24th October 2015
The first scientific research into how young people manage online risk was published earlier this month by the Oxford Internet Institute. We asked them to undertake this ground-breaking academic study – “A shared responsibility - building children’s online resilience” – to better understand how children can get the best from the online world.
The internet offers huge developmental opportunities but the quality that makes it such a great vehicle for creativity, innovation and exploration – its inherent freedom – is impossible to deliver without some degree of risk.
There has been a heavy focus on limiting access to harmful content online in recent years. Virgin Media and other UK ISPs are leading in the world in offering families parental controls but as a country we have made less progress in understanding how and why young people react to harmful content when they inevitably encounter it. This question of “resilience” was one of the key objectives from the 2008 Byron Review.
Since parents cannot possibly watch their children every minute they are online, we think it is important to understand how children make independent judgments about how to deal with online risks.
The Oxford Internet Institute’s findings were revealed at the Parent Zone’s inaugural Digital Families Conference in London. Grounded in thirty years of psychological theory and empirical research, they found:
1. Resilient children get more out of the online world. Young people that make their own judgments about their internet use, and are able to analyse risk, are more likely to seek out positive opportunities online.
2. Supportive and enabling parenting has a more positive impact on resilience than restricting or monitoring internet use.
3. Building digital skills contributes to resilience. The more a young person understands about the digital world, the better equipped they are to deal with the risks it throws up.
This research has already begun to shape our approach to online safety. Of course we remain committed to making parental controls freely available to all of our broadband customers but we are convinced that technical restrictions are just a part of the solution to providing the most positive online environment for children to develop in.
We don’t just rely on traffic laws to protect our children when they cross the road; we also teach them to look both ways. The same is true online. Parents cannot always be there and constant monitoring does not necessarily allow children to get the most from the internet. We need to ensure that they can make independent judgments and behave appropriately when they are on their own.
Ofcom’s most recent report into children’s media literacy found nine in ten parents whose children go online are already taking steps to help their children manage risks when using the internet. This is very encouraging. However, nearly half (43%) feel their children know more about the internet than they do. The Oxford Internet Institute research shows the digital ability of a parent or guardian matters less than the attitudes they express to online technology.
Our highly-acclaimed Switched on Families guide was launched alongside the parental controls we provide. It is designed to help families have an open conversation about online risks beyond simply avoiding objectionable material. The research suggests that a greater focus on programmes like this, supporting parents to take a more active role in their child’s digital development and building their ability to make good, independent judgments, should be central to the public debate and developments in this important area in future.