The Europe-wide project that assesses the dangers of the internet
Even if children aren't scared of what they find online, their parents certainly can be.
As new technology becomes embedded in everyday life, it raises fears about consequences, and the possible dangers, for young people. From depictions of violence and pornography to online threats and bullying – children can find the unsavoury aspects of new media highly distressing. In extreme cases they can even unwittingly expose themselves to physical harm.
EU Kids Online is a major research project based at the London School of Economics and Political Science which investigates these dangers and peoples' attitudes to them across 21 countries in the European Union.
Its director is Professor Sonia Livingstone, a social psychologist based in the Media and Communications Department, who explains: 'Children and young people are often in the vanguard of new media adopters. But we can't assume that their experience in every country is the same, nor can we assume that each country has a distinctive experience.'
The project brings together researchers from all 21 countries to compare and contrast how each has coped with the rise of the internet and other new media. And in the summer of 2009 it will present its key findings at a conference to mark the end of the three-year project's first phase.
Some of the interim findings have already proved eye-catching for parents and young people and highly instructive for governments who have to consider internet regulation.
The proportion of children who go online varies dramatically – in Italy it is only 45 per cent, while in Finland it is 94 per cent. (Britain, with 91 per cent, is also near the upper end). But the differences across Europe are also cultural and social – with attitudes and behaviour varying from the Scandinavian North to the Latin South. The Post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe tend to be different again.
EU Kids Online has proposed a classification of countries which places them on two axes – one measuring the level of internet use (EU average, below average or above average) and one measuring the risk (see table below)
While the largely wealthy Northern European countries tend to be 'high-use, high-risk', newer EU countries often fall into the categories of medium use and high risk and Southern European nations tend to be lower risk.
The findings suggest that high use and high risk often go together. LSE's Dr Leslie Haddon, who also works on the project, said: 'We have found that greater use of the internet results in more exposure to risk. It's not the case, as some have assumed, that the more experienced you are online the more easy you find it to avoid risks.'
Another purpose of the project, which is funded by the European Commission's Safer Internet programme, is to offer practical suggestions for child safety online and for a better understanding of the risks
Here the story is already a partly positive one. In a report from February 2009, EU Kids Online found that of all countries in Europe it was UK parents who are most alert to the dangers and do most to protect their children through the use of filtering software and regular discussions about their online habits.
Professor Livingstone said: 'It seems that the safety message is getting through in the UK which has had a sustained and successful series of campaigns to make children and parents more aware of the possible dangers. However, some other European countries have a long way to go.'
The project is now working on recommendations for six key areas of policy – covering children's rights and opportunities, positive content provision, better guidance for parents, recommendations for schools, child protection and law enforcement.
And the success of the project can be demonstrated very simply – funding has already been agreed for a new follow-up project, EU Kids Online II, which will conduct a series of interviews with children and parents to identify new habits and new risks in this ever-changing field.
For full details of Professor Sonia Livingstone's research and publications, see her profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Professor Sonia Livingstone
EU Kids Online
Department of Media and Communications