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Children’s online activities, risks and safety: A literature review by the UKCCIS Evidence Group

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) is a group of more than 200 organisations drawn from across government, industry, law, academia and charities that work in partnership to help keep children safe online. The Council was established in 2008 following a review by Tanya Byron. It deliberates and acts on topical issues concerning children’s use of the internet.

Research findings are vital to provide the evidence base to inform stakeholder actions designed to improve children’s online safety. Evidence can help estimate the scale and scope of problems, and provides an often necessary corrective to unfounded public anxieties, informing policy and practice. It can track changes in children’s practices, informing the updating of advice, helping to frame and understand complex questions to which we lack common-sense answers – for example, about the nature of children’s vulnerability in digital media. It is also important to know where gaps in the evidence base exist.

The UKCCIS Evidence Group identifies, evaluates and collates information from pertinent research findings, and communicates this to stakeholders with the aim of keeping UKCCIS, and the wider public, up to date. It holds seminars to address emerging issues, and produces a series of Research Highlights. These provide succinct summaries of recent findings from UK-based research relevant to the UKCCIS remit, and currently number 108 in total.

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Evidence Group reviewed the available research, recognising that children’s engagement with the internet and associated digital media continues to change, with new risks and safety issues arising and, fortunately, new research conducted to guide policy and practice. By early 2017 it was judged timely to review the available research afresh. Since the 2012 UKCCIS review (Livingstone et al., 2012a) the number of Research Highlights had doubled, and children’s digital environment and modes of engagement, including the potential for risk of harm, are greatly transformed. In the wider policy field, the plan to develop an Internet Safety Strategy in 2017 makes an updated evidence review particularly necessary.

A literature review identifies and synthesises findings and insights across multiple studies, bringing together the richness and depth of qualitative research reflecting children’s own voices and experiences with the claims to national representativeness, longitudinal change over time and robust demographic comparisons that quantitative research makes possible. In this review, we stay close to the actual findings reported in recent studies, in order to capture empirical trends relevant to children’s internet use, risks and safety in the UK. Thus we do not provide theoretical discussion, methodological debate or fuller contextualisation here.

The scope of the present review was defined as research that:

  • meets acceptable standards of quality
  • was conducted in or clearly relevant to the UK
  • was conducted since 2012, with some exceptions where little subsequent research exists
  • concerns children (0-17 years)
  • concerns children’s online activities, including the contexts and consequences of use.

In terms of methodology, the review draws on four sources:

  • the Research Highlights series and the research reports they summarise, focusing on those published since 2012
  • a call for evidence circulated during February 2017 to UKCCIS members and other experts as well as via relevant mailing lists
  • a keyword search of academic and grey literatures
  • research reports and publications already known to the authors.

In discussion with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which commissioned this review, it was agreed that the review would address the following priorities, with an emphasis on:

  • 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 key findings of this review are summarised below.

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 ever more time, in more locations, including younger children (now four in ten 3- to 4-year-olds) and more personalised devices – although tablets are preferred over smartphones by younger children.
  • 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 was the main focus of our review:

  • 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, then 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.
  • 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.

In terms of 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.
  • Cyberbullying – estimates vary between 6-25%+ depending on measures – and the reasons for victimisation are diverse.
  • Texting and sexual harassment – 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.
  • 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.

Who is vulnerable or resilient?

  • 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 here, 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.