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Done right, internet use among children can increase learning opportunities and build digital skills

Groundbreaking UNICEF-LSE report surveys nearly 15,000 children across 11 countries on internet use
The most popular device for accessing the internet is the mobile phone. According to a new UNICEF-LSE report, children prefer mobile devices because they can carry everywhere and don’t have to share it with other household members.

 

(Florence, 28 November 2019) – Blanket restrictions on children’s internet use prevent them from taking advantage of critical learning and skills development opportunities, according to a new UNICEF report, launched today at the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin.

Produced by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and based on research by Global Kids Online, Growing up in a Connected World compares data on internet use among nearly 15,000 internet-using children in 11 countries across Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. It finds that the activities children engage in online – even those typically seen as entertainment - are crucial for building digital skills.


[ VISIT OUR GLOBAL KIDS ONLINE REPORT MICROSITE ]


“We often hear so much about the risks associated with children using the internet, but less about how we can build their online resilience and digital skills,” said Priscilla Idele, Director, a.i, of UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti. “We should help children navigate how to use the internet in the same way we help teach children how to cross the road. We can’t – and don’t want to – prevent children from crossing the road just because it presents dangers; our role is to teach them how to cross the road safely and responsibly in all situations, and to apply safeguards that enable them to do so."

The report finds that children who participate in a wider range of online activities are more skilled in using the internet, while those whose access to the internet is more limited tend to have weaker digital skills. Online entertainment, for example, like playing videos games and watching videos clips, can help young children develop an interest in educational, informative and social online experiences. Encouraging children to extend their online activities beyond entertainment alone can also enable them to develop a range of technical and critical capacities, according to the report.

Three boys looking at a smartphone. According the a new UNICEF-LSE GLobal Kids Online report, children who use the internet are online on average for two hours a day during the working week, and double that time each day of the weekend.

“Children need to spend time online to learn how to navigate the digital environment, even if this means being exposed to some level of risk. This is how children learn to navigate the offline world, so why would online be different?” said Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, research lead on Children & Digital Technology at UNICEF Innocenti and co-author of the report.  “If parents are too restrictive, this might leave their children unprepared for the future. The most important thing is that adults are available and ready to support children when they need it.”

However, internet use is not without risks for children, the report notes:

  • More than half the children and young people surveyed in South Africa said that they were exposed to sexual content online. 
  • 22 per cent of those surveyed in Italy and Uruguay say they were exposed to content on self-harm.
  • 35 per cent of children surveyed in Italy and Uruguay said they were exposed to hate speech.
  • Only 2 out of 5 Facebook users aged 10-14 in Bulgaria keep their accounts public.
  • Across the 11 countries surveyed, between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of children say that they may be unable to verify the truth of online information.

To help minimize children’s exposure to the risks of the digital world and maximize their exposure to its benefits, addressing problematic online content or encounters is critical. UNICEF urges tech companies to do more to actively monitor and remove content that is harmful for younger children, and to provide tools that can help parents and educators support children to make the most out of online opportunities.

Two girls using a computer under the surveillance of an adult. According to the report, most children report high privacy skills across all countries, but also recognize that the internet may convey falsehoods. Across the 11 countries examined, between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of children say that they may be unable to verify the truth of online information.

Parents play a key role, including by talking to children about what they do online or doing activities together, according to the findings of the report. Support from parents enables children to engage in a wider range of online activities, improves their skills, and reduces their exposure to risk, the report says.

“Instead of worrying about how long children spend online, Global Kids Online research suggests that parents should engage positively with their children’s digital world and discuss with them the specific content and contact risks they may encounter, so that children can gain resilience and thrive,” said Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at LSE and co-author of the report.

Schools should also offer opportunities for teachers to guide children on how to use the internet to search for information and evaluate the truthfulness of what they find, the report notes, stressing that teachers need to be empowered and trained to provide this guidance as part of their classroom practice. 

As children increasingly access the internet on their own mobile devices and in their own homes, a balanced approach to children’s online participation is needed to maximize the benefits while keeping children safe, the report says.

Notes:

The data from this report were collected in Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Ghana, Italy, Montenegro, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay by Global Kids Online, a research network led by UNICEF Innocenti and LSE. The network is dedicated to collecting comparable data from internet-using children about their experiences in the digital space.

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) studies the social sciences in their broadest sense, with an academic profile spanning a wide range of disciplines, from economics, politics and law, to sociology, information systems and accounting and finance. The School has an outstanding reputation for academic excellence and is one of the most international universities in the world. Its study of social, economic and political problems focuses on the different perspectives and experiences of most countries. From its foundation LSE has aimed to be a laboratory of the social sciences, a place where ideas are developed, analysed, evaluated and disseminated around the globe. Visit http://www.lse.ac.uk for more information.

Publications

Global Kids Online Comparative Report
Publication Publication

Global Kids Online Comparative Report

The internet is often celebrated for its ability to aid children’s development. But it is simultaneously criticized for reducing children’s quality of life and exposing them to unknown and unprecedented dangers. There is considerable debate about when or how children’s rights – including the rights to expression, to privacy, to information, to play and to protection from harm, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – may be realized or infringed in the digital age. With more children around the world going online every day, it is more important than ever to clarify how the internet can advance children’s opportunities in life while safeguarding them from harm or abuse. This requires evidence, from children themselves, that represents the diversity of children’s experiences at the national and global levels. By talking to children, we are better able to understand not only the barriers they face in accessing the internet, but also the opportunities they enjoy and the skills and competences they acquire by engaging in these activities. This allows us to enquire about children’s exposure to online risks and possible harms, and about the role of their parents as mediators and sources of support. In bringing children’s own voices and experiences to the centre of policy development, legislative reform and programme and service delivery, we hope the decisions made in these spheres will serve children’s best interests.
Growing up in a connected world
Publication Publication

Growing up in a connected world

The internet is becoming a natural part of children’s lives across the globe, but we still lack quality and nationally representative data on how children use the internet and with what consequences. This report underscores that it is possible to collect quality data if the right strategies and investments are in place. Over the past 4 years, the Global Kids Online network has worked with UNICEF and partners around the world to improve the global evidence base on the risks and opportunities for children on the internet. This report provides a summary of the evidence generated from Global Kids Online national surveys in 11 countries. Importantly, most of the evidence comes from children themselves, because it is only by talking to children that we can understand how the internet affects them. By bringing children’s own voices and experiences to the centre of policy development, legislative reform, advocacy, and programme and service delivery, we hope the decisions made in these spheres will serve children’s best interests.

Unicef Research Blogs

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