Risks and Safety on the Internet: The Perspectives of European Youth

Sonia Livingstone is no stranger to this blog. She was one of the two keynote speakers at last year's Digital Media and Learning Conference on "Diversifying Participation." And around the time the conference was announced, I featured an interview with her here about her most recent book, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities. She's a tough-minded academic, one who challenges the easy answers offered by digital critics and supporters alike, insisting we "get it right" if we are going to "do right" by young people. She certainly values the benefits of the kinds of participatory culture and informal learning which has become a key focus of the American DML community, but she also cautions us not to move too quickly over risks and inequalities that still surround young people's lives online.

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2010 Closing Keynote and Closing Remarks from UCHRI Video on Vimeo.

In her talk at the DML conference, she argued that many young people lack the skills and resources to learn online outside of the classroom environment, facing frustrations and distractions which make it difficult for them to achieve the full benefits we've seen in other instances of youth engagement with participatory culture.

This past week, Livingstone contacted me to help share the results of a large-scale survey she and a team of researchers (Leslie Haddon, Anke Görzig and Kjartan Ólafsson) conducted with 23,420 young people drawn from 23 European countries and intended to get data on a number of "online risks," including "pornography, bullying, receiving sexual messages, contact with people not known face to face, offline meetings with online contacts, potentially harmful user-generated content and personal data misuse."

This data could not be more urgently needed given the ways that the American and international media has been focusing on issues of cyberbullying and teen suicide in the wake of a series of devastating cases of gay, lesbian, and bi youth taking their own lives over recent weeks. What follows is taken from the Key Findings section of their report:

12% of European 9-16 year olds say that they have been bothered or upset by something on the internet. This includes 9% of 9-10 year olds. However, most children do not report being bothered or upset by going online.

Looking across the range of risks included in the survey (as detailed below), a minority of European 9-16 year olds - 39% overall - have encountered one or more of these risks. Most risks are encountered by less than a quarter of children - as reported under specific findings below.

The most common risks reported by children online are communicating with new people not met face-to- face and seeing potentially harmful user-generated content. It is much rarer for children to meet a new online contact offline or be bullied online.

Significantly, risk does not often result in harm, as reported by children. Being bullied online by receiving nasty or hurtful messages is the least common risk but is most likely to upset children.

Since most children do not report encountering any of the risks asked about, with even fewer having been bothered or upset by their online experiences, future safety policy should target resources and guidance where they are particularly needed - especially for younger children who go online.

Sexual risks - seeing sexual images and receiving sexual messages online - are more encountered but they are experienced as harmful by few of the children who are exposed to them.....

The more children in a country use the internet daily, the more those children have encountered one or more risks. However, more use also brings more opportunities and, no doubt, more benefits.... In other words, internet use brings both risks and opportunities, and the line between them is not easy to draw.

Among those children who have experienced one of these risks, parents often don't realise this: 41% of parents whose child has seen sexual images online say that their child has not seen this; 56% of parents whose child has received nasty or hurtful

messages online say that their child has not; 52% of parents whose child has received sexual messages say that their child has not; 61% of parents whose child has met offline with an online contact say that their child has not. Although the incidence of these

risks affects a minority of children in each case, the level of parental underestimation is more substantial.

Later, the report provides some specific information about the prevalence of cyberbullying:

Nearly one in five (19%) 9-16 year olds across Europe say that someone has acted in a hurtful or nasty way towards them in the past 12 months. Bullying is rarely a frequent experience - 5% say someone acts towards them in a hurtful or nasty way more than once a week, for 4% it is once or twice a month, and for 10% it is less often,

suggesting one or a few instances have occurred in the past year....

The most common form of bullying is in person face to face: 13% say that someone has acted in a hurtful or nasty way towards them in person face to face compared with 5% who say that this happened on the internet and 3% who say that this happened by

mobile phone calls or messages.

Although overall, younger children are as likely to have been bullied as teenagers, they are less likely to be bullied by mobile phone or online. In other words, it seems that for teenagers, being bullied in one way (e.g. face to face) is more likely to be accompanied

by bullying online and/or by mobile....

Although overall, the vast majority of children have not been bullied on the internet, those who have are more likely to have been bullied on a social networking site or by instant messaging. Bullying by email, in gaming sites or chatrooms is less common, probably because these are less used applications across the whole population....

Among children who say "yes, I have been sent nasty or hurtful messages on the internet", one third (30%) of their parents also say that their child has been bullied online. But in over half of these cases (56%), parents say that their child has not been bullied, and in a further 14% of cases, the parent doesn't know....

Parents appear more aware that their child has been bullied if the child is a girl, or in the middle age groups (11-14) than if they are either older or younger.

Parents appear over-confident that the youngest group has not been bullied, when the child says they have, though parents also most often say they 'don't know' about the 9-10 year olds.

Where-ever one stands on the value of youth's online experiences, such numbers are at once sobering and empowering. The team's nuanced research helps us to put into perspective a range of competing claims about the risks of going online. For some of us, these numbers are higher than we'd like to believe, while for others, they are lower than some of the news coverage might have suggested. It is especially helpful where they give us contrasts between the risks online and those kids confront in their physical surroundings, as we've shared above in regard to bullying. We should be concerned that so many young people are confronting these problems without their parents being aware. I've written here before that young people may not need or deserve adults snooping over their shoulders as they interact with their friends but they need adults who are watching their backs, who understand the risks and benefits of what they are doing online, and can help them talk through the challenges they confront there.

For more information on the Livingstone et al report, check here.