The EU Kids Online project contextualises both the opportunities and risks to children associated with internet use in terms of the intersection of three wider spheres – European society and policy, childhood and family life, and continued technological change.
The above figure shows a path that traces how children's internet use and activities, being shaped by online and online factors, may have harmful as well as beneficial outcomes for children.
We begin by examining the range of ways in which children use the internet, recognising that this varies by the location and device for going online, the amount of use and the digital skills a child has at his or her disposal. Children's use is hypothesised to depend on the socioeconomic status (SES) of their household as well as on their age, gender and, of course, country
Second, we recognise that once online, children do many things that, crucially, cannot in and of themselves be described as 'beneficial' or 'harmful', for such judgements depend on the outcome of the activity rather than the activity itself. Some activities are likely to prove beneficial (e.g. school work) and others seem more negative (e.g. bullying others). Many, however, are indeterminate (e.g. downloading music, making new friends online). Some activities are motivated by a desire to take risks, for in this way young people explore the boundaries of their social world, learning through transgressing as well as adhering to social norms and so building resilience.
Third, it is recognised that when children go online, they do so in a particular environment They engage with certain services. The online interfaces they visit have their own character. Some contents are more available or easier to access than others. Crucially too, many other people are already online. All these 'environmental factors' interact with the child's activities in shaping their online experiences:
Some factors may enhance the benefits of going online: they may be labelled 'opportunities', for example the provision of own-language creative or playful content, or a lively community of people who share one's hobby.
Some factors may enhance the likelihood of harm from going online: thus they may be labelled 'risks', for example the ready availability of explicit pornography or the activities of people who are aggressive, racist or manipulative.
Some factors are ambiguous: for example, music downloading sites or video hosting sites may be fun, creative and empowering; but they may break copyright, or exploit intimacy or facilitate hostile interactions.
As the final column shows, the EU Kids Online project examines the outcomes of internet use for children. This is the most challenging part of the project. As marked by the shaded funnel in the figure, the scope of the EU Kids Online project encompasses just part of this larger picture. It traces the path from children's use and activities (experienced by most European children), through their encounters with factors hypothesised to increase the probability of harm (these are likely to be experienced by a smaller proportion of children). Finally, the project examines the outcomes for children in terms of subjective harm or, more positively, coping by children encountering these risk factors (hypothesised to affect an even smaller proportion of children).