Zero to eight: young children and their internet use

Internet Children Europe

Over the last six years there has been a major increase in online activity by children up to eight years old, a leading international internet survey has found. 

The trend has prompted growing concern for children’s safety – and especially the risks they may be exposed to through videos, apps and touch-screens, says the EU Kids Online Report, to which Australia contributes through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI).

This report critically reviews recent research to understand the internet use, and emerging policy priorities, regarding children from birth to eight years old.

Executive summary

EU Kids Online has spent seven years investigating 9-16 year olds’ engagement with the internet, focusing on the benefits and risks of children’s internet use. While this meant examining the experiences of much younger children than had been researched before EU Kids Online began its work in 2006, there is now a critical need for information about the internet-related behaviours of 0-8 year olds. EU Kids Online’s research shows that children are now going online at a younger and younger age, and that young children’s “lack of technical, critical and social skills may pose [a greater] risk”.

Key findings

This report critically reviews recent research to understand the internet use, and emerging policy priorities, regarding children from birth to eight years old. Key findings are as follows:

  • Over the last five to six years there has been a substantial increase in internet usage by children under nine years old. This increase is not uniform across countries but seems to follow usage patterns among older age cohorts – in countries where more children overall use the internet, they also go online younger.
  • The substantial increase in usage by very young children has not yet been matched by research exploring the benefits and risks of their online engagement, so there are many gaps in our knowledge.
  • Children under nine years old enjoy a variety of online activities, including watching videos, playing games, searching for information, doing their homework and socialising within children’s virtual worlds. The range of activities increases with age.
  • It has not been established that children under nine years old have the capacity to engage with the internet in a safe and beneficial manner in all circumstances, especially when it comes to this age group socialising online, either within ageappropriate virtual worlds or as underaged participants in sites intended for teenagers and adults (Facebook, You Tube etc.).
  • Video sharing sites are popular with children in this age group and are one of the first sites very young children visit. As such, the ease with which children can access inappropriate video content is of concern.
  • There is an emerging trend for very young children (toddlers and pre-schoolers) to use internet connected devices, especially touchscreen tablets and smartphones. This is likely to result in an increasing number of very young children having access to the internet, along with a probable increase in exposure to risks associated with such internet use.
  • The variety of internet connected devices and apps available today risks compromising the privacy and safety of young children. Different operating environments complicate the use of security and safety settings on individual devices, and the numerous applications (apps) available for children tend not to disclose the company’s data collection and sharing practices. Nor do they usually provide easy-to-use opt-out options for parents or children.
  • Children’s digital footprints are now taking shape from very young ages. Some parents are writing blogs, and parents and grandparents regularly post photographs and videos of babies and children. These digital footprints are created for children who are too young to understand or consent (or who may not even be born, if their parents post ultrasound scans). Children’s future ability to find, reclaim or delete material posted by others is uncertain.
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