Establishing an evidence base for better online safety policies

On Friday, 18 September 2020, the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE) held, in the framework of the CO:RE – Children Online: Research and Evidence (CO:RE) project, its third CO:RE Theories Webinar on "Digital Technologies in the Lives of Children and Young People", inviting the project coordinators from three Horizon 2020 projects – ySKILLS, DigiGen and DIGYMATEX – to share their conceptualisations and research methodologies on the topic.

Sonia Livingstone, Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE, who leads the CO:RE Theory Work Package, hosted this webinar. The team at the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE researches how changes in media and communication shape and are shaped by social, cultural, political and economic and historical developments, and focuses on how inequalities, discriminations, representation and a host of other issues in an unevenly mediated society.

Over the last decade, we have witnessed unprecedented transformations in how children and young people access the digital landscape: on the one hand, the risks and safety issues that arise online have received considerable attention and on the other, the positive ways in which society hopes children and young people will engage with the digital world are also in the spotlight.

The webinar sought to explore the ongoing efforts to integrate these themes, in order to develop a holistic account of children's digital lives, recognising that increasingly, the lives of children in Europe are becoming "digital by default", a fact which has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In the past year, the European Commission (EC) has funded three research projects – DigiGen, ySKILLS and DIGYMATEX – and one Coordination and Support Action – CO:RE – as part of its Horizon 2020 programme on the impacts of technological transformations on children and youth.

DigiGen

Halla Bjørk Holmarsdottir, Professor at the Oslo Metropolitan University, began with an introduction of the DigiGen project, which she coordinates. DigiGen investigates digital media uses in education institutions, at home, or in the framework of leisure activities and civic participation.

The projects' theoretical framework looks at ecological systems and techno-subsystem theory; as such, the project explores environmental influences, situating children and young people within a system of relationships with multiple levels of interactions.

The research carried out within DigiGen also focuses on the transitions, adopting a life-course perspective, which is particularly important because the sample used ranges from ages 5-18. In doing so, the researchers consider the continuity and discontinuity in life pathways (which, for DigiGen, means it could lead to risks but also resilience and enhancing factor), the role of individuals in their own development, and the importance of historical change.

When it comes to the methodology employed in DigiGen, a lot of the existing research on children and digital technologies has mainly been survey-based, with most of the studies being quantitative. Besides, few studies look at children under the age of 12. That is why DigiGen uses a participatory approach, collecting qualitative data and including children and young people as co-researchers. It is also essential for the project to consider children and young people as social actors in their own development. It is recognised that children and not static "beings", that they have a past and a future, and are therefore "becoming", which gives them more agency.

ySKILLS

Leen d'Haenens is Full Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at KU Leuven and Project Coordinator of ySKILLS (Youth Skills), a project which seeks to establish a new approach to digital skills testing.

The ySKILLS team started from the observation that, compared to a decade ago, information and communication technology (ICT) use has become far more omnipresent, but that there remains a great variability in the ICT behaviours of young Europeans. This means that for too many of them, there is still a serious digital skills deficit; in order to understand why and how some benefit from ICT use while others seem to be impacted negatively, more research on the role of digital skills is crucial. Therefore, the overarching aim of ySKILLS is to enhance and maximise the long-term positive impact of the ICT environment on multiple aspects of wellbeing for all young people through the enhancement of digital skills.

Most existing research is focused on a single wellbeing dimension, while in ySKILLS, the notion of wellbeing includes cognitive, physical, psychological, and social dimensions. Besides, the existing body of research has a tendency to dedicate more attention to the negative effects, neglecting the positive outcomes. Moreover, comprehensive approaches are lacking, as researchers often adopt either a developmental focus, or a socio-cultural one – the ySKILLS team strives to do both.

ySKILLS proposes that digital skills mediate between individual variables which include pre-existing inequalities and ICT use on the one hand, and wellbeing on the other hand. ySKILLS proposes a holistic, child-centric approach, where young people are considered to have active agency, indicating that they are not passive recipients, that they select their content and devices.

When we look at existing digital skills testing methods, it is clear that fresh approaches are needed, in particular with regards to the fact that measures to test the softer, non-technical skills (for example, critical information literacy) are lacking. As acknowledged by the EU Ministers of Justice in May 2020, this is all the more crucial considering that this skill has never been as important as in today's world, affected by a so-called "infodemic".

DIGYMATEX

Marco Hubert, Associate Professor at the Aarhus University, presented the DIGYMATEX projects, which he coordinates. DIGYMATEX focuses on the development of a "digital youth maturity index", an evidence-based tool to assist in understanding and determining children's digital maturity.

