Across Europe and beyond, children and young people are going online in ever greater numbers and for ever more activities. The 2005/6 Eurobarometer survey shows that 50% of children (<18 years old) in the EU25 have used the internet, rising from just 9% of those under six to 1 in 3 6-7 year olds, 1 in 2 8-9 year olds and more than 4 in 5 teenagers aged 12-17 (EC, 2006). Cross-national differences remain substantial, ranging from less than a third of children using the internet in Greece and Bulgaria to over two thirds in Estonia and Denmark.
Among the many responses to this development is a burgeoning of empirical research. Policy makers, industry, child welfare experts and others are increasingly reliant on research to guide their understanding of online use, risk and issues as they affect children and families in Europe and elsewhere. Research is needed to map which children have access to what technologies, what consequences this has for the opportunities and risks they may experience, and for guiding practical interventions - identifying those most at risk, targeting safety advice, evaluating awareness programmes and anticipating new trends.
'Evidence-based policy' requires expertise in the design, conduct, evaluation and use of research findings. This requires combining the knowledge and experience of researchers and research users from a range of academic disciplines and policy domains. Too often, such expertise is not readily accessible when needed, partly because of the range of specialisms involved, partly because of the gap between academic knowledge and policy makers' needs.
One theme of the work of EU Kids Online network (see Annex A) has been to enhance the understanding of methodological issues involved in studying children and online technologies across countries. In 2007, EU Kids Online produced a Methodological Issues Review which aimed to increase awareness of the specialised issues that arise in researching children's use of online technologies and the criteria by which research can be critically evaluated (Lobe, Livingstone, & Haddon, 2007). Addressed to a broad audience, these issues should be of interest to all those concerned with commissioning, designing, conducting and using empirical research in this field.
The present report translates many of these issues into a positive guide to best practice for those concerned with research on children and online technologies in Europe and elsewhere. Our starting point is to note that empirical evidence regarding children's use of the internet and online technologies in Europe relies on four specific areas of expertise:
General research orientations, including qualitative and quantitative approaches to social science research and the means of integrating these;
Researching children, including the specific ethical and age-related issues that arise in this specialist field of research methodology;
Researching online technologies, which balances the application of familiar and the development of new methods to address new technological phenomena;
Cross-national comparisons, addressing the issues that arise when conducting research in and/or for research users in more than one country.
While many researchers and research users are expert in one or more of these areas, few are expert in all. Our working assumption, therefore, is that an expert in researching new technologies may, for example, know little about researching children, while a child specialist may not be familiar with cross-national comparative methodologies; and so on. The Best Practice Guide thus addresses these four areas of expertise.