Online risk in kids’ own words: A research milestone

By Anne Collier

Up until now, the vast majority of studies about youth online risk have presented kid respondents with risks pre-determined by adults – for example, “the four main risks on the public policy agenda,” as the authors of a new report from EU Kids Online put it. Rarely do surveys of and about children ask the kids about risk from their own perspective.*

So this is news: With its new report “In Their Own Words: What Bothers Children Online,” EU Kids Online has done something very unusual. There have been many studies that survey kids in the presence of adults, but the only other research project of the past decade that stands out as truly youth-centric (and there were many more questions involved, though focused on bullying) was the Youth Voice Project here in the US (see this).

Space to think for themselves

The way the EU Kids Online researchers got kids’ own views with no prompting was interesting: “In an open-ended part of the survey [before each child (among 25,142 in 25 countries) was asked anything about online risks], we asked children, ‘What things on the internet would bother people around your age?’ To maintain confidentiality, each child wrote his or her answer on a piece of paper and put it in a self-sealed envelope so neither interviewer nor parent could see how the child answered.”

Thirty-eight percent of the 9-to-16-year-olds surveyed responded to the open-ended question, and a key take-away of the authors, they said, was that their focus on risks of the public policy agenda (content, conduct, and contact) “now seems rather narrow. It is the sheer diversity of risks that concern [youth], albeit often in small numbers, that stands out in the present report” (like the risk spectrum and individuality of offline life), and “particularly striking … is the importance of violent, aggressive and gory content” to younger children.

So of that 38% who volunteered their thoughts on the most troubling online risks among peers, 22% pointed to pornographic content and 18% to violent content (meanness and bullying were right up there with content at 19%). [For clarity, the 22% who identified pornography as something online that bothers peers means 8.4% of all 9-to-16-year-olds, and they’re referring to kids their age in general – their sense of things, not necessarily their own experience.] But these are far from all the risks identified. “Well over half of children’s concerns focus on other risks and it is notable that children took this chance to describe them.”

Other standout findings:

* Possible echo effect: 12% of 9-to-16-year-olds (and 8% of their parents) say they themselves have been upset by something online in the past year, vs. 55% who say there are things online that upset people their age (a bigger percentage than the 38% who actually wrote them down). “Not all concerns children have are based on direct experience” – sometimes they are echoing back adult concerns they’ve been exposed to.
* Emotions felt: The researchers didn’t ask kids directly how they felt when they encountered risks, but 12% (3,017) volunteered how they felt: 5% felt disgust, 4% fear, and 3% annoyance. For violent content, the responses were mostly fear (54%) or disgust (37%). It was the opposite for pornographic content, the authors found.
* Age: The younger they are, the less likely kids are to talk about risks encountered and their concerns (indicating a real need for adults to listen and not ask leading questions), and concerns change with age. Concern about violent content decreases with age and concern about conduct- and contact-related content increases with age. But concern about bullying “is most common among 9-to-10-year-olds … and peaks at 13-14 … while concerns with unwanted sharing of personal information, images or photos increase with age, becoming most common among the oldest [15-16].”
* Gender: “Although girls and boys encounter risks online in similar numbers, girls are more likely to be upset by them.” Boys are more concerned about violent content (e.g., violence, aggression, gory content) than girls (21% vs. 16%). Girls are more concerned than boys about contact-related (17% vs. 10%) and conduct-related (20% vs. 18%) risks. There is no gender difference for pornographic content.” So boys are more concerned about video sites and girls are more concerned about social sites.
* Media & platforms. The researchers zoomed in on risk by “platform,” as they referred to the genre of service: video-sharing vs. social-networking. Not surprisingly content-related risks – violence (30% of the 9-to-16-year-old respondents who mentioned a platform when describing online risks) and adult content (27%) showed up more in video-sharing sites, while conduct- and contact-related risks (48% and 30%, respectively) showed up more in social network sites. “Platforms are risk specific,” the authors wrote.
* Bullying least common. The risk most common in policymakers’ risk framework was actually least common in kids’ risk spectrum – only 6% “had been sent nasty or hurtful messages on the internet.” However, when it does show up in their experiences, it’s the most upsetting,
* Risk isn’t harm. The authors reiterated that “encountering risk is not the same as experiencing harm” (see this), and children can’t have opportunity online or offline without some risk “because children must explore and encounter some risk to learn and gain resilience,” EU Kids Online wrote in an earlier report.

So my key takeaway was this from the report: “Adult society (parents, teachers, policy makers and the media) has shaped the policy agenda for understanding online risk and managing internet safety…. Most research has sought standardised descriptions of risk as measured in survey questionnaires; and most has asked children about risks that worry adults rather than discovering what concerns children themselves.”

Thankfully, following the lead of top researchers around the world we can now – after more than a decade and a half of “Internet safety education” – we can now begin to factor children’s own experiences and concerns into our messaging.

*A 2007 pan-European qualitative study asked kids 9-10 and 12-14 to discuss online risk in their own and identified four: “risks affecting the computer (viruses, hacking)”; “inopportune appearance of images or the mistaken access to undesired websites (violence, pornography); “cons and fraud (illegal use of bank details, dishonest proposals, false competitions)”; and “anything that puts the child him/herself in difficulties or in danger: physical assaults and sex attacks by malicious adults.”

Related links

* The full findings behind this report (150+ pages’ worth) can be found here.
* “What’s wrong with Net-safety ed … and what we can do about it”
* “Study on long-neglected factor in net safety: Resilience”
* “What is online risk? Helpful clarity from Europe”

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