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Why we need more research on children’s use of the Internet

13 Aug 2015
Why we need more research on children’s use of the Internet

By Jasmina Byrne

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. ITU facts and Figures 2015 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?
Experts attending this symposium agreed that a research toolkit to facilitate global research on child rights and the internet is urgently needed. It should also be robust yet flexible enough to take account of variations in national contexts and children’s diverse living experiences. Moving ahead… As a result, a new research partnership was formed. UNICEF Innocenti, four UNICEF Country Offices: Argentina, the Philippines, South Africa and Serbia, the London School of Economics and EU Kids Online agreed to collaboratively design a research toolkit to guide the research efforts worldwide. It will consist of a modular survey, qualitative research protocols and a survey administration toolkit that would include methodological guides and expert reports. The results of this initiative will be shared globally through an open access web portal hosting the research toolkit, national reports, a synthesis report and other resources. We invite you to visit these special UNICEF and LSE web spaces which will help you take part in this important global research partnership. We hope that this work will inspire researchers and practitioners to generate more knowledge that will support the global policy efforts on child rights in the digital age. Jasmina Byrne is a lead researcher on children’s rights in the digital age in UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence, Italy.