Analyse and synthesis of the existing data

National research United Kingdom


At present, the field of UK research that could potentially be relevant to the Mediappro project is unevenly covered. For instance, whilst data is available on how children and young people use the Internet in relation to safety, less is known about their use of mobile technologies. Nevertheless, it is likely that many of the issues and concerns drawn from the research that does exist in this area will be transferable to other media.

Media literacy versus protectionist approaches

UK perspectives and approaches to children and young people's safety online often reflect an opposition between those who advocate protectionist approaches and those who promote the development of young people's media literacy skills. Child Protection Agencies such as Childnet International, the Internet Watch Foundation (WWF) and NCH have websites offering safety tips and other information dedicated to keeping children safe. Government initiatives such as the Home Office guidelines How to keep your child safe on the Internet (2004) seek to protect young people from the potential risks whilst balancing these alongside the potential opportunities for learning, entertainment and communication that the Internet affords. Yet, several authors have drawn attention to the limitations of adopting the kind of model seen in the Home Office and other similar guidelines. Abbott (1998), for instance, has pointed out that young people in particular have been constructed as potential victims of risk on the Interne in terms of encountering inappropriate material, an approach which tends to clash with young people's 'sense of control or self-efficacy' (Perloff 1983 in Holloway and Valentine 2003: 93) and their perception of risk in terms of the offline challenges they face. Burn and Willett (in press) have argued that whilst the dangers may be real, messages such as: 'don't give out your email address'; 'don't go in chat rooms' and so on, treat listeners as objects of instruction and close down discussion. Moreover, Buckingham (2000) argues that measures restricting children's access to media are bound to fail, and children need to be prepared to deal with potentially risky situations, not merely defined in terms of what they may lack.

The policy position in the UK has shifted somewhat recently as a result of the establishment of a new overarching regulator for the media, the Office for Communications (Ofcom), which describes itself as the 'independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services'. Ofcom has a specific brief for media literacy, and its definition incorporates access to the media, understanding the media and creating media. This definition is in principle productively broad, especially in its recognition of creative practices by ordinary people. However, in practice, Ofcom's work will be more limited in several ways. It is likely to emphasise information content rather than narrative, fantasy, role play, fiction; information media rather than playful media; social roles related to the knowledge economy and to citizenship rather than cultural roles related to digital art forms; and the critical reception of media texts rather than the creation of them. Nevertheless, Ofcom is committed to work with a range of stakeholders, including media educators, and it may be that its policy focus on media literacy can help others to develop and improve practice within their own sectors.

The recent report for Ofcom, Assessing the Media Literacy of Children and Young People (Buckingham et al. 2005).We acknowledge with thanks the permission given by David Buckingham et al to do so. ) outlined the research in the UK that exists around children's skills and competencies to be able to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts. These areas might be seen to correspond to a distinction between functional, critical and active literacy (see, for instance, Barton 1994). 'Access' refers to the ability to locate media content that is appropriate to one's needs (and to avoid content that is not). It involves the manipulation of hardware and software, and the gathering and application of information about what is available.

Extracts of the UK national report have been drawn from the report for Ofcom, Assessing the Media Literacy of Children and Young People (2005, see

'Understand' refers to what users do when they have located content. In this area, the framework of 'key concepts' that has been used in evaluating critical understanding in media education for many years is being applied. 'Create' extends the notion of literacy from 'reading' to 'writing' in media, although it also entails abilities both to access technology and to understand media forms and conventions. The research drawn on in the UK National Report mainly relates to the 'Access' and 'Understand' aspects of the Ofcom report.

Awareness of risk

Existing research on children and young people's awareness of risk focuses almost entirely on contact with paedophiles and exposure to pornography. In these areas, UK-based surveys show a high awareness of personal safety issues connected with Internet use. The UK-Children-Go-Online survey (UKCGO) (Livingstone and Bober 2004a) reports that '74% are aware of some Internet safety campaign or have heard or read a news story that made them think the Internet can be dangerous', and the Cyberspace Research Unit (O'Connell et al. 2004) reports that 9 out of 10 children reported awareness of rules about not giving out personal details. Although the Cyberspace Research Unit reports lower awareness of rules relating to face-to-face meetings with people met through online chat, UKCGO reports that users who have made friends online follow safety rules. Both reports indicate that almost all the children who met up with online contacts had an enjoyable time (the two exceptions reported receiving verbal abuse from the person they met). As Livingstone reminds us, 'the link between risks, incidents, and actual harm is genuinely tenuous: not all risks taken result in worrying incidents, not all worrying incidents result in actual or lasting harm' (Livingstone and Bober 2003a: 157).

Access and exposure to online pornography is another public concern. Statistics are available to indicate frequency of exposure to online pornography (Carr 2004; Livingstone and Bober 2004a), and one might argue that media literacy skills are crucial for children to be able to cope with such encounters. The UKCGO survey indicates that children and young people, when encountering online pornography, will leave a site, delete an e-mail or pursue the image (look at it, share with a friend, go back to it). Although this survey gives us a rough indication of children's responses to such material (e.g. 54% of weekly users 'say they didn't think too much about it'), there has been little qualitative research to examine how such material is experienced or even understood (Sutter 2000). A small scale study by Burn and Willett (Burn and Willett in press) indicates that children share stories about pornography and paedophilia that are often based on half-truths, especially when such topics are considered taboo.

