Children and the Internet – Towards a Balanced Concern

Article of the month

Helsinki, 1 May, 2005 — Children and the Internet – Towards a Balanced Concern

Despite of lively public discussion, we do not have much reliable and research-based knowledge of the meaning of the Internet in children’s lives; how are they experiencing its different dimensions, and how is the use of the Internet and digital gaming changing children’s socialization, family life, well-being, and learning.

The children are, in many respects, test users for different technological and cultural innovations connected to the Internet and communication technologies. The families with children are often the first who widely adopt the new communication technologies, e.g. broadband Internet connection.

And to many parents, the experiences of their children (or the parents’ reflection of those experiences) are influencing their attitudes and trust in the communication technologies in general. And correspondingly, the parents’ attitudes and understanding have an influence on the child’s thinking and access to different Internet and communication environments. The socialization process is bidirectional. In addition, public discussion, expert opinions and news have definitely an influence on parents’ views and anxiety on the matter. Given the lack of research-based objective understanding, the power of different value-laden beliefs is evident.

One example of the work already done in Finland was the Safer Internet Day 2005 campaign, which succeeded to communicate the Internet safety issues with a positive tone. The campaign was aimed at schoolchildren, teachers and parents and its central part is a web site www.tietoturvakoulu.fi (in Finnish), which includes interactive cartoon-like stories for children and comprehensive sections for teachers and parents. The campaign was organized in co-operations with 22 different governmental, business and child welfare organizations.

“Hire a Nanny to the Internet”

The question of possible risks of the Internet for children and adolescents is more complex than it is often supposed. With too little knowledge there is a risk for overreaction as well as a risk to regard all the talk about internet risks on children as a moral panic without any objective justification. In the public discussion on the Internet and children, the Internet has still been understood too often from the technological point of view. An extreme example is the marketing of filtering software. These “child-locks” have been advertised with slogans like “Hire a nanny to the internet” or “Ensure a safe Internet for your children” implying that the question of “unsuitable content” or child safety in the Internet in general is primarily technological. If a child is cycling, it is good to have a helmet, but what really counts for safety is between ones ears (knowing the traffic rules, identifying the risky situations and knowing that all the car drivers can not be trusted.)

Internet as a Social Space

There is an apparent difference in how children and adults are experiencing the Internet in general. For many children and adolescents the Internet has become a natural part of everyday life and social relations – the web is entertainment and more and more a social space. It is a space for maintaining offline social relations as well as a space for self-expression and self-presentation (e.g. pictures and diaries), getting new friends and falling in love. As for many adults, the Internet is still a tool to complete certain tasks which could also be done without the net (sending a message, paying bills, filling a form, reading news, watching porn etc.).

The difference in experiencing the nature of the Internet in general might well be one of the reasons why the worlds of adults and children do not seem to communicate with each other in this respect. According to a web survey we conducted at several schools (495 respondents), nearly half (46%) of the 7-13 year old children never talked with their parents what they had seen or experienced in the Internet. We asked also parents the same questions and there was an interesting controversy: seven per cent of children used the Internet usually with their parents. According to parents 29 per cent of children use the Internet usually with their parents. Who do you believe?

Social Place with Social Risks

If the Internet is a social space, there are also risks of social nature. The social risks in the Internet are not essentially new, the same risks are somehow present in children’s offline life as well: bullying, deception, harassment, exploitation, and exclusion, to name a few. What may make these risks more severe in the Internet is the nature of the children’s Internet as an adult-free (or parent-free) social space. If an adult is not there to comfort and share the social experiences when needed, it may be too hard for a child to cope with the situations and learn to take care of oneself. If there is no time or trust for communication on online experiences, an anonymous message the child’s schoolmates meant for a joke may become too big a deal for a 10-year-old. The social risks in the Internet can be addresses with the same methods like offline; normal interaction and involvement which, in the long run, will provide children with self-respect and skills to protect themselves as well as to identify the different risk contexts online.

