Q & A: Keeping kids safer online

I recently sat down with Sonia Livingstone, a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics to discuss children and kids and the Internet.

Q. You’ve spent the last two months at Microsoft’s Cambridge research facility. How did that opportunity come about?

A. I have known danah boyd, who started the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England, for quite a while, since we’re both interested in studying teenagers’ ‘risky’ activities on social networking sites. And I’d known Nancy Baym, who invited me to visit, for even longer—since we began our careers researching the soap opera audience. Now I see parallels between soap opera and social media—they’re both about the everyday ways that people create a shared social world through seemingly mindless but actually significant chat and gossip.

Q. Share a key learning from this experience and how it will influence your work.

A. The lab values intellectual discussion across disciplinary boundaries. We all find this difficult, requiring lots of ‘translation’ to understand what people from different traditions find interesting questions, let alone how they come to their answers. I appreciate the recognition that it is important not to stay siloed in our separate spaces, but to talk across divides and seek common ground. The design of the lab echoes this principle—open doors, flexible spaces for discussion, frequent moments when everyone comes together to talk about ideas. It’s a contrast with the academic model I’m used to.

Q. You’re the lead researcher for the EU Kids Online network, which is the “gold standard” when it comes to kids’ Internet use in the EU. What’s next for this project?

A. We are coming to the end of our third phase of funded activity. The European Commission’s (EC) Safer Internet (now Better Internet for Kids) Programme is changing into something new. We are focused on completing interviews and focus groups in 9 or 10 countries, aiming to understand the contexts in which children talk about online risk and how they try to cope with it—or, what support they think they need. As I look ahead, I see the value of our network both for its high-quality cross-national research and for its infrastructural role, paralleling the networks for awareness raising, children’s charities, and helplines to provide the evidence base for policymaking and practical safety/empowerment initiatives in Europe.

Q. Any observations on the way American parents approach kids and technology compared to their European counterparts?

A. My sense is that parents’ expectations are greater in the US than in Europe, where we rely more on schools to guide kids, but also on kids themselves. For example, British parents generally do not check their child’s phone or laptop because the child’s right to privacy outweighs the parents’ duty to protect. I think American parents strike a different balance, considering that they have a right to check their phone because they pay the bill. As I see it, children have a right to privacy, but parents have a duty of care. That’s a difficult balancing act in any culture. My hope is that we find ways for parents and children to share responsibility and talk openly about risks rather than parents snooping on kids and kids finding ways to escape scrutiny.

Q. How can we make parents, educators, and policymakers aware that there is a difference between risk versus harm, and how should we be thinking about that?

Statistics on risk (for example, the proportion of children being exposed to online pornography) are inevitably higher than statistics on harm (for example, the proportion of children who are damaged, upset, or threatened by online pornography or other online risks). In our findings, around one in eight children aged 9–16 across Europe had seen explicit online sexual images, but only one in three of those said that was an upsetting experience. We can take different positions—some will decide that children don’t know what harms them and that all exposure to explicit porn is harmful; others will decide that children’s voices should be respected; there’ll be positions in between too. My main point is that this should be discussed.

Q. What is industry’s role in this discussion?

Two factors influence when risk turns into harm. The first depends on the child and the circumstances in which they use the Internet. A psychologically vulnerable child has less resilience when finding extreme images and is more readily upset. The second depends on the industry’s design of the online environment. If a mildly pornographic image links to more extreme images, risks can lead to harm. If a search for self-harm offers professional advice on sources of help (instead of peer advice on how to cut), risk may not lead to harm.

One hopes that multiple stakeholders—including industry, child welfare, and researchers—will discuss openly where the risks are arising and work together to minimize harm. Ideally, they’d find ways that don’t restrict children’s opportunities to explore and benefit from the Internet.

Q. What do you think parents struggle with the most, and what would you tell them to help calm their anxiety about their kid’s digital lifestyles?

I think parents struggle with two things in particular. The first is that the media are full of panicky headlines that raise fears of abduction, porn addiction, and cyberbullying, and it would help if the media could raise awareness in a more balanced and proportionate way. The second is that they struggle with protecting versus empowering their children. Parents want to trust their kids and respect their privacy. Stakeholders need to provide more nuanced and age-sensitive advice to guide parents. And parents should read the press more critically and listen to their children more sensitively.

Q. Kids are going online at increasingly younger ages. Most of our work focuses on reaching parents of children and teens, but who is thinking about the really young kids, 2–5-year-olds?

The marketing and content industries are thinking about very young kids as a new market. Despite claims of educational outcomes, there is very little evidence that it benefits kids to be going online so young. A few researchers are also studying the contexts and consequences of young kids’ Internet use, and I hope we see more of this in the future.

Q. Where is the online safety debate headed? There is talk about moving from a “safer” to a “better” Internet, and from protecting kids to empowering them. Is a shift taking place? What will the impact be?  

The argument for a better Internet for kids is a good one: there’s no point having a safe Internet if it has little that’s great for kids to do. Dealing with the risk of harm should become a ‘hygiene factor’: like immunizations against disease or reliable systems for clean water, life without good hygiene is problematic, even intolerable. Once those systems are in place, the important questions are about how society should be organized for positive goals. We are so preoccupied with eliminating threats that we’ve lost sight of what we want for the Internet. Remember those early debates about kids having the world of knowledge at their fingertips. What’s our present vision of what we want for kids? That’s where creative thinking is now needed.

Q. There has been a lot in the news from the UK recently. Any thoughts on what PM Cameron is trying to accomplish?

Our prime minister has put children’s Internet safety high on the political agenda. He is focused on eliminating child abuse images from the Internet. He has also insisted that all ISPs provide usable filters for parents. While welcoming both developments, I have two concerns. The first is that we will need new research to be sure that the benefits are reaching children: will children encounter fewer risks online, will their parents feel more empowered to deal with what worries them, and will this be achieved in ways that don’t restrict children’s rights to free expression, privacy, and participation. Second, government intervention online always raises concerns about wider freedom of expression, censorship, and rights. I would like to see an independent, accountable, trusted body established to oversee child protection and empowerment online in a way that responds to wider public concerns. This would also help ensure that Internet safety remains on the agenda.

Q. Lastly, the theme for Safer Internet Day in 2014 is “Let’s Create a Better Internet Together.” Will you be doing anything special to mark the day?

A. We plan to release the first part of our report on the qualitative work on kids’ perceptions of risk that I described earlier. But the findings are a secret till then! I will be in Brussels announcing the winner of the EC’s positive online content competition, of which I chair the jury. That’s a nice role—celebrating what’s good about the Internet for kids.

About the Author
Eve Blakemore

Group Manager, Trustworthy Computing

Eve Blakemore is a Group Manager for Trustworthy Computing who delivers consumer guidance around the latest trends in security and privacy. Eve joined Microsoft in 1998 and has worked in corporate and field roles with Microsoft Learning, US Public Sector, Read more »

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