The DIGYMATEX project starts from the daily digital activities of children and young people aged 9-18 – activities which fall outside of structured environments. The project is interested in two main aspects. Firstly, there is the fact that essential and non-essential ICT-related activities cannot be approached in silos. DIGYMATEX is interested in the distribution of these two categories of tasks.

The second aspect DIGYMATEX is interested in is the underlying, often-automatic processes influencing ICT-related behaviours – recognising the importance of antecedents and factors such as use quantity, use quality, digital content, situational factors, social context of using mobile ICT, socio-demographics, risk perceptions and individual characteristics.

The project conceptualises digital maturity as a dynamic concept (which develops but also changes over time) which describes the overall ability of children to assess but also regulate their behaviour on when, how and in which situational and task-related contexts the use of mobile ICTs is either beneficial or harmful to them.

CO:RE

Uwe Hasebrinck, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Media Research, Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI), Professor in Empirical Communication Research at the University of Hamburg and Project Coordinator of CO:RE – Children Online: Research and Evidence (CO:RE) highlighted the fact that, contrary to DigiGen, ySKILLS and DIGYMATEX, CO:RE is a Coordination and Support Action (CSA) aiming to create a comprehensive pan-European knowledge platform with the participation of international researchers, educators, policy makers and concerned dialogue groups.

At the core of the project is the collection of empirical evidence from European countries and different languages areas and the constitution of a data archive available to researchers. Another aim of the project is to engage with the research community, and with other stakeholders, especially from the fields of policy and education. For CO:RE, theory can help structure and condense the extensive evidence collected, integrate and contextualise it. CO:RE is very much about science communication, which is understood as a communication process in which different kinds of actors negotiate the relevance of topics, the prevalence of concepts and theories, and the claim of validity of research findings.

Therefore, the CO:RE team sets out to better understand why some topics in the field get more or less attention and why certain theories are more or less prevalent in specific social contexts.

From research to policy

June Lowery-Kingston, Head of Unit Accessibility, Multilingualism and Safer Internet at the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT) at the EC, reflected on the link between research and policy.

Children's wellbeing, both online and offline, has been one of the Commission's priorities since the very beginning of the internet. These policies evolved from protection to user empowerment, and now are evolving towards a greater involvement of young people. This journey started with the Safer Internet programmes, which gave birth, for example, to the highly respected EU Kids Online initiative, and to the 2012 strategy for a better internet for children. More funding is planned in the next seven-year financial framework, under the Digital Europe and Horizon Europe programmes.

Diversity and discrimination – and this includes children's wellbeing online – are getting more political attention under the current Commission. An EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse was adopted on Friday, 24 July 2020, and the President of the Commission explicitly invited one of the Commissioners on the upcoming strategy on the rights of the child to address children's rights online specifically. The public consultation on that strategy is open until Tuesday, 8 December 2020, and everyone is warmly invited to share their expertise and experience, and to contribute to this strategy.

Families are rapidly adapting to relying extensively on the digital world for education and work, as well as the usual entertainment, information, and social contact options. This situation has shown us first-hand, more than any political declaration, the benefits of the digital transformation, but it has also left children potentially more exposed to online risks.

For our children to grow up as both competent and confident digital citizens, we need an online environment that reflects European values. To create such an environment, the Commission cannot act alone. Relevant and solid evidence-based policies are needed, to provide an in-depth understanding of the risks and opportunities that children across Europe meet online.

There are examples of interesting but smaller projects at national level, available in the research section of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal – the pan-European hub for resources and practices for child online safety – gathered from the European-wide network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs), such as on the online habits of children in Greece, on patostreaming in Poland, and on financial sextortion of young boys and adolescents in the Netherlands, to name only a few.

The SICs also alert the Commission to emerging risks which they detect through the helpline services they provide, but European-wide longitudinal research studies are of particular importance from the Commission's perspective, because understanding the long-term effects of behaviour in the digital environment and its impact is every bit as important as reacting promptly to emerging risks.

As such, June Lowery-Kingston welcomed the approach taken by DigiGen and DIGYMATEX, in which children and young people are treated as co-researchers, and invited all researchers working on this topic to consider ways of further developing research methodologies to involve young people in a more active and participatory role, to fully benefit from their unique and unparalleled insights into the digital world.

The European Commission is very enthusiastic about the complementary group of H2020 projects.  The three research projects will greatly improve understanding of the online behaviour of children and young people, and the creation of a platform to pool existing knowledge and identify research gaps and build capacity through CO:RE is promising as well. These four projects will undeniably significantly contribute to a safer and more beneficial use of digital technologies among children and young people: by helping the research community formulate insightful and evidence-based recommendations, this can lead to better regulation in the field, both at national and European level.

For more information about the CO:RE, ySKILLS, DigiGen and DIGYMATEX programmes, read our dedicated article on the BIK portal.

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