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Study reveals ongoing concern over risks of internet for children

By Susan Gately - 10 February, 2017

The majority of parents of young children (under eight) surveyed in a Webwise parenting report in relation to internet use do not believe the benefits of the internet for their children outweigh the risks.

While almost three quarters of parents of children under eight agreed that the internet was important for their children, and were confident they could monitor their child’s online activity, only around a third (34 per cent) were confident they could protect their child when they were online.

Among the parents of older children (9 to 17 years of age), around 40 per cent did not believe the benefits outweighed the risks, with 27 per cent disagreeing, and 33 per cent undecided.

Here too around three quarters agreed the internet was important for their child’s education. Among the parents of older children (13 to 17 year olds), more than half agreed it was easy for their child to use the internet without them knowing, and 41 per cent were not confident they could protect their children when they are online. While 27 per cent felt they could protect their children while online, 32 per cent were undecided.

These were some of the findings of a Webwise survey released for Internet Safety Day 2017 earlier this week. The survey, completed in conjunction with the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre and the National Parents Council Primary (NPC), was based on report forms sent to 7,490 parents on the NPC mailing list regarding attitudes to online risks and safety, using the same questions as the Webwise 2012 survey. Over 1,000 parents responded (17 per cent).

The survey addressed four topics: strategies for digital parenting, attitudes towards children’s internet use, concerns about online risks and the appropriate age for social networking. Noting that the study results were limited from the “convenience nature of the sample”, Webwise said the findings were intended “as representative of parental attitudes.”

Recently media discourse about children and the internet has been dominated by concerns about ‘internet addiction’, ‘digital detoxes’ and ‘fake news’. Against this background, it is not surprising that parents are concerned about the impact of spending too much time looking at screens and accessing unreliable information, says the report.

“It is possible that there is a symbiosis at play here and that media reports might give rise to parental concerns that are not well grounded in actual risk of harm. However, more research is needed to guide this debate and there is an urgent need for a robust and up-to-date evidence base that measures children’s online behaviour and the related risk.”

On the strategies for digital parenting, Webwise found that parenting approaches towards children’s use of the internet was a mix of ‘restrictive’ and ‘active’ mediation. Restrictive approaches included: setting time limits (73 per cent); use of parental controls and filters (39 per cent); monitoring (52 per cent) and supervision (34 per cent). 68 per cent of parents who responded also use ‘enabling’ or ‘active’ strategies including regularly talking with their children about what they do online. This is an increase from 62 per cent since the 2012 Survey of Parental Attitudes.

Key parental concerns surrounding internet use were spending too much time online (72 per cent), accessing porn (71 per cent), cyberbullying (70 per cent), accessing unreliable information (70 per cent), online grooming (64 per cent) and damaging their reputation (64 per cent).

Broken down by age, the greatest concerns of parents of younger children were online grooming and spending too much time online, whereas for parents of older children the main concerns were cyberbullying and accessing porn.

Asked what was the right age for social media, 36 per cent of responding parents stated that 13 years and over was the appropriate age for a child to have a social media account (reflecting the current age restriction that applies to most social media platforms). 42 per cent of parents were in favour of raising the current age threshold for social networking from 13 years to 15 (30 per cent) or 17 (12 per cent).

Concluding the report, authors Lorleen Farrugia, Simon Grehan and Brian O’Neill said that notwithstanding its limitations, it gave rise to some important policy implications, including the need to support parents with more information and advice targeted to the age and needs of their children, the need for a national one-stop-shop where parents and professionals working with children can go for advice, and the need for advice presenting the benefits offered by the internet, rather than the current advice, which is “mainly focused on [potential] risk and harm”.

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