The digital generation is growing up in a hyper-connected world. A world full of opportunities, but also harbouring threats to their well-being. We cannot –and should not– shield children and young people from reality, but we can protect them: first by understanding their online behaviour and the risks that are involved, and then by giving them the tools to better navigate the digital world they live in.
Over the last ten years, digital technologies have become an integral part of our lives. In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital use increased inordinately due to lockdowns. Naturally, this digital frenzy extended to children and young adults, for whom we are the main role models. Similarly to adults, children use digital technologies to interact with each other, learn and be entertained, mostly. Although digital technologies hold great potential for younger users, there are certain dangers that kids can face online, like the exposure to cyberbullying, harmful or inappropriate content, or disinformation.
To make sure that children can access age-appropriate, safe online content and services, the new European strategy for a Better Internet for Kids (BIK+), reflects the views of those affected: children themselves. BIK+ focuses on protecting children from harmful situations online while empowering them by providing them with tools to appropriately use digital technologies, and allowing them to actively participate.
The BIK+ strategy is supported by several Horizon 2020 EU-funded projects, which, among other objectives, pursue a better understanding of the current landscape of digital use by children and young people.
For instance, the CO:RE – Children Online: Research and Evidence project aims to develop a pan-European knowledge database on the digital experiences of children and young people, whereas DigiGen aims to understand how children and young people use these technologies and how they are affected by technological transformations in their everyday lives, both positively and negatively.
In order to protect children, we first need to understand the possible risks related to their online activities.
Sonia Livingstone, professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science and leader of the CO:RE project tried to clarify those: “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.” – Read full interview with Sonia Livingstone
Then, if we want to get the most reliable information from children’s digital use, we cannot just observe them, we need to directly involve them in the research. That’s why DigiGen included them as co-researchers.
As Halla B. Holmarsdottir, Professor at the Faculty of Education and International Studies, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway, and DigiGen lead explains: “(…) kids have a more advanced knowledge of some aspects of digital technology than us, and we wanted their own perspective. We did not want to approach the topic by interpreting their thoughts, views, and experiences but to understand them.” – Read full interview with Halla B. Holmarsdottir
It is almost impossible to speak about children and the digital world and not think about the associated risks, however, we often forget to see the positive sides of these technologies.
According to Halla B. Holmarsdottir: “We cannot forget that, despite their limitations, digital tools can be an asset. They can actually improve family interactions; social media can actually help young people find like-minded people or help them learn about topics not discussed at home (different political stances, social issues). For instance, during lockdowns Pokemon GO! was a way to engage children in spending time in nature and socialise with their friends, even if remotely.”
Allowing children and young adults to enjoy the advantages of digital technologies while ensuring their safety is not an easy task. As we are constantly bombarded with negative information about the risks and dangers of digital technologies while at the same time being pressured to let children “belong”, we need high-quality, reliable information on which to base our decisions on this topic.
As Sonia Livingstone puts it: “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.”
Information is power. If we want to allow our children to benefit fully from this resource without exposing them to unnecessary risks, we need to educate ourselves first. That starts by asking the right questions to the right people: our children. They will be the ones guiding this process ahead, for once, we may just need to follow their lead.