Young children and digital technology: a love story that challenges parents

  • News
  • 15/12/2015
  • Joint Research Centre, Ispra

From a very early age, gaming and video watching on a variety of internet-connected devices are among children's favourite activities. But children are little aware of what the internet is, what ‘online' means, what risks they can encounter and what benefits they can gain.

Parents see digital technologies as positive but, at the same time, find managing their use challenging. They perceive digital technologies as something problematic that needs to be carefully regulated and controlled and would appreciate advice on fostering children's online safety.
This emerges from the exploratory findings of the research project ‘Young children (0-8) and digital technology', which is now concluding its second phase. This research, coordinated by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission's in house science service, started in 2014 and now counts more than thirty partners in 19 countries. Organised back to back to the Safer Internet Forum (SIF) 2015, the last meeting of the partners' network gathered more than twenty-five researchers from Europe but also from Australia and South Africa.
This research project explores how children below 8 years of age use the internet and emerging digital devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, computers, games) at home and in the family context. It also reflects on the potential benefits, risks and consequences associated with their (online) interactions with technologies.
The study builds on a qualitative pilot study that touched seventy families in seven European countries. Based on this research methodology, interviews with children and parents have been carried out in 10 more countries during the second phase of the fieldwork in 2015. The findings of the larger fieldwork are expected to be published in 2016, whilst the 2015 study's exploratory findings can be found here
Here are some of the key findings of this first report. More to come soon: 
  • Young children lead active, varied lives in which technology plays an important but non dominant part. It is embedded into daily life, with extended family members and networks outside the home playing a key role in socialisation and communication.
  • Young children try to do what they see older siblings/parents doing; they want to join in and have fun too. Apart from hand-held games devices, kids don't usually own the devices but they share family devices or borrow parents' (especially their smartphone). This means that children use technology that is not necessarily and entirely tailored for them. The tablet's touchscreen interface means young children can use them independently at an earlier age than the laptop. Much of young children's use of digital devices is individual and ad hoc in nature, and may be little noticed by parents. Children tend to be more consumer than creators although we saw some creative production (i.e. drawing apps, taking/editing photos – ‘selfies'), instructional online, often with parental support.
  • Children have little or no understanding of the online world's scope, origins, purposes or risks (or, even, what ‘online' means). Parents tend not to think this matters. 
  • Encountering violence and strong language (and some supposed health risks) are of greater concern to parents than sexual content or unwanted contact. Parents' strategies are generally restrictive and time-based and linked to reward-punishment rather than shared/co-use or explanation; children are ready to respect these but do not always understand them, being too young to understand the often-unexplained threats (or, even, the time limits parents set). Many parents believe that robust strategies are not needed until children get older, despite evidence that some children can bypass safety settings or that they know parents' passwords. Parents are more worried about the ‘smart' future than the present.
  • Parents would welcome advice on fostering children's online safety. Advice from schools appears limited, with little substantive communication between schools and families relating to technology. Generally, children and parents would welcome new ideas or further guidance about how to use the devices and apps available to them.
Title of the project: Young Children (0-8) and digital technology 
Funding organization: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Coordinator of the project: Stephane Chaudron,
Participant countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, The Netherlands, United Kingdom
Useful links: :
Full 2015 report is available on the JRC repository
EU Kids Online short report: How parents of young children manage digital devices at home: the role of income, education and parental style
LSE blog – Parenting for Digital Future
As ever younger kids go online, how is the family responding?
Young children and digital technology in Europe: important but not dominating
Parenting for a Digital Future – recent media appearances
Research summaries from the Evidence Group of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety - Research Highlights Series: 81: Young Children (0-8) and Digital Technology: A Qualitative Exploratory Study Across Seven Countries (June 2015)

Related news

New study on young children and digital technology

  • Awareness
  • 31/08/2017
  • Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre

A new study on young children (0-8) and digital technology was recently coordinated by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), as part of a European-wide study. Fieldwork was conducted between November 2016 and January 2017 as a continuation of a 2015 study about how children aged 8 years or less and their families use and manage digital technologies. That study resulted in valuable new knowledge that partially filled a gap in the existing understanding on how the youngest children cope in the digital world. Here, the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) reports on country-specific findings.