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Is There a Ladder of Children’s Online Participation?

Findings from Three Countries in the Global Kids Online Network
26 Feb 2019

(26 February 2019) Is internet access providing children with new opportunities to enhance their participation? What do they need to benefit from these new opportunities and is there a gap between what we expect and what really happens?

To address these crucial questions, UNICEF Innocenti and the Global Kids Online network has released a new Innocenti Research Brief, "Is there a ladder of children’s online participation?" which presents the findings of surveys on children’s internet access and use, opportunities and skills, risks and safety conducted in Bulgaria, Chile and South Africa.

Findings show that although many children enjoy some of the opportunities offered by internet, most children do not engage in all opportunities offered by the civic, informational and creative activities that earmark the digital age and are available on the net.

Two adolescent girls use a cellphone outside a solar kiosk in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees

Life context and skills likely influence how children navigate different pathways to online opportunities. Differences among countries suggest that pathways can be designed differently depending on national goals and values and that countries can mutually learn from experiences of others to integrate out-of-school- learning into school curricula.

“Much is still unclear about how online opportunities translate into clear benefits,” said Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, UNICEF Innocenti’s research lead on child internet use. “The Global Kids Online network is currently researching whether certain activities are associated with children’s digital skills development, and whether other activities are associated with increased risk of harm.”

Despite the differences among the three countries, cross-nationally comparative data reveal some commonalities in the behavior of children online that, according to the researchers, can represent ‘steps’ on the ladder of online participation. However, the ladder cannot suggest whether children begin at the bottom and climb to a certain point. Without availability of longitudinal data, in fact, steps on the ladder can only map out a theoretical pathway to online participation.

Among the activities measured by the survey – i.e. learning, creativity, community and civic participation, relationships, entertainment and personal benefits – results reveal that 9-11-year-olds take their first steps by engaging in social activities and gaming; activities that seem to encourage early internet use across the three countries; 12-14-year-olds do rather more activities, including some learning and information activities; 15-17-year-olds are more engaged in civic and creative activities.

The first step – social activities and gaming – shows that across the three countries these activities appear attractive and accessible to children, encouraging early internet use. Whether they also provide encouragement to progress and advance in online experience and expertise by building the initial skills of children so that kids can climb further up the ladder, is something that still requires further investigation.

Children learn with the help of a computer tablet provided by UNICEF at a school in Baigai, northern Cameroon.

Similarly, as online gaming is the most common activity in all three countries among the youngest children, it could be better exploited and used as a gateway to constructive educational and participatory activities online, as well as to support digital skills development, if games would be created to provide learning opportunities while still entertaining.

Learning activities have also been found at the first step in all three countries. However, this is more evident where governments and policy makers support ICT in education systems and curricula like in Chile. Findings show that a considerable proportion of children in all three countries use the internet for schoolwork, which might help them compensate for inequalities at home and, in the longer term, it could help them become more used to utilizing the internet for educational purposes.

The finding that relatively few children participate in activities higher up on the ladder, i.e. creative and civic activities, suggests that they may lack motivation, skills and support to engage in them. Activities on the higher steps seem to be reserved mainly for older children according to the brief. However, more evidence would be necessary to investigate why this is the case, and if policy and programme interventions can make a difference.

“It’s easy to assume that because children have access to the internet, they are gaining all the benefits of the online world. But our findings show they are not. I hope the brief will stimulate innovative policies to improve children’s enjoyment of their participation rights.”, said Sonia Livingstone, Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and lead author of the brief.

Due to its nature, the research cannot be interpreted normatively because the list of online activities children are engaged with is not exhaustive and likely to change over time. Further studies must be developed to investigate the qualitative aspects of what children value and why in their online journeys; to evaluate the concrete benefits in short and long term of children’s online participation; to analyze the multifactorial and multidimensional factors and risks associated with online children’s participation; and to confirm whether and how online activities may improve children’s digital skills.

Despite these caveats, however, it may be valuable for countries to set expectations for which activities they believe children might benefit from at various stages of their development and evaluate outcomes and inequalities against them. This could help increase the number of children benefitting from the opportunities that internet and mobile technologies can offer.