The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q4: What are the possible risks associated with my child going online?

ComputerYoung people use online communication to support their existing friendships. This can enhance their self-esteem and sense of social belonging but they can also encounter harassment and bullying. A recent report by ChildLine revealed that young people talked about cyberbullying in over 4,500 counselling sessions during 2012-13, almost twice as many as in the previous year. Cyberbullying can include sending threatening texts or circulating inappropriate and upsetting pictures and messages on social networking sites. [1] Keeping the computer in a family room where the child’s online activity will be visible can help to identify and intervene in instances of cyberbullying but we know that older children are likely to resist this and feel the need for private space away from adults. Parents aren’t able to know everything their teenagers get up to online in the same way that they don’t know what they’re doing when away from home. This makes it important that young people are encouraged to disclose instances of anything that makes them uncomfortable so that appropriate action can be taken and the relevant authorities and service providers can be notified if needed. [2]

We need to keep a sense of proportion here, though. Tanya Byron, for instance, says: “There is a perception that most children and young people are going to encounter harm online. This is not true.” [3] In 2013 Ofcom asked parents whether they thought their child had seen anything online that was worrying, nasty or offensive In the last year. Of those with children under the age of five, 4% said yes and for parents of five to fifteens it was 13%. We should be concerned about this level of incidence but it is not as high as media coverage might lead us to believe.

Of course, parents won’t necessarily know if their children have been affected in this way so knowing more about children’s perceptions of inappropriate online material is a good place to start. EU Kids Online published a report in 2013 based on 10,000 children from across Europe who were aged between nine and sixteen explaining in their own words what kinds of things upset them. They revealed a wide range of different risks and concerns when online, with pornography and violence topping the list. Video sharing sites such as YouTube were most frequently associated with harmful or upsetting content by the children. The report also found that children between nine and twelve were primarily concerned about content, but as they got older they were more concerned with issues like cyberbullying, sexting (text messages with sexual content) and inappropriate online contact from adults. [4] Children as young as two or three are now watching videos on tablets and smartphones and there have been concerns raised regarding young children using video sharing sites such as YouTube, as they can be just a few clicks away from accessing age-inappropriate material. [5]

Ofcom [6] has also asked children aged eight to fifteen who go online at home which things they ‘don’t like’ about the internet. The largest proportion, at over a third, was websites that take too long to load, followed by too many advertisements. Next was ‘people being nasty, mean or unkind to each other’ at 17% and, lower down the list, ‘seeing things that make me feel sad, frightened or embarrassed’ at 8%.

Unpleasant or dangerous content exists. One report looked at 126 pro-anorexia and eating disorder websites and found that there was a lot of material available online that could encourage harmful behaviours. [7] Another study found that social networking sites and discussion forums can be sources of information about suicide, some of which can be dangerous for adolescents who have suicidal thoughts. [8]

Social networking sites such as Facebook have been associated with grooming and sexual exploitation of young people, although a study from the United States found that chatrooms, instant messages and video communication were more often used to initiate and maintain contact between young victims and their abusers. The authors suggest that young people should be educated about inappropriate online behaviour such as posting sexual images of themselves or talking about sex with someone they have met online. [9] This is especially important when young people are increasingly turning to the internet for information and discussion about sex.

Children younger than nine have fewer skills than older children in dealing with dangers on the internet. A small-scale Australian study asked children aged between five and eight if they would meet up with someone they only knew as a result of going online. More than a third gave reasons why they thought it would be okay. Although the majority of the children were able to identify a number of dangers associated with the internet, there were also some whose lack of knowledge suggested that their safety could be at risk. However, we need to keep in mind that it would be rare for children of this age to be out and about unaccompanied, so the real-world risk may actually be smaller. [10]

With such a variety of potential risks it is understandable that parents find the task of keeping their children safe online a daunting one. How can parents reduce the online risks without removing the opportunities that the internet offers? Another report from EU Kids Online, which surveyed over 25,000 nine- to sixteen-year-olds in 25 countries, recommends that parents should have conversations with their children about using the internet and stay nearby while their child is online as this was shown to minimise risk and harm without reducing some of the valuable aspects. This proved more effective than restricting children’s access or using filters. [11] Research like this suggests that with greater awareness of online dangers and the skills to avoid inappropriate material, young people can maximize the potential of the internet to provide a positive influence in their lives.

Returning to Tanya Byron’s review of these issues in 2010, she says: “Child safety (online or offline) is a hotly debated issue. A focus on the most terrible but least frequent risks can skew debate in a direction that sends out negative and fear-based messages to children, young people and families.” She believes that embedding the issue of child digital safety within a broader context of education about the risks that are associated with these sites, developing risk awareness and building resilience within a context of balanced and reasoned debate is more likely to be helpful in the long term.

Illustration by Nick Mackie

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[1] UK Council for Child Internet Safety (2013) ChildLine Online Issues Report 2012-13.
[2] Office for Internet Safety (2008) Get With It: A Guide to Cyberbullying. Dublin: Brunswick Press.
[3] Byron, T. (2010) Do we have safer children in a digital world? A review of progress since the 2008 Byron Review. Nottingham: DCSF publications.
[4] Livingstone, S. et al. (2013) In their own words: what bothers children online? EU Kids Online, London School of Economics & Political Science, London.
[5] Holloway, D., Green, L. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Zero to eight. Young children and their internet use. London School of Economics & Political Science, London.
[6] Ofcom (2013) Children and parents: Media literacy tracker. Released August 2013.
[7] Bond, E. (2012) Virtually Anorexic – Where’s the Harm? A research study on the risks of pro anorexia websites. Nominet Trust.
[8] Dunlop, S., More, E. and Romer, D. (2011) Where do youth learn about suicides on the Internet, and what influence does this have on suicidal ideation? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 52 (10) 1073–1080.
[9] Mitchell, K. J. et al. (2010) Use of social networking sites in online sex crimes against minors: an examination of national incidence and means of utilization. Journal of Adolescent Health 47: 183-190.
[10] Ey, L. & Cupit, C. (2011) Exploring young children’s understanding of risks associated with Internet usage and their concepts of management strategies. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 9 (1) 53-65.
[11] Duerager, A. & Livingstone, S. (2012) How can parents support children’s internet safety? EU Kids Online, London, UK. 

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)