This task is not impossible and it is well taken care of in many Finnish families: according to our survey, about half of the 7-13-year-old children have learned from their parents how to use the Internet safely (55%), and how to evaluate the reliability of the information online (43%). The web is not “world wide” for most of the children. They play the certain games, chat often with their offline-friends and visit regularly certain few web sites – the ones that their friends or siblings are using. So it may not be such an effort to take a glance at a child’s online life but beware; exploring the children’s experiences and starting to understand even partly the joy and excitement they get may be surprisingly inspiring.

Towards a Balanced Concern

Taken together, we should advance our understanding of the role and meaning of the Internet and digital gaming in the lives of children in order to reliably evaluate the risks embodied. In Finland there has always been an emphasis on the benefits and possibilities of the Internet. That is a good base for teaching safe and responsible use of the Internet and to conduct a value-free research on the subject. Knowledge is needed on the level of formal education, information society policy as well as on the level of parenthood. We have had good examples in Finland, that research from children’s perspective can challenge the common views on this matter. Even though the use of the Internet among children is focused on free time entertainment (this repulsive popular and commercial culture), its role in children’s socialization and learning is not to be underestimated.

When it comes to values and moral judgments, our views and opinions are often determined by our own experiences and relationship with the matter at stake. The challenge for parents, teachers and other caregivers is to realize, that the Internet means a lot in our kids’ lives and we do not know enough what to really think about it. Realizing that would help us to search for a well-informed concern and interest in the children’s life online. This would mean more interaction, sharing and trust than superficial control and restrictions. Parental control is naturally needed as well, but its purpose could be on the long run to help young people to learn such skills, habits and values, with which they will some day be better prepared for parenthood in the digital age than we are.

Mr. Juuso Peura
Coordinator, Children and the New Media Project
The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare
juuso.peura@mll.fi

The Mannerheim League is the largest child welfare organization in Finland having more than 95 000 members and 564 local associations throughout the country.

Previously published Articles of the Month:

2002-09 School in the Grips of Change - Media Education in Finland
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2002-10 Finns Work for e-Accessibility
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2002-11 The Finnish Model of Information Society
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2002-12 ”Silicon Valley is more than a place, its a state of mind”
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2003-01 Data Security Challenges
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2003-02 Lifelong Education in Upper Secondary Distance Learning Schools and Virtual Networks
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2003-03 Finnish Lapland - More than Meets the Eye
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2003-04 A Renewed Policy to Promote Innovation
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2003-05 ICT Standardization in Europe and Globally – CEN/ISSS’s Role
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2003-06 Public-Private-Partnership Works Well in Finland
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2003-07 Information Technology in Nicaragua - Finland Offers a Helping Hand
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2003-08 Victory Development Partnership Project - Personal and Virtual Rehabilitation for IT Employment
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2003-09 Young People and Wireless Future
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2003-10 Video Message Transmits Sign Language
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2003-11 Combatting Spam Requires Global Co-Operation
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2003-12 Saving the Earth from Anarchy by Eliminating the Weakest Link
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2004-01-01 Information Society Models and the New Everyday Life
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2004-02-01 Quo vadis, Finnish Virtual University?
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2004-03-01 The Finnish Virtual University: Connections with the Bologna Process?
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2004-04-01 "Look What I Say" - Unique Solution Enables Face-to-Face Communication for Speech Impaired
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2004-05-01 Changes to Copyright Law Heavily Debated
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2004-06-01 Finnish and Italian Technology in the Global Environment of the European Union: a Comparison of ICT Strategies in Education
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2004-07-01 A New Law Designed to Improve Data Protection in Electronic Communications
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2004-08-01 The Etno.Net Website for Practicing and Aspiring Folk Musicians Includes Recordings and Learning Material Packages
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2004-09-01 Status of Wireless Service Business Today
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2004-10-01 People Over Fifty in Finland as Users of Internet
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2004-11-01 Preparing for Mobile Phone Viruses
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2004-12-01 Distributed and Virtual Learning in Finland
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2005-01-01 Online Public Services for the Benefit of Citizens
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2005-02-01 Public-Private Partnership in Developing Information Society Skills
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2005-03-01 Finland Shows Example in Localization
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2005-04-01 The Individuals´ Awareness of the Right to Privacy
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More information
juuso.peura@mll.fi