Europe’s update of the youth online risk picture

By Anne Collier

A new study of online risks to youth in 23 European countries found that “the Internet is now central to children’s lives across Europe, and they use it for a range of things which are often beneficial including schoolwork, playing games, watching video and instant messaging,” reported lead author Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The EU Kids Online study – of 23,420 Internet users ages 9-16 – also found that 12% of the youth surveyed said they had been bothered or upset by experiences online. The study’s press release led with that statistic but followed it immediately with: “However, researchers stressed that the majority of children had no upsetting experiences on the Internet and indeed were often comfortable doing things that some adults consider risky.” Dr. Livingstone added that “it’s important to balance [that 12%] against the benefits and to understand that risk doesn’t always lead to harm.” That last point, that risk and harm are not the same thing, along with the Berkman Task Force’s 2009 finding here in the US that not all youth are equally at risk online, are not made clear enough here in the United States, I feel.

The pan-European survey, released today, also found that children are going online “at ever-younger ages” – at the average age of 7 in Sweden and 8 in “several other Northern European countries, including the UK. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania and Sweden were the countries where children were more at risk online, with Italy, Portugal and Turkey showing the lowest risk.”

The study found that online bullying is the behavior most likely to upset children, but – contrary to a finding of the Berkman Center’s Internet Safety Technical Task Force – “it is also the least common risk among all those we looked at,” EU Kids Online reported. The Berkman Task Force found that “bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline” . Here are other key findings of the European report:

* “Half of all children said they find it easier to be themselves online than in real life.”
* Teen boys are exposed to sexual images more than girls, while girls “are slightly more likely to receive hurtful messages – however girls are more likely to be upset by online risks than boys.”
* 12% “have seen user-generated content promoting hate or anorexia.”
* 48% have Net access in their own bedroom, and 31% have access via a cellphone or other handheld device.
* More than 40% say they “do not know how to block messages, bookmark sites, find safety information, change privacy settings or determine whether websites are reliable.”

One finding definitely mapped to our experience here in the US: that “parents were often not aware of the risks to which their children had been exposed,” including a lack of awareness of their kids’ experiences with bullying online. EU Kids Online found that “more than half of parents did not realize this had happened” (corresponding to a low rate of young people reporting to adults). The figure is much higher in the US. A study at UCLA even found that just 10% of youth who’d been harassed online had reported this to parents or other adults (see this). So I was surprised to see that 42% of students who’d experienced moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment reported it to an adult at school, the Youth Voice Project found several years in its survey of 12,000 US students in grades 5-12 released early this year. The authors wrote that it’s “important to identify safe ways for students to communicate with adults at school about their negative peer interactions.” One definition of “safe” we’re hearing is that the adults who receive these reports don’t make things worse for targeted youth – worse in the sense of loss of friends and social status as well as emotional harm by bringing more attention to the incident.

Related links

* The headline out of Ireland was “Irish kids are the most responsible users of social networking.” Silicon Republic got that from the study’s finding that, of children in all the countries surveyed, “Irish kids are the least likely … to publish their address or phone number.” This was the only coverage I turned up in a Google News nearly 7 hours after the embargo was lifted.
* The researchers put their presentations online, so here‘s a rich resource.

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