Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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Childhood in the digital age

1.3.2 Back to the experts

Whether you are a digital optimist or pessimist, it’s obvious that while technology brings about opportunities, it also has associated risks. This has led to some paediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists arguing that parents should limit young children’s use of, and exposure to, new digital technologies. But is this really the answer? Is simply restricting children’s access actually the best way to ensure their safety?

Sonia Livingstone is a professor in social psychology and a leading researcher in children’s media. In the following video, she tackles some of these important questions and considers whether prevention really is the best cure. She considers how restricting access to technology may also restrict opportunities for children to develop resilience against future harm.

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Back to the experts

SONIA LIVINGSTONE
Hello. When I was a girl, children were to be seen and not heard, as the sayingwent. Bedrooms were for sleeping in - not playing in. Television had three channels, and not much of it was for kids. But at the weekends, we could go out and play with a sandwich in our pockets, and our mum didn't know where we were.
Today's children have more digital media in their homes, in their bedrooms, in their lives than I could ever have imagined, when I was a child. But somehow, we worry, are they as happy, are they as fulfilled, do they have as much to do, as when we were children? I'm a social psychologist and I've been researching the way in which children and young people engage with the changing media environment. For over 20 years, now, I've been working in, as was said, in Britain, across Europe and in America. I do my research by surveying children and parents by interviewing them and by observing how they engage with the media in homes and in schools.
Today, I want to suggest that we need to think more deeply about the balance between the online risks and the online opportunities, because on all sides, I'm hearing increasing panic about the risks for our children on the internet, and I don't think we're giving enough priority to developing some of the benefits. So, for sure, there are many things to be worried about for children on the internet. There are sites for chatting to strangers, there's anonymous messaging, there's sites where you find pornography, violence sites where you can share and encourage race hate and self-harm. There are sites which come and go which the children know about before us, very often, and which escape regulatory oversight very easily. And for sure some of this really upsets children. In our research, we asked children to tell us about some of the kinds of things that concerned them on the internet and they told us, in confidence. This is just a selection of some of the things that they said. The point I'd like to draw from these quotations is the range of things that is concerning children about the internet, some of which I think as adults we don't give very much attention to. But if we're to understand how common these experiences are, how many children are worried in this way, we need to do nationally representative surveys. And this helps to put things in perspective. A few years ago we did a survey of children in Britain, actually also across Europe. Here's some headline findings of the kinds of risks that they reported encountering. These were children mainly between 9 and 16. I would conclude that children in this country encounter what we might call modest but persistent levels of online risk.
But it's not every child who is seeing risks, all the time. Overall, about four in ten children said that they'd encountered something like this in the last year. OK so things change, and just very recently we updated our survey. Here is how the figures changed, in just a matter of a few years, but as you'll see, it's a mixed picture, not simply getting worse though there is a notable increase in the number of children who say that they have seen hate messages, and that might be because of the rise of some of those apps and services where children can, or people can send messages, very quickly, and not always see the response of the person at the other end. What's important to know, however, is that overall one in three children who encountered these kinds of risks said that it upset them, in other words, not all children who encountered these risks do say that it upsets them.
Children can encounter pornography, or even be approached by a stranger online and it turns out ok. Overall, our surveys have found that one in seven children who uses the internet say that something online upset them in the last year. That number hasn't really changed in recent years. It's with those figures in mind that I think that we can think again about some of these headlines because it's hard not to fear for our children when we see headlines like this, and of course the internet is associated with some truly problematic and difficult things. The evidence invites us to think more carefully about which children encounter risks or are upset by what on the internet. Our research suggests, for example, that it's younger children who are often more concerned about violence or cruelty that they encounter on the internet. Girls can be subject to sexual pressures and body image anxieties, and those children who have psychological difficulties, or difficulties at home, do tend to be those who get into more difficulties online, though not inevitably.
It's easy to understand why we might want to call for more restrictions, perhaps wanting to restrict every child in what they do on the internet, just in case. And I think that would be just as problematic, it would also be problematic to assume that every child on the internet is just fine and we can leave them alone. Somehow we need to find a point of balance and it's hard in the context of great anxiety about what the internet brings, because the internet is always changing and change makes us anxious. Knowing that, I think it's very helpful to realise that, in fact, societies have worried about every new technological revolution, in fact, since the invention of writing.
Here's Socrates, worrying about the invention of writing. We worried about the printing press, we worried about television. We worried about every technological revolution for its effects on our childrens' minds, on their behaviours, on their moral compass. We've always had exactly these worries. I think in that context something very important the research tells us, too, is that in the years that we've been coming to terms with having the internet as fundamental in our lives, there's in fact been no overall real long-term changes in any of the childhood troubles and difficulties that children encounter; no real changes in childhood abductions, or sexual abuse, or accidental deaths, or mental health problems or suicide. What there has been I think is a kind of new visibility to some of these very long standing and persistent childhood problems, so the internet makes visible sexual harassment at school or bullying in a way that perhaps we were not previously be so aware, but the internet is not the causes of human misery, people are. That's the case whether the rate of children's problems is going up or going down, or, as it were, taking a new form.
