How children engage with the internet | Sonia Livingstone | TEDxExeter

How children engage with the internet | Sonia Livingstone | TEDxExeter


Translator: Belagia Naiem
Reviewer: Denise RQ Hello! When I was a girl,
children were to be seen and not heard, as the saying went. Bedrooms were
for sleeping in not playing in. Television had three channels
and not much of it was for kids. But at the weekends, we could go out, and play,
and put a sandwich in our pockets, and our mom didn’t know where we were. Today’s children have more digital media in their homes,
in their bedrooms, in their lives than I could ever have imagined
when I was a child. But somehow, we worry. Are they as happy? Are they as fulfilled? Do they have as much to do
as when we were children? I’m a social psychologist,
and I have been researching the way in which children and young people engage
with the changing media environment. For over 20 years now, I’ve been working, as we said, in Britain, across
Europe, and in America. I do my research by surveying children and parents,
by interviewing them, and by observing how they engage with the media
in homes and in schools. And today I want to suggest
we need to think more deeply about the balance between the online risks
and the online opportunities. Because on all sides,
I’m hearing increasing panic about the risks for our children
on the Internet. I don’t think we are giving
enough priority to developing some of the benefits. For sure, there are many things to be worried about, and things to be worried about
for children on the Internet. There are sites for chatting to strangers.
There is anonymous messaging. There are sites where you find
pornography, violence. Sites where you can share and encourage
race-hate and self-harm. There are sites which come and go
which the children know about before us – very often – and which escape
regulatory oversight very easily. For sure, some of this
really upsets children. In our research, we ask children
to tell us about some of the things that concerned them on the Internet. And they told us in confidence; this is just a selection
of some of the things that they said. And the point I’d like to draw from
these quotations is the range of things that is concerning
children about the Internet, some of which I think, as adults,
we don’t give very much attention to. But if we were to understand
how common these experiences are, how my children are worried in this way, we need to do
nationally representative surveys; and this helps to put things
in perspective. So, a few years ago, we did
a survey of children in Britain; actually, also across Europe. Here are some headline findings of of the kinds of risks
that they reported encountering. These were children
mainly between 9 and 16. I would conclude that children
in this country encounter what we might call modest
but persistent levels of online risk. But it is not every child
who is seeing risks all the time. Overall, about four in ten children said they’d encountered
something like this in the last year. OK, so things change, and just very recently,
we updated our survey, and here is how the figures changed
in just a matter of a few years. But as you’ll see, is a mixed picture,
not simply getting worse, though there is a notable increase
in the number of children who say that they have seen
hate messages. And that might be because of the rise
of some of those apps and services where children can, or people
can send messages very quickly and not always see the response
of the person at the other end. What’s important to know
however, is that overall, one in three children who encountered
these kinds of risks said that it upset them; in other words, not all children
who encountered these risks do say that it upsets them. Children can encounter pornography
or even be approached by a stranger online and it turns out OK. So overall, our surveys have found that one in seven children
who uses the Internet says that something online
upset them in the last year. And that number hasn’t
really changed in recent years. So, it’s with those figures in mind
that I think we can think again about some of these headlines because it’s hard
not to fear for our children when we see headlines like this. The Internet is associated with some truly problematic
and difficult things. But the evidence invites us
to think more carefully about which children encounter which risks or are upset by what on the Internet. Our research suggests, for example,
that is younger children who are often more concerned
about violence or cruelty that they encounter on the Internet; girls can be subject to sexual pressures
and body-image anxieties; and those children who have psychological
difficulties, or difficulties at home, do tend to be those who get into more
difficulties online though not inevitably. So it’s easy to understand why we might
want to call for more restrictions. Perhaps we want to restrict every child
in what they do on the Internet, just in case. It would be, just as I think that would be
problematic, It would also problematic to assume that every child on the Internet
is just fine; we can leave them alone. Somehow, we need
to find a point of balance, and is harder the context
of great anxiety about what the Internet brings because the Internet is always changing
and change makes us anxious. Knowing that it’s very helpful to realize that, in fact, societies are worried about
every new technological revolution. In fact, since the invention of writing. Here is Socrates worrying about
the invention of writing. (Laughter) We worried about the printing press. We worried about television. We are worried about
every technological revolution for its effects on our children’s minds, on their behaviors,
on their moral compass. We’ve always had exactly these worries. In that context, something very important
the research tells us, too: in the years that we’ve been coming
to terms of having the Internet as fundamental in our lives, there have been no overall,
real long-term changes in any of the childhood’s troubles
and difficulties that children encounter; no real changes in childhood abductions, or sexual abuse, or accidental deaths, or mental health problems, or suicide. What there has been, I think,
is a kind of new visibility to some of these very long standing
and persistent childhood problems. So, the Internet makes visible sexual
harassment at school or bullying in a way that perhaps we were not
previously so aware, but the Internet is not the cause
of human misery; people are. That’s the case whether the rate
of children’s problems is going up or going down
or as it were taking a new form. I do think it’s taking a new form. There is the fact of being always on,
always reachable, always connected. There’s the plethora of communication
choices that face our young people, whether to communicate
in public or in private, whether to be anonymous or identified. The array of choices they can make about
how to communicate online or offline is something that actually
they’re very preoccupied with; it’s not they don’t make a distinction
between the online and the offline. They are making lots
of distinctions all the time. We, as adults, should be discussing those
