The final results of a Europe-wide study of children's behavior online are presented in Berlin. Researchers suggest children might be able to help their parents learn how to use the Internet more effectively.
The study examined 23,000 children across Europe
On Tuesday, the findings of a Europe-wide study on young people and the internet were released in Berlin. More than 23,000 children and young people between the ages of nine and 16 were interviewed across 25 European countries.
The preliminary results of the study had been released in October.
According to the research, 12 percent of the young people interviewed said they were bothered or upset by something on the Internet - which is a much lower number than the researchers expected.
Surprisingly the top activity young people use the internet for is homework, closely followed by entertainment and games and communication.
Klaus Neumann-Braun, a professor at the Institute for Media Science at the University of Basel in Switzerland, noted that this study should go some way towards allaying the hysteria that accompanies many discussions around young people and the Internet.
In Germany young people spend 50 precent of their time communicating with their friends on the Internet - creating their online profile, messaging friends and so on.
A window to the outside
SchuelerVZ.net remains a very popular social networking site in Germany amongst school-age kids
Uwe Hasebrink, Chairman of the German part of the EU Kids Online Network and director of the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg said that young people have really embraced social networking sites, which has become an important part in social development and establishing their identities.
"They have to develop their position in the societal structure. They have to come to know people. They have to have experiences with others. They have to build their identity," he said, and added that for all these factors "the social web provides enormous possibilities".
Many young people are also increasingly resourceful in their use of the internet to solve everyday problems. Hasebrink described the situation of an 11-year-old Afghan girl living in Germany with her family that has strict cultural values.
"This girl told us that she writes a diary in a social networking site. It is completely protected by a password. She is the only person who can access her profile on this social networking site - nobody else - no friends" explained Hasebrink.
He went on to say that the girl's two older brothers keep a close watch over her and try to steer her away from the so-called "decadent Western lifestyle," and that her only chance to express her innermost thoughts is online.
48 percent of kids surveyed said they did not know how to change the privacy settings on sites like Facebook
But not every child is quite so media literate and innovative. The study also showed that 48 percent of young people don't know how to change the privacy settings on their social networking profile, and 40 percent don't know how to block messages from people they don't want to have contact with.
Cyberbullying threat remains low
While the study found on average across the EU that bullying in real life was more prevalent than online, the Polish data results surprised Agnieszka Wrzesien, project coordinator of the Safer Internet project in Poland.
In the EU Kids Online Study, five percent of Polish kids reported that they had experienced cyberbullying, however the Polish helpline has different figures. They have reported yearly increases and in 2010 received 800 reports in 11 months.
Wrzesien said that perhaps one reason for the discrepancy was a fear that if kids in Poland mentioned cyberbullying, their parents might find out and restrict their internet or mobile phone access.
Most social networking sites in Poland have implemented a reporting mechanism, an abuse button, that allows children and young people to report if something bad is happening to them online. However Wrzesien said that even if they report it, this kind of problem takes time to resolve.
"Within those couple of hours that the pictures may stay online, people may download them, may share them, they can be forwarded to other colleagues outside school and so on and this is a very distressing experience," she said.
Future policy recommendations
In Poland, Wrzesien is working hard with schools and teachers in order to set up a system to prevent cyberbullying and to teach them how to respond to these incidents.
This system "would involve police, ISP's, psychologists and parents because it often happens that there needs to be police involved because the incident was so serious", said Wrzesien.
The German youth hotline called NummerGegenKummer received over 20,000 calls in 2009 from kids who were having problems online.
Beate Friese from NummerGegenKummer said that a big part of their work is teaching kids skills to resolve the problems themselves. They also train young people to counsel other young people about problems they encounter online.
The study found that kids might be able to teach their parents, too
Parents need help, too
But it's not only kids that need help. The study also highlights the fact that parents often have no idea what their kids are up to on the internet and don't know how to help them if they have a problem.
Some European authorities say that this problem could be alleviated if children teach their parents.
"[That will] not only bridge the gap in terms of technology, but will give them the opportunity to spend some time with their kids," said Dr. Yiannis Laouris, the head of the Cyprus Neuroscience & Technology Institute.
Others, like Uwe Hasebrink, from Hamburg, are calling for social networking sites to make the default setting for a user profile private. That way, anyone can choose what he or she wants to make public.
Hasebrink said that these initial findings will inform the researchers' next steps which will be to work on correlational analysis and testing concrete hypothesis.
"So to what extent is risk experience or harm experience correlated with parental mediation?" he said. "What is the role of school? What is the role of peers? What is the role of psychological factors? are children generally looking for sensation? Do they always want to have action?"
Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Cyrus Farivar