More than one in eight European children has been upset by online content, a new EU study on Internet risks shows. But the study also showed that most children had had no upsetting experiences with the Internet at all.
Children are online at an increasingly young age
A large majority of those interviewed for the study EU Kids Online reported no negative experiences at all online, results of the European Union study "Risks and Safety on the Internet" showed. But the study also showed that parents are frequently out of touch with their kids' virtual lives.
The European Union and London School of Economics survey was presented Thursday at the Safer Internet Forum in Luxembourg, and included interviews with thousands of kids across Europe from Ireland to Turkey.
Among its findings, the study showed that an average of 12 percent of European children had been bothered or upset by something they experienced online. These included encountering pornography, sexual or bullying messages, or having their personal data revealed.
In Germany, just eight percent of kids said they were bothered by an online event
Indeed, the study showed that 39 percent of those questioned had had encountered a "risky" behavior - such as communicating with new people not met face-to-face, or seeing user-generated content that is potentially harmful, such as hate, self-harm, or drug-taking content. But only a portion of those asked said they had been upset or bothered by it.
In Germany, the percentage of kids who said they were upset by an online experience was, at eight percent, near the lowest end of the scale. Only Portugal (seven percent) and Italy (six percent) were lower. Topping the percentages of those most bothered or upset were children in Denmark (26 percent), Estonia (25 percent) and Romania and Sweden (21 percent.)
Discrepancy due to 'schoolyard monopoly'
Uwe Hasebrink, a professor at Hamburg's Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research, led the German arm of the study.
In an interview with the Hamburg Abendblatt newspaper, he said that German children "are in less danger" of meeting harmful content because they use the internet "less frequently and with less variety" than kids in other countries.
But Markus Beckedahl, whose blog Netzpolitik.org focuses on the intersection between the Internet and German politics, said he found it hard to understand the response gap between countries like Denmark and Sweden, and Germany.
Some say parents, not children, should be targets of information campaigns
"The study said that countries with high Internet usage have more problems," Beckedahl told Deutsche Welle. "But something like 99 percent of German kids have Internet access, and I don't think they have more more Internet usage in Denmark."
One big difference could be the fact that a huge portion of the social-network market for kids and teens in Germany takes place on German-only networks like "SchuelerVZ" ("Student Directory,") German schoolkids' version of Facebook.
"These platforms have a near monopoly on the schoolyard," he added. "Maybe that makes the difference - in Germany, the kids are in closed communities, and in other countries they are just on the Internet."
The age factor
Other poll findings showed children were using the Internet at increasingly young ages: an average of seven in Sweden and eight in several other Northern European countries. Interviewers, who spoke with 23,000 children between the ages of nine and 16, found it was the youngest children who had the hardest time coping with disturbing material online.
In response to this finding, the study recommended targeting spending and advice at younger age groups to reduce risk and enhance the opportunities of the Internet.
Younger children had more trouble coping with upsetting experiences
Parents were frequently unaware of the risks to which their children had been exposed, the study showed. For example, more than half of parents whose children said they had been bullied online, said they knew nothing of the situation.
Moreover, some 41 percent of parents whose child had seen sexual images online said their child hadn't, and 61 percent of parents whose children had met offline with an online contact, also said their child hadn't.
Beckedahl added that parents should ideally "be aware what their kids are doing, and they should talk to them about what kind of experiences they are having on the Internet."
The study also found that while the overwhelming majority of European kids in the study use the Internet at home (85 percent), many children do have private time to use the Internet.
48 percent use it in their bedroom, and 31 percent via a mobile phone or other handheld device. In some countries, like the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden, over one in five young people use the Internet regularly on a handheld device.
Supporting education - for educators
Beckedahl acknowledged that because of this separation between parents and when their children are online, and their lack of awareness of where their kids go online, it may make things difficult for the parents to keep up.
"Parents often lack literacy in the social networks their children are using," he said. "They have no clue what kind of experiences and user interaction their kids would have, and they don't really know what can happen."
His suggestion: shifting Germany's ongoing campaigns for media literacy away from children, and toward parents and teachers.
"Peer to peer education exists already - children figure out how these platforms work themselves," he noted. "The problem is, their parents and teachers aren't able to teach them to behave correctly, and prevent risks."
The study's authors plan to publish official conclusions and recommendations in November. But even in thier preliminary findings, they acknowledge that the harmful potential of the internet is counterbalanced - if not easily outweighed - by the medium's benefits.
Plus, they note that a majority of the kids polled said they had not had any harmful experiences with the Internet at all.
For his part, Beckedahl would like to see the German debate on Internet usage lose its negative tone.
"Our debate about the Internet needs to become more positive," he said. "It is one of the greatest tools we ever had. But if we only talk about the risks, people will fear the Internet."
Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Cyrus Farivar