The internet offers many benefits, but is the cost too high? 30 per cent of Australian children aged 9-16 say they've been bothered by something they've seen online in the past twelve months, according to our November 2011 report, AU Kids Online, published as a special edition of the Journal of Cultural Science.
This 30 per cent compares with 12 per cent of a matched cohort of European children. Are Australian children simply more impressionable, or is something else going on? And what should we do about it?
The AU Kids Online research in Australia, from November 2010-February 2011, involved 400 randomly selected children aged 9-16, and the parent most involved in their internet use.
Specially trained market research professionals under the aegis of Ipsos Social Research Institute carried out the research. Ipsos or its affiliates also conducted parallel research in 25 European countries with 25,142 children.
In Europe, this research was funded bythe EC (DG Information Society) Safer Internet plus Programme, to provide an evidence base for policy.
Although the Australian sample was smaller (400 children compared with 1000 children per European country), and carried out about 6 months later than most of the European research, the shared methodology, questionnaire and overlapping time frame means that dataset provides a good basis for comparison internationally.
The other countries involved in the research were Austria (AT), Belgium (BE), Bulgaria (BG), Cyprus (CY), Czech Republic (CZ), Denmark (DK), Estonia (EE), Finland (FI), France (FR), Germany (DE), Greece (EL), Hungary (HU), Italy (IT), Ireland (IE), Lithuania (LT), Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO), Poland (PO), Portugal (PT), Romania (RO), Slovenia (SI), Spain (ES), Sweden (SE), Turkey (TU), and the United Kingdom (UK).
The EU Kids Online study investigated children's and young people's experiences in terms of the concepts of 'risk' and 'harm'. Risk taking need not lead to harm and may, indeed, be seen as a potentially desirable characteristic in some situations, particularly when it comes to creativity and innovation.
This has been indicated in studies of innovative behaviour. Elizabeth Chell and Rosemary Athayde identify five attributes particularly linked to innovation: "creativity, confidence, energy, risk-propensity and leadership."
They define 'risk-propensity' as being "a combination of risk tolerance and the ability to take calculated risks." Arguably, the structured development of risk-awareness in Australian children underpins the evolving mediation schemes used by their parents, who generally adopt a child-centred age-related process. The Australian Communication and Media Authority report that the way parents supervise and regulate their child's internet access is in line with their maturity.
Even so, a risky experience that has the effect of bothering a child might indicate a potential harm. Although the term 'bothered' is not in common use among Australian children, it was specifically investigated prior to the roll out of the AU Kids Online research through a period of in-depth cognitive testing.
The explanation of something that has bothered a child was described as making them "feel uncomfortable, upset, or feel that you shouldn't have seen [something]." This wording was tested and refined during this Ipsos-conducted cognitive testing process so that it would equate as nearly as possible to the meaning assigned to the same notion in the 25 comparison countries.