspen Task Force for Learning & the Internet in the US. The EU Kids Go Mobile researchers wrote: “Children must be educated to become competent and resilient digital citizens.” Like the US task force, these researchers acknowledged that the educational need goes beyond digital literacy alone. The wrote that “such education should link technical competence in managing online interfaces with personal, social and sexual education so that children are empowered to respond constructively – with critical literacy and moral responsibility – to the online risk of harm.” They noted that this has become part of educational policy in the UK but “is yet to be implemented or evaluated.” Same over here. Let’s get on with it!

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