Risk implications of kids going mobile: Research

By Anne Collier

Even back in 2010, the EU Kids Online researchers in 25 countries noted that “the ways through and the locations from which children go online are diversifying, and this trend is continuing.” It has indeed continued. Increasingly obvious to parents, the mobile platform enables “ubiquitous internetting,” as Dutch researchers put it way back in 2006). At the same time, mobile represents the most personal, private way of accessing the Net and the least evolved provisions for kids’ safety, EU Kids Online’s Prof. Sonia Livingstone pointed out at the ICT Coalition gathering in Brussels last week.

At that all-day gathering of people representing Internet companies, the European Commission and youth advocacy organizations, Livingstone gave a summary of findings from EU Kids Online’s latest project, “Net Children Go Mobile,” based on face-to-face interviews in the homes of 1,000 young people aged 9-16 in five countries: Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom. She showed us how, on the risk side of digital life, things have changed between 2010 and 2013, when the researchers went back to them. One big difference was in the questions alone. “In 2010, we asked them about the handheld devices they used,” she said. In 2013, the research distinguished between the kinds of handheld devices they used ¬– such as tablets and smartphones. Computers are still No. 1 for connecting in these countries, but now only by a teeny bit – 49% via computers vs. 48% of kids and teens who connect via smartphones (younger kids are more likely to use laptops and older kids mobile phones).

Smartphone users: More risks, more ‘safety skills’

There was “a slight increase in the percentage [of youth] who encountered one or more online risks,” Livingstone reported – though if you’ve been reading Net Family News, you know that for years she and EU Kids Online have been pointing out that risk and opportunity go hand-in-hand and that risk and harm are two different things, especially online, where we’re talking about “the risk of the risk” more than of actual harm. In 2010, 44% of 9-to-16-year-olds encountered one or more online risks, and the figure is now 50%. There was a 10% increase among girls, as opposed to a 3% one among boys. Cyberbullying may account for much of that difference between girls’ and boys’ experience of online risk. The research found a 5% increase of cyberbullying among girls vs. 0% increase among boys from 2010 to ’13. The increased experience of cyberbullying for both sexes was 4%. Among other key findings….

  • Of bullying: Offline bullying still happens more than the online kind, Livingstone said. In 2013, 14% of 9-to-16-year-olds said they’d experienced cyberbullying, compared to 27% any kind of bullying.
  • Mobile risk: “Tablet and smart phone users are more likely to encounter one or more risks” than kids who don’t use these devices – of kids who don’t access the Net by a handheld device, 38% experience one or more risks, while 55% of kids who connect via tablet and 63% via smartphone do.
  • Higher safety skill level: On the other hand, smartphone users have more “safety skills” than non-smartphone users – although there was a “notable lack” of safety skills among girls 9-12, and all users’ skills have declined over the three-year period – e.g., blocking someone they don’t want contact with (down 5%), changing privacy settings (down 1%) and finding info on how to use Net safely (down 10%).
  • New skills are needed,” the researchers say – e.g., deactivating location-sharing (61% know how to overall, but 43% of boys 9-12 vs. 28% of girls 9-12) or blocking apps’ notifications (60% overall, but 46% of younger boys vs. 29% of young girls). Interestingly, when it comes to securing their phones with a PIN, more girls 9-12 know how to do this than boys 9-12 (84% vs. 77%, respectively). A whopping 90% of all 9-to-16-year-olds know how to secure their phones with passwords.
  • From risk to harm: There was a 6% increase (from 15% to 21%) in kids who say something they encountered online bothered them in some way – made them feel upset, uncomfortable or that they shouldn’t have seen – 4% for boys and 7% for girls (suggests the importance of helping kids develop resilience, since it seems to be getting harder to encourage or impose avoidance).
  • Specific risks: “Negative user-generated content [UGC]” has increased 7% but “data misuse” is down 2% overall. Examples of personal data misuse are “somebody used their password/phone to access info or pretend to be them,” “somebody used personal information in a way they didn’t like” or “lost money by being cheated on the internet” (the only one up, from 1% to 2%). Examples of UGC content: hate speech, how to self-harm, how to commit suicide, eating disorder (“pro-ana”) info, discussion of substance abuse, etc. (up 7% to 31%).
  • Sex-related risk: There was a 3% increase in exposure to sexual images; but, interestingly, exposure to sexual messages was down 1% (the researchers refer to the latter as “sexting,” while in the US, “sexting” typically refers to sexual images).
  • Contact risk: There’s been a tiny decrease (1%) in meeting someone new online and a 4% increase in meeting someone offline whom they’d met online (Livingstone said “someone new” is probably more accurate than “a stranger” because the latter is such a loaded term, thus misleading).

A word about the approach of these researchers: Their work is based on two things, 1) that the voice and viewpoint of children are crucial to understanding online opportunities, risks and any harmful consequences of convergent mobile media use, and 2) that young people’s online experiences are contextual (based on their own context, so very individual), “shaped by three intersecting circles: childhood, family life, and peer cultures; media systems and technological development; [and, in their case, of course] the European social and policy context. I’m highlighting this because of the example it sets. In today’s user-driven media environment and a society feeling its effects in so many ways, it’s the only logical approach for policymaking – at any level, from household policymaking by family members to that of schools and governments.

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