The internet of opportunities: what children say

“We grew up with the internet. I mean, the internet has always been here with us. The grown-ups are like ‘Wow the internet appeared’, while it is perfectly normal for us.” –Boy, 15 years old, Serbia

When our research teams in Argentina, the Philippines, Montenegro, Serbia and South Africa, who are part of the new Global Kids Online initiative, set out to interview children about their use of the internet we expected to find wide spread use of the digital technologies for entertainment and communication. And indeed, it was hardly a surprise that a majority of children in our research countries visit social networking sites at least every week for communication and interaction with peers.

In fact, qualitative and quantitative research in Argentina found that social networking sites are the primary means of communication, socialization and expression of adolescents today, and we might expect this to be the case for children in many parts of the world.

The Internet is fun, children say. In South Africa, 96 per cent of child participants reported that they sometimes or always had fun when they went online.

A student uses a mobile phone in a classroom at Oswaldo Lucas Mendes Public High School in Taiobeiras municipality in the Southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country, by population and geographical area, with the eighth wealthiest economy. About 200 million people live in the country’s 5,565 municipalities and include 60 million children and adolescents of whom 51 per cent are boys and 49 per cent are girls. At the end of 2012, nearly half the population had access to the internet with nearly 21 million users ages 15-24 online with mobile phones and other devices with internet access. Brazil currently has 21 million adolescents aged 12-17, its largest adolescent population ever. With the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies, protecting children online is an urgent global priority. Children make up one-third of all Internet users globally. The lack of awareness of online safety, along with children’s natural inquisitiveness or an adolescent’s sexual curiosity and susceptibility to peer influence, predisposes them to online victimisation. Children’s vulnerability to online sexual abuse and exploitation manifests itself in: cyberbullying and Internet harassment; exposure to sexually explicit content; sexting (sending and receiving sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone); sexual solicitation; and production of child sexual abuse material using children. Globally, the number of webpages that contained child sexual abuse material increased by 147 per cent from 2012 to 2014, with girls being more likely to be depicted in 81 per cent of these materials. Additionally, 91% of child sexual abuse material is non-commercial and being shared among online file-sharing networks. In Brazil, sixty-two per cent of reported victims of violence against children and adolescents are girls and 60 per cent of reported cases occur at home, although violence against childre
© UNICEF/UN017636/Ueslei MarcelA student uses a mobile phone in a classroom at Oswaldo Lucas Mendes Public High School in Taiobeiras municipality in the Southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

But learning can also be fun, they say; in Montenegro children told us that learning online was much easier and more fun than learning from standard textbooks:

“This is a smartphone time, and I am sure that no one would give advantage to book over the phone.” –Girl, 14 years old, Montenegro.

This sentiment seems to be shared by children on the other side of the ocean; in Argentina almost 80 per cent of teens said they use the internet to do homework or access educational content on a wide range of topics (maths, history, music, dance, cooking, etc.):

“I wanted to learn to play the guitar and went online.” said one boy, 15 years old. “I flunked math, so I watched a couple of vids where they explained what I had to study”, said another. In addition, many use the internet to post images, videos or music online, and close to 40 per cent of children in Argentina published things on a website or wrote a blog in the last month.

It is clear that access to and use of the internet can have beneficial if not transformative potential for children. As Frank La Rue, former UN special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, stated in his address to the UN General Assembly in 2014, the internet not only enhances opportunities for communication and freedom of expression, but it can also serve as a tool to help children claim their other rights, including their right to education, freedom of expression, association and full participation in social, cultural and political life, and should therefore be recognized as an indispensable tool for children.

While the discourse around children’s rights in the digital age often centers on risks, which we acknowledge do exist and can potentially cause serious harm, children themselves seem to be more interested in the opportunities digital technologies bring.

Another key opportunity that emerged in our work with children was the opportunity for participation online. Participation is one of the underlying principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, allowing children’s voices to be heard in matters that affect them.

It can provide opportunities for civic engagement and self-expression among those children and adolescents who do not necessarily have a voice in their communities.  It can help transcend barriers linked to gender and ability/disability and can allow children to learn about decisions and choices available to them.

Social networking sites can bring a new sense of “community”, one that is different from community defined by geography and one that goes beyond participation to also include social support.

While talking to children about self-expression, learning and participation we found that

  • Between 56-94 per cent of children learned something new online and between 23 and 45 per cent looked for health information online
  • Between a quarter to one third of children reported that they use the internet to talk to people from different backgrounds at least monthly, a helpful way to become more familiar with other countries, cultures and
  • 35 to 50 per cent of children went online to read news and this percentage is higher (up to 70 percent) among older children
  • Fewer children are engaged in civic activities – only about 11 to 17 per cent of children discussed social and political problems on line while 16 to 32 per cent of children looked for information about their neighborhood.
Global Kids Online is a new online research partnership which aims to support high quality research on child internet use all over the world.
Global Kids Online is a new online research partnership which aims to support high quality research on child internet use all over the world.

This snapshot shows potential benefits of the internet for many children: that they like to explore and seek information, read news and look for answers to their concerns independently. In a today’s world, the internet becomes not only a new “playground” but also a “library” a “public space’ and a “community”.

In light of these advantages, it is important to state that some children are still unable to go online as much as they would like, impeding the realization of their rights. Barriers to access still persist, preventing full participation online. In South Africa we identified that just about half of children were able to access the internet whenever they wanted to most often due to high cost of data (47 per cent), but also because adults did not allow them to go online (32 per cent).

This is certainly not due to malicious intent – indeed, most parents we spoke to in South Africa seemed very aware of the many advantages that internet brings – but rather due to the fear that they would be unable to adequately help and support their children online, which might subject them to risks.

As a parent in South Africa expressed it during a focus group: “We don’t know the internet, we don’t know where to press to go in to look while they aren’t there. We must also almost know how it works before we can say “how can we help?”, because we can’t help if we don’t know […]”.

In order to ensure that children globally can enjoy free (but not necessarily unsupervised) access to the internet, we need a two-pronged approach that focuses not only on informing children about internet use, but equally on informing parents and other stakeholders such as teachers and policy makers.

Policies and strategies that promote empowered and safe online experiences should take into account children’s agency, including their desire to experiment and sometimes to take risks, and also their desire to be responsible for themselves and their actions.

Written by Jasmina Byrne and Daniel Kardefelt-Winther from UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. Search the UNICEF Innocenti research publication catalogue . Sign up for UNICEF Innocenti email updates on any page here. 

Visit Global Kids Online (www.globalkidsonline.net) to join a global research partnership led by UNICEF Innocenti and the London School of Economics and Political Science to build a robust evidence base for better internet policy worldwide. The GKO website makes high quality, pilot tested research tools freely available. 

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