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A scientist’s opinion: interview with Leen D’Haenens on positive impact of the digital environment for children

Leen D'Haenens interview: Child safety online. Little girl using smartphone at home. icon of internet blocking app on foreground

Interview with Prof. Leen d’Haenens, coordinator of ySKILLS (short for ‘youth Skills’), an EU-funded project aimed at enhancing and maximising a long-term positive impact of the digital environment for children.


What are digital skills, and which are the most important ones for children?

Leen d’Haenens: In the project we investigated several digital skills, organised in four groups: technical and operational, information navigation and processing, communication and interaction, content creation and production skills; additionally, we looked at programming skills.

Although all are needed, we have found that communication and interaction skills might be the most relevant ones: not knowing where/to whom to go to when facing a problem is a reliable indicator of vulnerability towards online harm in teenagers.


How can you measure them?

Leen d’Haenens: For the project, we performed three longitudinal surveys on the teenagers’ subjective evaluation of their digital skills. In addition, in the second wave, we had 100 children aged 15–16 years old per country (in total, 600 kids) take a performance test to actually measure their information navigation and processing, communication and interaction, and content creation and production skills. This tool, which we specifically and newly developed for this age range, is already freely available on the project website in several European languages.


How can better digital skills “protect” children from the bad side of digital technologies, since better digital skills are correlated with higher risk?

Leen d’Haenens: Surely, increased use leads to higher skills and more potential risk. However, at least in our survey data, better digital skills do not appear to increase well-being. This is particularly true in vulnerable groups like children with mental health problems. This indicates that there is no clear relationship between technical prowess and psychological well-being.


What do kids need to be safe and prepared to make the best out of this digital world?

Leen d’Haenens: Based on the above, I think the most important are the children’s own harm mitigation strategies, how do they respond to the risks associated with digital tools. To optimally react to those situations, we have found that communication and interaction skills are vital, as our research in a quite homogeneous group of Afghan refugees in Belgium showed. Despite their vulnerable situation, having a smartphone improved their well-being as they could stay in touch with their far-away relatives. Not only were they aware of the risks of digital exposure, but they also showed resilience in such situations. In contrast, other vulnerable kids do not have a strong social support network. Teenagers with mental health issues reported feeling alone, as they did not feel like they had an appropriate go-to person who could help them deal with their online problems.


How can we help kids develop their digital skills?

Leen d’Haenens: I think teaching media literacy and digital skills at school is important, but this is only one step. We also want to inform policy makers to ensure that all European children have access to tools to improve their digital skills and to become critically thinking citizens that the future needs. Ideally, we would like to help to decrease the unequal distribution of digital skills we observed in our research, which was influenced by social, cultural, and individual (vulnerable) characteristics.

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