More than one in eight children have been bothered or upset by online content finds a report published today based on interviews with 23,000 young people across Europe.
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.
While 12 per cent of children said they had been bothered or upset by experiences online – including encountering pornography, sexual or bullying messages and potentially harmful user-generated-content – another finding was that their parents were often not aware of the risks to which their children had been exposed.
For example, where a child had been bullied online, more than half of parents did not realise this had happened.
The EU Kids Online project based at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) also found that children are going online at ever-younger ages – an average of seven in Sweden and eight in several other Northern European countries, including the UK.
Interviewers, who spoke to children aged from nine to 16, found that the youngest found it hardest to cope with disturbing material online. The study recommends targeting spending and advice at younger age groups to reduce risk and enhance the opportunities of the internet.
The research team conducted interviews in 25 European countries for the report, entitled Risks and safety on the internet. The project is funded by the EC Safer Internet Programme and the latest findings are released in Luxembourg at the Safer Internet Forum.
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.
However, the researchers found that the increasing numbers of children online also brings more opportunities as well as risks, and that risks often do not lead to harm.
Sonia Livingstone, one of the report’s authors and professor of media and communication at LSE, said: “This study shows children are going online younger and more often than ever before. 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.”
So while it is worrying that some children have been upset by things they’ve encountered online, it’s important to balance this against the benefits and to understand that risk doesn’t always lead to harm.
‘For instance, bullying online is the behaviour most likely to upset children but it is also the least common risk among all those we looked at. The youngest children are those who find it hardest to cope with upsetting experiences and this is the area where governments should promote actions to protect and educate.’
Among the study’s other findings were:
• Half of all children said they find it easier to be themselves online than in real life
• Teenage boys are more exposed to sexual images while girls are slightly more likely to receive hurtful messages – however girls are more likely to be upset by online risks than boys.
• One in eight have seen user-generated content promoting hate or anorexia
• 48% of children who use the internet have access in their own bedroom, and almost one in three children (31 per cent) have access via a mobile phone or other handheld device.
• Many 11-12 year olds lack basic safety skills such as knowing how to set privacy settings or block unwanted contacts.
The full EU Kids Online report, Risks and safety on the internet, is published simultaneously in London, Luxembourg and Gothenburg on Thursday 21 October and will be available at www.eukidsonline.net.
An expanded version, including policy recommendations and new findings on parental mediation, is due in November.