On June 2, the pan-European research group, EU Kids Online published the results of qualitative research conducted with children – ages nine – 16 - from nine European countries including Malta. This is the first time that EU Kids Online included Malta in such a study.

Together with two other Maltese – Prof Mary Anne Lauri and Lorleen Farrugia - I have been a member of the group for the last three years which provided us a very valid research experience.

It is a fact that internet use is very common and that children are proving to be the real natives of the net. On the other hand it is unfortunate that reactions to such use by children is clouded by many anecdotal references that tend to alarm people. Such alarm can then be reflected in policies adopted by the authorities. This is a mistaken strategy. Policies should be based on research.

The children included in the study were from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The internet has collapsed space and radically changed its notion more than any other medium, thus it is more imperative now than it ever was, to look at issues from the perspectives of happenings and doings in different countries. Maltese children use the internet to play and socialise in real time with children from other countries. Consequently studies that cut across nations are a reflection of reality out there.

The following are just a few results of the study:

  • Overall, the most common online problematic situation includes the sending of content that is  violent, vulgar, or sexual. Other problematic situations include perpetrating, experiencing, and/or witnessing hateful, vulgar, or nasty messages.
  • Some of the nasty messages featured during online games involve being killed, cursed, excluded, and/or verbally assaulted in online games.
  • Some of the problematic experiences include meeting online peers offline, sending “friend” requests or communicating with strangers not their own age.
  • There is a difference between the use (or abuse) made by boys and girls. Boys tend to share more than girls naked pictures of someone without that person’s permission.
  • Online problematic situations related to school involve children using incorrect information for school assignments, and perpetrating or knowing about the cyberbullying of teachers.
  • Sexual content is often perceived as bothersome by children and often found by mistake, but sometimes children, particularly older children, intentionally search for this content. Older children sometimes report positive feelings about this content as well. Girls experience more sexual communication and post “sexy” or provocative pictures to receive “likes”.
  • Children sometimes encounter fake information and racist or hateful content on the internet,

which they perceive as bothersome. 

  • Sharing personal information and passwords for Facebook or game accounts with family members and friends is common across all groups of children. This particular activity isn’t perceived as risky, despite some children indicating that someone had misused their personal information.

Children do tend to have a concept of ‘bothersome’ or ‘harmful’ which is different from that of their parents. Besides there are significant age differences in how children make sense of online problematic situations: younger children’s awareness reflects the perceptions of the media and parents, whereas older  children draw more on personal experiences or those of their peers.

Parental mediation particularly when handled intelligently and not intrusively, and more, important when handled with full respect of the children in question can be very positive and beneficial. However parents have to be very attentive to the real needs of their children, their wishes and their perceptions of what is or is not harmful.

The following is the advice that the compilers of the study offer parents and other adults responsible for children:

“Adults should be encouraged to refrain from simply forbidding children’s access to the internet as the digital world is likely to continue to be embedded in children’s lives, making it  difficult to avoid online problematic situations. Furthermore, certain online situations might  represent a developmental need, potentially bringing something positive to children’s lives. Instead of prohibiting access to or scaring children about online situations, parents in particular should be advised to discuss online experiences with their children, explain why something is risky, be sensitive about (particularly to older) children’s desire for a certain amount of privacy, and teach them about the broad array of online problematic situations they might encounter and how to avoid them.

“Parents should be encouraged to foster understandings whereby children feel more comfortable about confiding in them. This is important as some online problematic situations, such as encountering sexual content, make children uncomfortable talking to their parents about unpleasant experiences.”

(Those who would like to know more about this study should Google EU Kids Online III where they can find a mine of material.)

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