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From Europe, Top 10 online-risk myths

The EU Kids Online researchers look at young people’s Internet use in a child-centric, contextual way and confirm how individual their Net use is. The individuality of their online experiences is a theme I’ve seen over and over in North American research too over the past 10 years, as a journalist and as a member of two national Net-safety task forces, highlighting the importance of a child-centric approach to parenting and user education as well as research (e.g., see “Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out”).

“Risky opportunities are linked to vulnerability as well as resilience, depending on both the design of the online environment, and on the child and their circumstances,” EU Kids Online reports. This reminds me of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s findings in 2009, including that not all youth are equally at risk online and that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of risk than any technology a child uses. The EU researchers, though, found that – contrary to the ISTTF’s finding that cyberbullying is the most common risk – it’s among the least common in Europe (overall, 6% of 9-to-16-year-olds have experienced it), though it’s “the risk that upsets [young people in EU countries] the most, more than sexual images, sexual messages, or meeting online contacts offline.” [To be fair to US youth, there has been a huge range of findings in US research on cyberbullying, the average being about 20% (of US teens having ever experienced it), according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.]

The myths

In their second three-year study, EU Kids Online interviewed more than 25,000 9-to-16-year-olds and their parents in 25 countries and just released its final report. The authors’ “Top 10 Myths About Children’s Online Risks” are good for parents and educators in our hemisphere to be aware of too. Here are their headlines with some notes from me:

  1. “Digital natives know it all” (we’ve gone way overboard in believing that, the authors write, and scholars in North America have been saying this too; (we’ve gone way overboard in believing that, the authors write, and scholars in North America have been saying this too – that children may have relatively higher tech literacy through everyday practice, but social and media literacy are also key to their wellbeing online and offline).
  2. “Kids are all creating their own Web content now” (the authors say that only 20% of 9-to-16-year-olds use a media-sharing site or have created an avatar and 10% maintain a blog, though the older they are, the more content they produce).
  3. “Kids under 13 can’t use social sites, so no worries” (38% of European 9-to-12-year-olds use social network sites, so age limits don’t work, the authors say).
  4. “Kids are all seeing online porn” (the authors write that “estimates for exposure to pornography online are lower than many anticipated…. Even assuming some under-reporting, it seems that media hype over pornography is based on unrepresentative samples or just supposition”).
  5. “Bullies are baddies” (60% of bullies [online or offline] have been bullied themselves, and both cyberbullies and targets “tend to be more psychologically vulnerable”).
  6. “People you meet on the Net are strangers” (87% of 11-to-16-year-olds socialize online with people they know offline; 40% have online contacts they only know online but the contacts are connected with their friends and family; 25% are in touch online with people not connected to their offline social circle; 9% met offline someone they first met online; few of those went unaccompanied or met someone older and “only 1% had a negative experience,” the authors write).
  7. “Offline risks migrate online” (no, offline risk does not predict all online risk, but the authors did find something similar to North American findings that at-risk youth offline tend to be more at risk online).
  8. “Putting the computer in the living room will help” (a myth because outdated, now that Internet use is so mobile).
  9. “Teaching digital skills will reduce online risk” (a myth because the more digital skills kids have, the more they use them and the greater the chance they’ll encounter risk; but risk and opportunity are linked “because children must explore and encounter some risk to learn and gain resilience”).
  10. “Kids can get around parental-control software” (actually “only 28% of 11-to-16-year-olds say they can change filter preferences,” the authors report).

Why we can’t delete all risk if we wanted to

So here’s the bottom line, what I haven’t seen stated enough in North America: It comes in two parts: 1) Just as in offline life, “opportunities and risks online go hand in hand,” EU Kids Online reports. “Most activities children do online can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the circumstances…. This is vital for growing up if children are to learn to cope with the adult world. But risky opportunities are linked to vulnerability as well as resilience. 2) Risk and harm are two different things, and “risk must be distinguished from harm,” the EU Kids Online researchers conclude. “As with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare.” I hope it won’t be too long before this message sinks in with parents and educators everywhere.

[Readers, every section of the EU Kids Online final report – from “What children do online” to “What parents do when children go online” – has a bulleted set of policy implications useful at every level of policymaking, from household to school district to national levels. I urge you to have a look.]

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