I do think it's taking a new form. There's the fact of being always 'on', always reachable, always connected. There's the plethora of communication choices that face our young people. Whether to communicate in public or in private, whether to be anonymous or identified. The array of choices that they can make about how to communicate online or offline is something they're actually very preoccupied with. It's not that they don't make a distinction between the online and offline, they're making lots of distinctions all the time. I think we, as adults, should be discussing those more carefully with them.
Then there's the way that the very features of our digital platforms and services are becoming part and parcel of the way in which we interact with each other. Every exchange now leaves a trace. Messages and images can be re-edited to be funny or cruel. They can go viral, reaching many people very fast. They last forever. One of the most difficult ways is that everything nowadays can be shared, and searched and found, and problems can escalate in the blink of an eye. While we're trying to contend with this, of course, those very platforms are constantly being re-designed, re- designing our privacy and safety along the way.
That's a really crucial point because the internet has not arrived, as it were, from Mars. It is what we have made it. It's been made by the technologists looking for new ways to connect the world. It's been made by commerce, looking for new and profitable businesses. It has been made by governments looking for new ways to reshape education, learning and work. So it's very much what we've made it, and it's also responsive to the way in which we, as ordinary people, make use of the internet.
Thinking about the ways in which we can design it, we can use it, there are lots of organisations out there now who are working to both advise the public to work with parents and children and teachers especially, to think of ways of using the internet more safely and better. But those organisations are also working with governments and with industry to try to re-design the internet so that it better serves the needs of our children, because those voices are sometimes forgotten.
That brings me to another really important point. If we want to understand how to make the internet better serve the interests of children, then we should be listening very much to children and to what they have to say. We can't assume that they react to things on the internet in the same way that we do. And as I've already shown, I think, they don't always have the same concerns, and certainly not necessarily the same ways of coping with what they find on the internet that we do. So it's important that we don't assume they react like we do, and it's important to them that we don't overreact to their experiences when we hear about them. One of the other things that I've learned in my research by listening to children and their experiences of the internet, is just how difficult it is even to make that distinction that I've been making between the risks and the opportunities. It helps me to understand why my research has shown that the online opportunities that children experience on the internet are positively correlated with the online risks. In other words, the more they experience opportunities, the more they also encounter risks. It's like becoming more independent offline.
To become more independent and to encounter the world more brings more risks and the converse is also true. Which is to say if we try to restrict what children do on the internet in order to reduce the risks, we will be restricting their opportunities too. And that includes their opportunities to develop resilience against possible future harm. What we also learned from listening to children when they talk about the internet is the blurry line in between risks and opportunities. It's very hard to draw that line. Children would like to make new friends on the internet but we hear that as they will be meeting strangers. They like to have lots and lots of contacts online but we worry about who those people are. They might like to explore to discover health or sexual advice on the internet but we worry about who is providing that advice.
So there are lots of activities that hover in-between the risks and the opportunities. We might call them the risky opportunities of the internet, some are called the 'online drama', the drama of being in that state, between the risks and the opportunities. Remember those early days when the internet first arrived in our lives and we talked about the great world of information at our fingertips, the chances for children to make new friends around the globe, the new ways that they could learn and participate on the internet. Well sadly for many children, even in the world's more privileged countries, those great opportunities remain the exception, not the rule.
These are the top ten sites visited by British 6 to 14 year olds. Many of those sites of course are very good, there's lots of good things there, but it is, I suggest, a rather narrow and branded and commercialised and even rather kind of adult world that children are spending a lot of time in. Research also shows that about half of children of that age group only go to sites that they have ever visited before. Some of those more exciting opportunities, as it were, to climb the ladder of opportunities is not, yet, in the experience of many of our children.
Here are just some figures to show that some of those more creative and participatory chances are not, yet, within the grasp of many. I think that's partly because we, as adults, don't always know how best to guide them. Could we, if I ask the parents and teachers among you, could you think of ten great websites for children. I wonder how many of you could. I think you probably could for books or television programmes or films, but can you think of ten great websites or apps or educational computer games for children?
If we could think of more places, if we could encourage a greater range of places for children to go online, and if we were more confident in exploring and encouraging them to explore a kind of journey of possibilities rather than locking them into a rather safe walled gardens. Then I think children would be spending less time online, casting around not quite sure where to go, and so taking up some of those suggested links or opportunistic invitations that can lead them into trouble.
It's sometimes said that we can think about encouraging children to go online and explore just like we do in the real world, teaching them to swim, teaching them about the roads and so forth, but here lies something of a problem, because in our societies we're not actually very good any more at encouraging our children to go out like I did as a child all day with a sandwich in their pockets and not really knowing where they are. In fact we're not really very good at letting them walk to school any more by themselves, even though there's fewer accidents on the road then there were when I was a child. So no wonder that when children want to explore or even to transgress, they often do it today online. Of course there's nothing new about the way in which children want to meet, hangout, play, take risks, but as a society we need to think about where we want those places to be, and we need to think about who we want to be responsible for them. Of course the internet is here to stay, and so it's right that we think about ways of designing for better safety and fewer risks for harm but also, I've suggested today that we need to give more effort, more priority into designing and stimulating some of the online opportunities, so that more of our children have the chance to explore, create and be imaginative online. Thank you.
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What do you think about her advice on minimising online risks and on how parents can best support children’s engagement with technology?

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