Today’s children are living in an environment that is radically different from the childhoods of their parents. The growing prevalence of virtual environments in private life and education is one of the most notable intergenerational changes. It has profound effects on children’s physical activity levels and socialisation, and challenges behavioural models that prevailed in previous generations. In particular, children’s online activities risk exposing them to novel forms of risks and create vulnerabilities that their parents and teachers are not familiar with. European institutions and EU-funded projects are increasingly addressing the risks and safety of children online.
Today internet use is thoroughly embedded in most children’s lives. According to a pan-European survey covering 33 countries conducted within this “EU Kids Online” project, 60% of 9-16 year old users go online every day or almost every day. Children are going online at ever younger ages. Children do diverse and potentially beneficial things online: 9-16 year olds use the internet mainly for school work (85%), playing games (83%), watching video clips (76%) and instant messaging (62%). On average, 59% of 9-16 year olds have a social networking profile, a proportion that increases with the age of the child. Among social network users, 26% have public profiles. Elements of computer use, skills and risks encountered all vary greatly between countries and socioeconomic groups, but in general, higher usage levels correlate with higher risks of harm to children.
According to an assessment conducted by the European Network and Information Security Agency ENISA, the most severe risks stemming from online activities include bullying and online grooming (referring to the practice of using the internet to manipulate and gain trust of a minor as a first step towards future sexual abuse), leading to suffering serious loss of physical or mental health; irreversibly exposing themselves to the internet by publishing important personal information; imbalance between technical and social skills; discrimination based on behavioural patterns- often used by marketing agencies; and misuse resulting from data loss.
Although Internet use presents significant risks to young users, and likelihood of exposure to these risks increases with age and frequency of Internet use, not all risk translates into actual harm to the user. Neither are children entirely defenceless against online risks. According to the EU Kids Online survey, most 11-16 year olds can block messages from unwelcome contacts (64%) or find safety advice online (64%). Half can change privacy settings (56%) compare websites to judge quality (56%) or block spam (51%).
Grooming by paedophiles, bullying by peers and exposure to sexual content are among the most severe risks young users of the Internet are exposed to. However, the survey found that the latter type of content may not be perceived as harmful by the children themselves: for instance, while 14% of the children reported having seen explicit sexual content online in the past year and 13% received ‘sexts’, only 2% said they were upset by exposure. This raises questions about the desensitisation of children who are frequently exposed to inappropriate content. On the other hand, although most bullying seems to take place offline, and only 6% of the surveyed children had received hurtful messages, they often reported feeling upset about them. A study conducted in the US found that trends in harmful online behaviour are often driven by trends in technology use by children: a surge in communication with friends via texting among teenage girls for instance has been associated with a growing number of bullying and harassing messages. In this way virtual environments mirror actual behaviour and open up new domains for children’s lived experience.
According to Eurobarometer , parents worry mostly about content their children are exposed to online and being victims of online grooming, however their awareness of whether these risks materialise is limited. The EU Kids Online survey found that more than half of parents are unaware of their children being exposed to harmful content or engaging in sexting or offline meetings with online acquaintances. Although most parents think that it is important to talk to their kids about online activities and try to engage with them, few of them are familiar with risk-reducing tools such as filters. Most children consider their school to be the most important interlocutor regarding safe use of the Internet.
Because digital inclusion and e-skills training for all children are fundamental priorities for the European Union, ensuring children are protected from online harm and take responsibility for their online actions is of paramount importance. National governments, European institutions and EU-funded projects are increasingly dedicating attention to address these issues. To reach these aims, the EU Kids Online project recommends that awareness raising and capacity building must address the needs of children, but also those of parents and educators. Furthermore, service providers, such as social media networks, have a responsibility to take into account the safety of young users when defining and enforcing their privacy and data protection policies. However, it needs to be kept in mind that several problems, such as bullying, necessitate of an approach that goes beyond activities related to online behaviour and includes wider socio-political contexts.