Ten Myths About Kids' Online Risks

February 24, 2012
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Parents and Families, Research & Studies

Researchers at the London School of Economics have this message for parents: if you think you know how the Internet is affecting your kids, think again.

Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology, who with a team surveyed 25,000 teens and parents in 23 countries in Europe as part of the EU Kids Online project, said in a press release: “Most people have concerns about the internet and the effects it can have on a new digital generation of children. But are they concerned about the right things? Our study showed that in general they are not.”

Here’s the top 10 myths about kids’ digital lives in the researchers’ own words:

1. Digital natives know it all. Only 36 percent of 9- to 16-year-olds say it is very true that they know more about the internet than their parents. This myth obscures kid’s needs to develop digital skills.

2. Everyone is creating their own content. Only one in five kids had recently used a file-sharing site or created an avatar, half that number wrote a blog. Most kids use the Internet for ready-made content.

3. Under 13’s can’t use social networking sites. Although many sites (including Facebook) require that users be at least 13, the survey shows that age limits don’t work; 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds have a social networking profile.

4. Everyone watches porn online. One in seven kids saw sexual images online in the past year. Even allowing for under-reporting, this myth has been partly created by media hype.

5. Bullies are baddies. The study shows that 60 percent who bully (online or offline) have themselves been bullied. Bullies and victims are often the same people.

6. People you meet on the Internet are strangers. Most online contacts are people kids know face-to-face. Nine percent met offline people they’d first contacted online – most didn’t go alone and only 1 percent had a bad experience.

7. Offline risks migrate online. While kids who lead risky offline lives are more likely to expose themselves to danger online, those who are at low-risk offline are not necessarily protected while online.

8. Putting the PC in the living room is the fix. Today, kids can so easily go online at a friend’s house or on a smartphone that this advice isn’t a cure-all. Parents should talk to their kids about their Internet habits or join them in their online activities.

9. Teaching digital skills reduces online risk. Actually the more digital skills kids have, the more risks they are likely to encounter as they broaden their online experience. What more skills can do is reduce the potential harm that risks can bring.

10. Kids can get around safety software. In fact, fewer than one in three 11- to 16-year-olds say they can change filter preferences. And most say their parents’ actions to limit their Internet activity is helpful.

Despite the potentially dispiriting list (I mean, really, just when you thought you had it figured out…), it’s good to remember that, as the authors note, the majority of kids are navigating and using the Internet without harm, levels of bullying are quite low, and the exchanges are generally positive.

Yet in a few places, we think the list misses some important points. For example, while only one in seven (14%) kids has seen sexual images, that’s still a lot of kids. Hype or no, it’s good to be aware that kids can find this content.

And while it’s good to note that offline risks migrate online, this issue also underscores the fact that online worlds themselves come with risks, albeit risks that aren’t always unique to the Internet. Parents cannot be absent in discussions and activities surrounding online worlds, just as they aren’t absent from their children’s offline pursuits. As in everything, finding that good balance is key.

Finally, while it’s good to reiterate that simply putting the computer in the living room isn’t enough, we still believe it is a good first step as a way to stay in touch with your child’s activities. As the authors say, the best way to ensure that kids continue to have positive experiences is for parents to continue to share offline experiences with them, guide them as needed, and not use scare tactics. “It’s a matter of guidance, teaching and direction,” they say. 

In a tip sheet for parents, these researchers suggest:

Parents talk to their child about the internet, stay nearby or sit with them while they go online, encourage them to explore the internet, and share online activities with them. These activities…tend to reduce children’s exposure to online risks without reducing online opportunities, and they also reduce young children’s (9-12 years) reports of being upset when they encounter online risks.

Don’t turn the Internet off, they counsel. It’s not ruining our children. Instead, kids need support to tap into the benefits for learning, socializing, and expressing themselves that the Internet offers.

Watch Livingstone and her colleagues discuss their findings in the video below. You can download their full report at the London School of Economics (pdf).

And parents and teachers we’d love to hear about your own experiences. This study examined the behaviors of European parents and teens, do you think these trends are the same for American kids?