Why we need more research on children’s use of the Internet
13 Aug 2015
A group of young people attend a computer workshop at a Youth Centre in Kasala. Sudan.
It is becoming difficult to imagine a day in a teenagers’ life – in all parts of the globe – without internet access: to socialize with peers, seek information, watch videos, post photos and news updates or play games. As the internet rapidly penetrates all regions, children’s experiences worldwide are increasingly informed by their use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The ITU estimates that by the end of 2015, 3.2 billion people will be using the internet, 2 billion of which will be in developing countries. This exponential growth is largely attributable to the rapid spread of mobile broadband technology with 3G mobile coverage reaching close to 70% of the total world population. What implications does this have for children worldwide, particularly in the regions and countries where UNICEF works? We may see more and more children in lower income countries going online and more children accessing the internet through ‘mobile first’. We may see a digital divide growing not only between those who have access to the internet and those who do not, but also between generations: parents/ grandparents/ caregivers and children. We may see children’s educational experiences being hugely enhanced by access to the internet, but we may also see more children at risk of negative experiences (abuse, bullying, exploitation) because they lack guidance, support and mediation from their parents and educators who have not caught up yet with the fast pace of internet development. With this kind of advance in technology comes growing concern by child rights organizations, regulators, the private sector and other stakeholders that children’s rights need to be realised online as well as offline. The conditions that influence children’s access and behaviour online need to be recognised when internet technologies, services and policies are developed. However, we are not yet in a position to say what implications the internet will have on children’s lives globally. There is little robust evidence coming from lower income countries that examines the whole spectrum of child rights in the digital age. Where research exists, there are major challenges related to comparability of different national data sets, capturing the speed of technological change, varying cultural and contextual realities that influence how children behave online. In order to address this urgent need for evidence the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in collaboration with the London School of Economics and EU Kids Online has supported the establishment of a global research consortium that involves key actors and universities from the Global North and the South. The first meeting of this research consortium took place in February 2015 when the group discussed:
- What research should be conducted to understand how children’s rights are being enhanced or undermined in the digital age, especially on a global basis?
- What data gathering and analytical tools do researchers need, and how can these best be designed and shared among different countries?
- What standards for rigorous methods of cross-national comparison need to be in place?
- What have we learned about how to compare findings across countries so as to share best practice, generalize knowledge where possible and anticipate future issues?