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15 October 2017
By Rebecca Avery

UKCCIS Children’s Online Activities, Risks and Safety: Literature Review published

The UKCCIS evidence review group have  published a literature review regarding 'Children’s online activities, risks and safety.' The review focusses on exploring:
  • trends, to understand recent developments and anticipate emerging issues;
  • online risk of harm to children and implications for safety policy and practice;
  • key findings, linking to original reports, highlighting useful graphs and including verbatim quotes from children where available.
The findings of the review may be helpful for DSLs and leaders to consider with regards to implementing effective and appropriate online safety approaches within their settings. The key findings are as follows:

Children’s Internet Access and Use

  • While a small minority of children (mostly from poorer homes) remain without internet access, for most children, internet use is occupying more time, in more locations, including younger children (now four in ten 3- to 4-year-olds) .
  • Compared with other European countries, the UK is distinctive in favouring tablets over smartphones, and high levels of internet use in school.
  • Motivations for using the internet vary mainly by age, and second by gender.
  • Only a minority of children take up online opportunities for creative and civic participation, although many wish to be ‘good digital citizens.
  • Risky opportunities vary: few children say they send photos to online contacts or reveal personal information, but a substantial minority uses services ‘under age’.
  • While it seems many UK children have learned to be cautious online, there is little evidence that their digital skills and literacies are increasing over time (although undoubtedly they increase with age).

Risk of Harm Online

  • Age is the key factor that differentiates among children’s online experiences, with gender also significant.
  • One in ten children to one in five young teens say they encountered something worrying or nasty online in the past year.
  • Children’s top worries are pornography and violence; they say they encounter these most often on video-sharing sites, followed by other websites, social networking sites and games.
  • Children are also concerned about the levels of advertising online, their spending too much time online, inappropriate contacts, rumours and nastiness.
  • The top parent concerns include online violence.
  • There has been little increase or decrease in online risk in recent years, although there are some indications of a rise in hate and self-harm content.
  • It is not possible to determine whether the internet has increased the overall amount of risk children face as they grow up, or whether the internet instead provides a new location for risk experiences, but the nature of the internet itself surely alters and amplifies the consequences.

Specific Risks Online

  • Most research is on children’s exposure to risk, with too little on which children come to harm and why, or what the long-term consequences are.
  • There is some emerging research on children’s involvement in hacking and cybercrime – through peer cultures inducing vulnerable youth or via online gaming, but this is recent and limited in scope.
  • Cyberbullying
    • Estimates vary between 6-25%+ depending on measures – and the reasons for victimisation are diverse.
  • Sexting and sexual harassment (peer on peer abuse)
    • Most children experience neither; among those who do, such experiences are often associated with developing intimate relationships as teenagers.
    • The wider context matters – the prevalence of gender inequalities, sexual stereotypes and coercion, and a lack of understanding of consent all serve to blur the boundaries between sexting and harassment; as a result, girls are more at risk, although there are also grounds for concern about boys.
  • Online pornography
    • Estimated prevalence varies, again by age and gender, but some estimates suggest the vast majority of teenagers have seen this; there is qualified evidence of adverse effects, including that children may be learning about sex from pornography, hence the importance of sex education.
  • Sexual solicitation online
    • Research suggests this may affect up to one in ten children; there have been some investigations of the behaviour of groomers, some of the consequences for victims, but there are many gaps here, and a need for a better understanding among child welfare professionals and criminal justice agencies.
  • Radicalisation
    • There is a growing literature on this, but there are currently no UK studies related to online radicalisation of children.

Vulnerability and Resilience

  • Consensus is emerging around the argument that those who can cope with a degree of online adversity, for whatever reason, may become digitally resilient, but those already at risk offline are more likely to be at risk and vulnerable online.
  • There are correlations among risks so those children vulnerable to one type of risk are also likely to be vulnerable to others.
  • There is some research on how vulnerable children face online risk, and on how resilient children cope, but more is needed , especially in relation to long-term outcomes.
  • A host of risk/vulnerability factors are likely to shape children’s online experiences, and this is mediated by the ways in which children develop emotionally, cognitively, in terms of their identity needs, social relationships and need for support, and their peer cultures. However, it remains difficult except in retrospect to pinpoint the moment when children succumb to specific online risks.

Online Safety Initiatives

  • The overwhelming picture is that while diverse stakeholders have tried many initiatives, very few are independently evaluated. This makes it difficult to determine what works and why. Evaluations tend to focus on immediate outcomes (reach, appeal, etc.) rather than a long-term reduction in harm or improvement in well-being.
  • Building children’s digital resilience should have a twin focus on developing critical ability and technical competency in terms of education, as well as supporting children online and offline through constructive and informed parenting practices, through safety and privacy by design, and by improving the digital expertise of relevant welfare and other professionals who work with children.
  • Education
    • School use a range of strategies to implement e-safety priorities – including developing children’s critical abilities – but there is mixed evidence of improvement.
    • Programmes tend to take a standard approach and may not be suited to the specific needs of more vulnerable children.
    • Awareness-raising campaigns such as the Safer Internet Day have been instrumental in changing attitudes and practices.
  • Parents 
    • Parents use a range of mediation strategies including technical controls, rules regulating online access and use, including the majority preferring to talk to their children about the consequences of their online activities.
    • Gaps remain in parents’ abilities and skills for effective mediation; rules and restrictions tend to keep children safe but constrain their opportunities and invite evasion; enabling mediation is empowering providing children and parents have the skills and resilience to cope with risk when it occurs.
    • Parents prefer to receive information about their children’s online safety from schools despite information being available from multiple sources.
    • Parents tend to prefer control tools they are familiar with unless an undesirable incident prompts them to adopt a new one.
  • Industry
    • A range of industry initiatives exists in the form of agreements with the government, individual company policies and initiatives, and industry-level initiatives, but there is evidence to suggest that industry could do more to strengthen collaborative partnerships, particularly with law enforcement.
The full review can be accessed on the UKCCIS website.