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Lost in cyberspace?

A new survey suggests that kids are pretty savvy when it comes to dealing with the perils of the web.

Wendy Earle

Topics Science & Tech

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On a recent trip to Japan, my young guide, like virtually everyone else I observed, had a mobile phone with a screen and internet access. To find her way around the underground system she typed in the starting point and the destination of her trip on a relevant internet site, and immediately got a selection of routes she could take.

As we rode the airport bus into the city she told me that text messaging evolved from Japanese girls’ use of pagers to keep in touch with each other. As a result, text messaging was the primary use of mobile phones, especially among girls. Later at dinner, the man I sat opposite told me that his teenage son is ‘addicted’ to the computer. He said that his son is always online emailing or playing computer games with friends, and rarely talks to his family at home.

These examples indicate that young people use new technology to do what they have always done – socialise, mess around and play games with each other. This point is brought out in ‘UK Children Go Online’, a recently published survey of how five- to 19-year olds use the internet. The authors of the report, LSE academics Sonia Livingstone and Magdalena Bober, reveal that the vast majority of children are now connected to the internet and have mobile phones. The report tries to give a balanced perspective, measuring the risk and opportunity in children’s access to this sophisticated technology. Nevertheless, it is very much a product of today’s fearful times, which is preoccupied with issues such as inequality of access (the ‘digital divide’) and ‘undesirable forms of content and contact’.

The study found that 87 per cent of children and young people have a computer at home, 81 per cent have their own mobile phone and 74 per cent can access the internet at home, while 92 per cent can access the internet through a computer at school. Only three per cent of the children surveyed never accessed the internet. Nevertheless, the report expressed concern about the one quarter of the youth population who cannot access the internet at home, suggesting that this puts these young people at a disadvantage and may increase social exclusion.

Even when children have ready access to the internet, though, it doesn’t play a central role in their lives. Ten per cent say that they would miss it most if it vanished – compared to 31 per cent who would miss television most, and 28 per cent who would miss their mobile phone most. While the authors suggest that access to the internet for school work puts these children at an advantage, only 10 per cent do not use it for school work. Given the variable quality of information available on the internet, and frequent stories of children and young people often using material without reading it, non-access does not seem to necessarily be a disadvantage.

‘Undesirable forms of content and contact’ also seems to be overplayed in the report. In all, 57 per cent of children aged between nine and 19 who regularly use the internet have had contact with pornography online. ‘Contact’, of course, is a very broad term, and the age range stretches into early adulthood. So how does this break down? Between the age of nine and 11, 21 per cent have had contact with porn. This increases to 58 per cent of 12- to 15-year olds, 76 per cent of 16- to 17-year olds and 80 per cent of 18- to 19-year olds. Most of these claim to see porn sites either accidentally or as pop-up ads.

What harm this does is another matter. Because it would be impossible to measure harm in such a survey, the authors more or less conflate harm and offence – two very different concepts. In their reactions to contact with online porn, 54 per cent of children said they thought little about it while 14 per cent were interested or enjoyed it. The older the child, the less offended they were by the material and boys tended to be less easily offended than girls. The authors suggest policy makers should be concerned about the 20 per cent of nine- to 19-year olds who found the sites disgusting, especially as this may, in their view, be an underestimation – though they admit ‘it remains difficult … to gauge the extent of the seriousness of any consequences of exposure to pornography as a child’.

But even children know that if you don’t like looking at something you turn away, switch it off, or move on. Fifty-six per cent of the children and young people who came across porn said that they left the site immediately, while 31 per cent (the more curious ones, perhaps) looked first then left the site. Reaction to porn reflects, if anything, a cautious response. Only 15 per cent of 16- to 17-year olds and 26 per cent of 18- to 19-year olds confessed to viewing pornography on purpose. Given how easy it is to view pornography online, and that at this age young people are supposed to be taking risks and discovering sex, a surprisingly high percentage seem wary of accessing these sites – or at least to admitting it.

This caution is reflected in other aspects of internet usage. Few children and young people are prepared to give out information about themselves online. Forty-nine per cent of frequent users claimed never to give out information online. Only seven per cent provide a photo or a phone number. As the authors point out, the internet – through emailing, SMS, instant messaging, chat rooms – presents great opportunities for social interaction and even meeting new people. However, while 30 per cent of frequent users have met a new acquaintance online, only eight per cent over all (and only two per cent of nine- to 11-year olds and seven per cent of 12- to 15-year olds) have met such an online acquaintance face-to-face, and 84 per cent of these took someone with them to the meeting.

While the internet is an opportunity for making new friends, caution is an important feature of social interaction on the internet. Only 53 per cent of children and young people prefer talking face-to-face or on the phone, and about a quarter prefer using email and text messaging. Children felt that the internet offers greater privacy and the chance of more intimacy, giving them more confidence to say what they think. In other words, the internet offers protection from difficult social interactions and awkward social situations. While the report’s authors see this as an advantage of the internet, my concern would be that it might also shield children from socially challenging situations which are necessary to their development.

UK Children Go Online, Sonia Livingstone and Magdalena Bober, July 2004, published by ESRC and E-Society

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Topics Science & Tech

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