more carefully with them. Then there is the way in which the very features
of our digital platforms and services are becoming part and parcel of the way
in which we interact with each other. Every exchange now leaves a trace; messages and images can be re-edited
to be funny or cruel. They can go viral reaching
many people very fast. They last forever. One of the most difficult ways is everything nowadays can be
shared, searched, and found. Problems can escalate
in a blink of an eye. While we are trying to contend with this,
those very platforms are constantly being redesigned, redesigning our privacy
and safety along the way. That’s a really crucial point
because the Internet’s not arrived as it were from Mars;
it’s what we have made it. It has been made by the technologists,
looking for new ways to connect the world. It’s been made by commerce,
looking for new and profitable businesses. It’s been made by governments,
looking for new ways to reshape education, learning, and work. It’s very much what we’ve made
and is also responsive to the way in which we, as ordinary people
make use of the Internet. Thinking about the ways
in which we can design it and use it, there are lots of organizations
out there now who are working to both advice the public to work with parents,
children, and teachers especially, to think of ways of using the Internet
more safely and better. But those organizations are also working
with governments and with industry to try to redesign the Internet so that it better serves
the needs of our children because those voices
are sometimes forgotten. That brings me
to another really important point: if we want to understand how to make the Internet
better serve the interest of children, then we should be listening
very much to children and to what they have to say. We can’t assume that they react to things
on the Internet in the same way that we do and as I’ve already shown, I think, they don’t always have the same concerns, and certainly,
not necessarily the ways of coping with what they find
on the Internet that we do. It’s important that we don’t assume
they react like we do and it’s important to them we don’t overreact to their experiences
when we hear about them. One of the other things
I’ve learned in my research by listening to children
and their experiences of the Internet is just how difficult it is even to make
that distinction I’ve been making between the risks and the opportunities. It helps me to understand
why my research has shown that the online opportunities
the children experience on the Internet are positively co-related
with the online risks. In other words, the more
they experience opportunities, the more they also encounter risks. It’s like becoming
more independent offline. To become more independent
and to encounter the world more, brings more risks; and the converse is also true. Which is to say if we try to restrict
what children do on the Internet in order to reduce the risks, we will be restricting
their opportunities, too; and that includes their opportunities to develop resilience
against possible future harm. What we also learn from listening to children
when they talk about the Internet, is the blurry line
of in-between risks and opportunities. It’s very hard to draw that line. Children would like to make
new friends on the Internet, but we hear that
as maybe meeting strangers. They like to have lots and lots
of contacts online, but we worry about who those people are. They might like to explore, to discover
health or sexual advice on the Internet – in private – but we worry about
who is providing that advice. There are lots of activities which hover
in between the risks and the opportunities We might almost call them
the risky opportunities of the Internet. Some have called it the online drama; the drama of being online in that state
between the risks and the opportunities. Remember those early days when the Internet
first arrived in our lives, and we talked about the great world
of information at our fingertips? The chances for children to make
new friends around the globe? The new ways that they could learn
and participate on the Internet? Sadly, for many children, even in
the world’s more privileged countries, those great opportunities remain
the exception not the rule. These are the top ten sites visited
by British 6 to 14 year-olds. Many of those sites
are, of course, very good. There are lots of good things there, but it is; I suggest, a rather narrow,
branded, and commercialized, and even rather kind of an adult world that our children
are spending a lot of time in. Research also shows that about half
of children of that age group only go to sites
they have ever visited before. Some of those more exciting opportunities,
where to climb the ladder of opportunities is not yet in the experience
of many of our children. Here are just some figures to show that some of those more creative
and participatory chances are not yet within the grasp of many. That’s partly because we, as adults,
don’t always know how best to guide them. If I asked the parents
and teachers among you, could you think of
ten great websites for children? I wonder how many of you could. I think you probably could for books,
television programs, or films, but can you think of ten great websites,
apps, or educational computer games for children? If we could think of more places, if we could encourage a greater range
of places for children to go online, and if we were more confident in
exploring and encouraging them to explore a journey of possibilities rather than locking them
into rather safe, walled gardens, then children would be spending
less time online casting around, not quite sure where to go,
and so taking up some of those suggested links
or opportunistic invitations that can lead them into trouble. It’s sometimes said we can think about encouraging children to go online
and explore, just like we do, in the real world; teaching them to swim, teaching them
about the roads, and so forth, but here lies something of a problem
because, in our societies, we are not actually very good anymore
at encouraging our children to go out like I did as a child all day, with a sandwich in their pockets
and not really knowing where they are. In fact, we are not really very good
letting them walk to school anymore, by themselves, even though there are
fewer accidents on the road than there were when I was a child. No wonder that when children want
to explore or even to transgress, they often do it today online. It’s nothing new about the way in which children want to meet,
hang out, play, and take risks, but, as a society, we need to think
about where we want those places to be, and we need to think about
who we want to be responsible for them. The Internet is here to stay and so, it’s right that we think
about ways of designing for better safety and fewer risks of harm, but also I’ve suggested today we need to give
more effort, more priority into designing and stimulating
some of the online opportunities so that more of our children have the chance to explore,
create, and be imaginative online. Thank you. (Applause)

Danny Hutson

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