Children are curious and adventurous by nature, always have been and always will be. However, the technological explosion within our lifetimes means that the possibilities of them coming across truly damaging content are multiplying without a truly efficient way of parental control. To talk to us about this subject The Baba Blog welcomes Professor Sonia Livingstone from the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

Please explain to our readers the findings of the recent report on Internet use amongst children.  

The report has lots of findings about how 9-16 year olds are using the internet across 25 European countries.  One key finding was that children often appear more expert in using the internet than they really are. Indeed, quite a few confess to struggling with the privacy settings of their social networking site, or say that they are unsure how to save their favourite sites or decide which sites have reliable information. So just because they can click fast and multitask, we shouldn’t assume they are completely in control. Another key finding is that fears about the risks they are encountering online are exaggerated. Most children are using the internet safely, and only a minority have experienced pornography, sexting or cyberbullying; most important, while it is common to have contacts they haven’t met face to face, usually these are friends of friends, and very rarely do young people meet them offline. Still, when children told us that they were upset by sexting or pornography, their parents were often unaware of this and the children themselves said they were unlikely to tell their parents. It would be good if parents could talk more easily to children about things they both worry about, especially sexual matters.

How does the UK compare to the rest of Europe in this report?

British 9-16 year olds use the internet more than in many other countries, and some use it to excess. On the plus side, they get more of the benefits of the internet and are developing some valuable digital skills. On the downside, they also tend to experience more of the risks, although things seem to have improved in recent years, partly because British parents are most likely to use filtering software while British kids are most likely to keep their social networking profiles private to their friends. But in many respects, children are similar everywhere, and so British children and parents report the same kinds of experiences – for better and for worse – as others across Europe.

What positive and negative psychological effects do early introductions to the internet, computers/tablet devices actually have?

It depends how early you mean. My research was based on a survey, so we couldn’t really ask children younger than nine years old the questions we had in mind. But obviously, children begin using the internet younger than that – the latest research from Ofcom shows that one third of 3-4 year olds now use the internet. For really young children, the vital thing is that parents (or teachers, or perhaps older siblings) stay with them while they go online, both to keep them safe and also to help them get the most of the experience – visiting good sites, learning good skills. But there is no research available yet to say that an early introduction to the internet is either good or bad, so most researchers would suggest that guided use can be beneficial, but the more important thing is that young children also do other things – playing outside, playing with others, being read to, interacting with family, and spending time playing quietly. For older children, a mix of activity types is equally important, as is doing things with different types of people. Some are concerned at the amount of time spent with commercial media that promote brands or carry advertising. Others are concerned that some sites (games, for instance) are very stereotyped (e.g. in terms of gender). I could go on – since the research isn’t really available for the internet yet, we have to rely on what we know of exposure to computer games, television and films; here there is evidence that repetitive or stereotyped content is unhelpful in children’s developing sense of self and others, though of course great content can stimulate their imaginations and play.

Do you think the internet, ebooks and online games will fundamentally change how children play and develop, for example regarding attention spans?

It’s hard to say at this point, and those who claim strong evidence are ignoring the methodological problems or counter findings. It seems likely, however, that digital media will change children’s practices – the way they search for information, what they choose to remember,  how many activities they like to do simultaneously. Could they go back to an earlier age and think like their parents? We’ll never know!

It’s so easy to just give a child a smartphone or tablet to keep them busy with a game like Angry Birds etc., after all their use is so intuitive! In this technology-driven day and age, what is the best way of introducing computers, smartphones and the internet into children’s lives?

There’s nothing wrong with giving kids technology they enjoy to keep them busy. The problem comes if they use it to excess and can’t stop. Or if parents give it to them as a substitute for spending time with them, sharing activities or talking with them. The best way, I suggest, is to begin with some shared activities, and use the opportunity to let children know how they can build their expertise, getting better at something, developing their skills. Sharing is also a great way for parents to explain their values to children, so children learn discernment and can make judgements for themselves about how to choose and engage with different media.

Being computer-literate has become such an important factor in day to day life, but do you think it’s a good idea to introduce computers or tablets into school environments?

I see two ways in which computers have a role to play in schools. The first is to teach computer literacy, as you imply in your question – since children are likely to need these skills in their future studies and work. The second is that computers can help children learn other subjects (maths, history, science etc) – because they can let children learn at their own pace, get feedback quickly, do fun tasks or games to learn more easily, and explore the vast information available to pursue their own interests. If either or both of these types of learning take place in school, that’s great. But often it seems computers are used just to do what could equally well be done by pen and paper, or just to practice rote learning rather than explore more creatively. Then I don’t really see the point.

It’s increasingly difficult to monitor what our children can actually access online. What advice do you have for parents to ensure their children don’t come across adult content?

A: For young children (say, of primary school age), I think it’s probably best to install a filter on your child’s device (pc, laptop, tablet etc); then they can explore widely without you worrying. But even for a young child, it’s worth explaining to your child that you’ve filtered their internet access and why. For older children and teens, a filter may still be appropriate (indeed, I have one on my own browser so I don’t suddenly find myself looking at porn unexpectedly) but then the discussion is really important, so that your child doesn’t start looking for ways around the filter; also, of course, the level of the filter should be raised to permit them quite a lot of freedom in exploring their own sexuality, for instance. It’s important to realise what filters can and can’t do – they are quite good for pornography, but not good for user-generated content (such as pro-anorexia discussions or cyberbullying), for instance. So trust, and open discussion between parent and child will always be crucial.

What is your opinion on governmental regulation of internet content?

This is a complex question. As I replied to the recent government consultation on this subject, I think it is worth trying the proposal of ‘active choice’ – which means that every internet service provider should ask parents if they want a filter installed or not. That way, everyone gets to make a choice, and is helped if they do want it (but is free to say no if they don’t). But I am concerned that the filters aren’t really good enough yet to do what parents want them to do: they over-block some content, they don’t work well for user-generated content or for languages other than English, and they can be hard to tailor to your family’s needs. Beyond this, it seems right that we have automatic filtering of illegal content while leaving legal (if possibly inappropriate or even harmful) content up to parents to decide. Of course companies also filter our content – removing libellous material, or that which contravenes their terms of service; and it worries me that we don’t know much about what they do in this regard.

What can you do if your child is being harmed by internet content he or she might have encountered unsupervised?

First and most important, talk to your child about what has happened in a really open and gentle way so that they can tell you how they feel. Don’t get cross, upset or threaten to take away their computer or tablet (they’ll never tell you anything again!). Then, work out how it happened, so that you can figure out what to do next time, or how to avoid the problem in the future. For some problems, you can get advice from your internet service provider (e.g. on how to install a filter). Some problems can be reported on the service (e.g. if your child is being bullied on Facebook).

What websites or tablet usage would you recommend to our readers to show to their younger children?

The CBBC and CBeebies sites are fabulous starting points. But I also advise parents to search for other content that they like – lots of museums and galleries have content for kids. I typed ‘great sites for kids’ into google and found lots of suggestions!

If in doubt about privacy and security settings on the internet, please contact your provider. The government is now adopting a version of ‘active choice’ (to be formally announced soon) whereby everyone is asked about the settings they wish to have, making privacy and security settings easier to navigate and set. 


Questions by Victoria Krumrei