A scientist’s opinion: interview with Sonia Livingstone on children’s safety online

Interview with Sonia LivingstoneProfessor of Social Psychology at the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She leads the Theory work package in the CO:RE (Children Online: Research and Evidence), an EU-funded research project working on developing a knowledge base regarding children and youth in the digital era.

How did you get interested in the topic of youth and digital use?

Sonia Livingstone profileSonia Livingstone: Society always worries about its young people, especially in relation to changing technologies. This makes me want to research people’s everyday experiences, to question or counter the hyperbole and to discover what may really be changing and what it means.

What are the biggest dangers/threats to children’s safety online?

Sonia Livingstone: For the CO:RE project, Mariya Stoilova and I drew on earlier work by EU Kids Online to propose the 4Cs of online risk to children: content, contact, conduct and contract. The key idea is to disaggregate the different risks of harm they may encounter and to recognise that these arise because of children’s digital engagement – as recipients, participants, actors or consumers. But acknowledging children’s agency does not legitimate blaming them for what goes wrong online. Hence, it is vital to think how both the design and business models of digital platforms and the actions of others, individually or collectively, can place children at risk.

Is it better to keep kids away from “the devil” (aka the digital world, and particularly social media) or educate them for rational use?

Sonia Livingstone: There is no simple answer to this question. My research takes a child rights approach, which means that society needs to consider the specific risks and children’s own diverse life contexts and evolving capacities. Then, we must recognize the opportunities of the digital world when weighing all relevant factors to determine what’s in children’s best interests. In practice, this means society must provide multiple strategies to ensure children’s beneficial engagement with the digital environment, including education for digital literacy, regulation of digital providers and positive forms of parental mediation and support.

Why do we need a knowledge database of children and youth’s digital use?

Sonia Livingstone: Researchers across Europe and beyond are investigating children’s and young people’s digital use from many perspectives to answer a host of pressing questions. To draw this work together and to optimise insights from these different studies and perspectives, CO:RE has built a shared knowledge database that both researchers and research users (including policymakers, practitioners, professionals and the public) can access. After all, we want policy and practice to be grounded in evidence.

How do you gather these data?

Sonia Livingstone: Over recent years, members of the CO:RE project have conducted a variety of consultations with diverse researchers internationally, translating findings from multiple languages into English, scouring scientific databases and interviewing experts about their research concepts, frameworks and methodologies. We have built an elegant and user-friendly resource that I hope people will find helpful for years to come

What is the purpose of this wealth of information?

Sonia Livingstone: Let me give an example. My role in CO:RE has been to build a theory toolkit with my colleague Mariya Stoilova, and in conjunction with CO:RE members and international experts. Why a theory toolkit? Because evidence only makes sense if we can understand each other’s concepts – what do we mean by digital literacy, for instance, or parental mediation? Because research questions can only be answered if we can first articulate our initial assumptions – for instance, what risks of harm are we worried about, and why. And because we can only bring together multiple research findings if we can understand each other’s research frameworks, the ways that we bring together the concepts, assumptions and findings into a coherent picture.

How does this knowledge transfers to safer, better digital interactions in young users?

Sonia Livingstone: Without evidence-based policy and practice, society can easily be swayed by moral panic or unrepresentative anecdotal observations. Thus, evidence is vital to underpin balanced, reliable and insightful interventions that can benefit all young users. We have seen too many poor decisions in the past that could have been prevented if only we’d had better evidence or drawn responsibly on available evidence. Bringing together what the experts have found, in a single knowledge base, is surely a great help in creating better conditions for children’s digital engagement in the future. We’re trying to empower young people and keep them safe in fast-changing and challenging circumstances, so we need all the evidence and analysis that’s available, to avoid mistakes and build better opportunities for them.

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