Most children use the internet on a daily basis. Very young kids, even toddlers, are online too. They’re often more savvy iPad users than their parents or grandparents. With smart phones, the internet is completely integrated into their lives. Like “real life”, the digital society has its sunny and shady sides. When it comes to children, there’s a tendency to write ‘safety’ in capital letters and focus more on the risks than opportunities, however irrational or relatively small they may be. Many other authors, like Frank Furedi, David Garland, Tim Gill, and Helene Guldberg, have elaborately written about today’s age of fear and control and how it effects society and children’s lives in particular.
Playgrounds are an excellent example of this tendency put forward by Tim Gill, demonstrating how outdoor venues for kids have become terribly boring or have been closed down altogether, as a result of a misperception of risk and harm. Just like the rest of the world, playgrounds are not risk-less places. But the chances of kids being – seriously – harmed are very small indeed. The internet should not follow in these footsteps and become a seemingly safe but ho-hum digital playground. In fact recent studies show that kids don’t run a lot of risks on the internet. For example, less than 15% of European children saw porno on the internet or received sexually explicit messages, and most of those that did were not upset by the experience. Merely, 1% of Dutch children were upset by meeting an online contact offline. Besides, as the saying goes, ‘once bitten twice shy’. In other words, children can learn important lessons from negative experiences. As long as, we – i.e. parents, teachers, policymakers, peers, etc – remain aware of the fact that some kids are vulnerable, less resilient and in need of our support.
To take this one step further, we should rather focus on the fundamental rights and freedoms of children on the digital playground. The 1989 UN Child Rights Convention provides guidance on issues of personal development, freedom of information, privacy, protection against abuse and – yes – also play. In line with recent developments in the child rights domain, greater involvement of children in addressing their digital rights and freedoms has been put in place. Interestingly, the EU kids online project recently published the report ‘In their own words: What bothers children online?’ doing just that: giving a voice to the kids themselves. Remarkably, most children (54%) are concerned with what I’d call Internet 1.0 issues, such as seeing violence or pornography on the internet, which seems to justify greater attention to age-rating systems such as PEGI online. However risks that lead to a lot of media anxiety, such as stranger danger (i.e. being contacted online by pedophiles) or abuse of personal data, are rarely mentioned by children as being a cause of concern to them (although they are concerned about privacy violations, like reputational damage).
Obviously this study is only a start. I’m sure children have lots more to tell us when it comes to their online experiences, how their rights and freedom are honored – or not – and what they think their virtual playground should look like. One – admittedly adult – concern is what is called the commercialisation of childhood that has taken on new forms on the internet with the development of advergames, i.e. advertising cleverly wrapped up as game play and subtly seducing children into cravings for certain products. Do we think it’s fair to commercially manipulate kids with game play? Does it matter that – in return – companies create games and other fun stuff for children to play with? The EU Kids online study seems to indicate that children themselves are not much concerned about commercial content, although they may not see through smart advertising strategies well enough to be able to critically reflect on them. So further research is necessary here and in other areas as well. Let’s continue giving kids a voice!
This blog is partly based on Simone’s inaugural lecture of 1 March 2013. Click here for the Dutch text of her inaugural lecture.