How can we best advance children’s rights in the digital age? The starting point must be children themselves – asking about the barriers they face in accessing the internet, the opportunities they are discovering online, the digital skills they are acquiring and the risks of harm that they face.
The Global Kids Online network is committed to gathering the necessary evidence by listening to children and generating cross-nationally comparable and robust data that directly reflects children’s voices, experiences and concerns.
The findings presented here are based on survey results from more than 14,000 internet-using children across 11 countries. Given that our sample consists only of internet users, it is important to consider that internet access across the countries analysed in this report vary considerably; in some countries most children have internet access while in others they do not. We therefore cannot use these data to make inferences about the general child population in a given country.
Talking to children and their parents has revealed significant variation between countries at different stages in their digital development, but the exercise has also pinpointed certain conclusions concerning:
A Connected World
At the global level, it is estimated that one child in three is an internet user, and that one in three internet users is a child under 18 years of age.
Among the children we talked to, mobile phones are the most popular devices used to go online. This represents a notable shift over the past decade. In Europe and North America, the first generation of internet users logged on via desktop computers, but the pattern in the global South has clearly been mobile first.
“The phone is somehow simpler. We can carry it anywhere, it’s smaller and it’s easier to work on it. I like it better in this way [using it] by fingers and not with the keyboard.”
- Girl, 12, Serbia
Among the many activities available online, we found that watching videos clips was the most popular for both girls and boys, with over three quarters of internet-using children watching online videos at least weekly, either alone or with family and friends.
“When my mother bought the laptop, we started to spend more time together, since every weekend we chose a movie and watched it with my grandmother.”
- Girl, 15, Uruguay
Despite concerns about children’s consumption of online entertainment, we found that mainstream entertainment activities may be useful entry-level opportunities for children to develop the interest and skills needed to progress towards more educational, social, and civic online experiences.
Figure: Children who play games online at least weekly, by gender
Base: Children aged 9–17 who use the internet.
Note: Argentina has missing data and is therefore not included in this figure.
The internet has also become a crucial meeting place for children to exercise their right to freedom of expression by connecting with others online. Many children surveyed can be considered ‘active socializers’ who take part in a number of social activities online each week – such as chatting with friends and networking with those who share their interests. Our research suggests that children who socialize more actively online are better at managing their online privacy, which helps to keep them safe.
“Online, I can show my true self, there are no rules … I have more than 5,000 friends online.”
- Boy, who identifies as gay, 15, Philippines
Like adults, children use the internet to exercise their right to information. Our data show that the children who go online to find information tend be older, engage in a broader range of online activities and have parents with a supportive and enabling attitude towards their internet use.
Importantly, being adept at seeking information on the internet is one thing while being able to critically evaluate the truthfulness of this information is quite another. Compared with the proportion of children who reported strong information-seeking skills, fewer children said they were good at critically evaluating the information they found.
Our findings suggest that children – especially younger children – are yet to take full advantage of the information available to them online. For this to change, younger children especially will need more support and encouragement to advance their rights in the digital world.
Engaging in civic or political activity online is perhaps the most mature form of online participation, as it touches on an important right for all children to be heard and to express themselves. However, it is clear from talking to children that relatively few young people are taking advantage of civic engagement opportunities online.
Recalling the notion of entry-level activities as building blocks for other online activities, we suggest that children’s progression across various online activities can be represented by a ‘ladder of online participation,’ which is illustrated below. This ladder generally begins with enjoying entertainment content online and using the internet for schoolwork, it then moves on to social networking and creating content online and culminates in becoming involved in civic engagement and other forms of self-expression via the internet.
Much like in their “offline” lives, children can be exposed to several online risks that could lead to harm. For example, they may be confronted with hate speech or encounter violent or sexual content. Across the 11 countries included in our report, fewer than one-third of children reported experiencing each respective risk measured in our survey.
Our findings show that children who engage in more online activities tend to experience more online risks – perhaps due to their heightened exposure or their more confident exploration of the internet. This poses a dilemma; on one hand, we found that participating in more online activities improves children’s digital skills. However, this also leaves them more exposed to risky – and potentially harmful – content, contact and conduct.
To effectively protect children without unduly limiting their opportunities, it is important to understand how a risk can translate into harm – and to know which children are most vulnerable to experiencing harm online. In several countries, many children have experienced a variety of online risks, but far fewer report feeling harmed as a result.
The Role of Parents
Providing children with guidance as they navigate the digital space is one way to prevent online risks resulting in harm. In most countries surveyed, over 90 per cent of internet-using children access the internet from home weekly, meaning that parents are in a strong position to support children’s internet use.
But faced with complex and fast-evolving technologies, many parents do not feel confident enough to supervise their seemingly tech-savvy children. Parents may also be influenced by popular worries about ‘excessive screen-time’, ‘internet addiction’ and ‘stranger danger’. The temptation is therefore to restrict children’s internet use rather than to guide them to use the internet safely.
Instead of limiting internet use, parents can get involved in children’s online lives by encouraging them to learn from the internet or suggesting ways to use the internet safely. By taking a more positive and supportive stance, parents can help their children develop resilience while also reducing conflict between parent and child. In most of the 11 countries surveyed, such enabling mediation helps children to engage in a wider range of online activities and slightly reduces their exposure to risk.
Very few children in any of the countries surveyed seek support from their teachers when they experience something hurtful online. Yet school is an important place where children frequently go online, placing teachers in a good position to provide support, particularly in teaching children how to stay safe online and how to critically evaluate the information they find online. This, however, requires that teachers themselves are supported to build the necessary skills to be the guides that children need – which could be a focus for future education policy and programmes.