It appears from the research that awareness of risks extends only to those more frequently promoted by moral campaigners. Although children and young people are part of the e-commerce industry through gaming, downloading music, shopping and online auctions, we found no research on awareness of financial risk; or indeed of technical risks such as viruses. As we shall see, children's awareness of the risks of online marketing is limited (Seiter 2004a).

Children's reactions to unwanted content and contact

One of the key issues in this debate is how children and young people respond when they encounter unwelcome material online. The UKCGO project (Livingstone and Bober 2004a) found that up to a quarter of children aged 7-16 may have been upset when they encountered unwanted material on the Internet but that 'few' of these had reported this to an adult. This research found that children, particularly girls, expressed 'annoyance and disgust', rather than being upset, when being sent or shown pornography, including its display on computers at school. In the UKCGO survey data, 61% said they would tell their parents if something made them feel uncomfortable. Girls and younger children were more likely to do so. The project also asked how children responded to encountering pornography and found that the most common reaction (56%) was to say that they leave the site immediately without looking at it. Similarly, when receiving pornographic junk mail, 65% said they deleted it without looking at it. One cause for concern, noted by Livingstone and Bober (2004a), was that only 8% of youngsters told a teacher or parent what they had found.

Research has also revealed that negative incidents occur online including unwanted contact from strangers. In the UK, the UKCGO study (Livingstone and Bober 2004a) found that one third of 9-19 year olds who go online at least once a week report having received unwanted sexual (31%) or nasty comments (33%) via chat, instant messaging or text messaging. Livingstone and Bober comment that it appears that in the considerable media attention devoted to other potential threats and safety measures such as not divulging personal information, going into chat rooms and to 'stranger danger' that the 'routine unpleasantness of some online communication appears relatively neglected' (37).

Blocking and filtering

Given its acknowledged limitations, filtering software may not in fact be the most effective way of dealing with the issue of unwanted content. It could be argued that protecting children from such dangers may not be the best way of enabling them to deal with them. Indeed, an exaggerated preoccupation with risk could well function as a barrier to the development of media literacy. Such arguments would lead to the recommendation of educational strategies, such as those proposed by the European-funded Educaunet project (

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that exaggerated fears about the dangers of the Internet - often stoked up by sensational stories in the press - do lead parents and teachers to restrict children's access (Livingstone and Bober 2004a). The key question here, of course, is to do with the level of protection that is necessary: one person's realistic fear may be another person's wild paranoia. In terms of media literacy, this raises the question of how we balance the awareness of risk with the need to ensure quality of access. One alternative for protecting children from Internet dangers such as paedophilia and pornography is through filters and monitoring software, and children's understanding of such regulation can be considered as part of their media literacy. In this area, the UKCGO survey indicates that children are aware of filtering or monitoring practices. Of the children surveyed, 35% understand that filtering software has been installed on their home computer, 23% say monitoring software, while 13% say that some sort of software has been installed, but are not sure which; 38% say porn is blocked or filtered, 25% say junk mail, 18% ads and 17% chat rooms (Livingstone and Bober 2004a). However, there are discrepancies between what children and parents report in this area, and therefore it is not clear what the actual figures are for use of filtering and monitoring software, nor do we have a clear picture of children's understanding of these practices.

In schools too, further research is needed to appreciate the role of filtering. Whilst schools certainly see the need for filtering, this is more of an issue in primary than in secondary schools (Research Machines 1998; 2000). The use of filters for blocking 'spam' and other unwanted commercial solicitations via the Internet could be seen to remove an element that, for many, is becoming a significant barrier to use: research suggests that the kind of material may prove a significant disincentive to young people using the Internet (Grant 2004).

However, critics of filters (eg Lawson and Comber 2000) suggest that they are often inefficient, and present unnecessary or unintended obstacles to users. There are many anecdotal descriptions of the difficulties children encounter in attempting to search the Internet, as a result of schools' crude or over-enthusiastic attempts to prevent them from accessing pornography or other potentially 'harmful' material. Over-sensitive filtering systems may block access to useful sites or e-mail communications on the basis of the inclusion of specific 'taboo' words (or even parts of words), which may be entirely innocuous in many contexts. The Parents' Information Network (2000) evaluated a range of filtering packages for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and concluded that, while some packages were more effective than others, none worked as effectively as advertised. They conclude that the use of such programs is not a permanent or one-size-fits-all solution, and that any such attempt at regulation should also include agreements with children about online times, unsuitable content and unsafe online contacts; and that children would also need strategies to cope when the filtering software does not work or is not present.

Evaluating content

There has been little research analysing how children evaluate the content they locate on the Internet. Facer et al (2003) argue that children tend to accept information accessed via the Internet at face value, as though it were immediately authoritative; and that young people lacked both knowledge and interest about how information was produced for and within digital environments. Digital content was 'often seen as originating not from people, organisations and businesses with particular cultural inclinations or objectives, but as a universal repository that simply existed "out there"' (86). By contrast with more optimistic popular commentators (eg Tapscott 1998), these authors argue that children are generally 'ill equipped' for the online world. Likewise, Livingstone and Bober (Livingstone and Bober 2003a; Livingstone and Bober 2004a) also found that children's awareness of the motives behind the creation of websites and a critical approach towards their reliability and authority appear to be little developed. Their findings indicate that amongst the children they surveyed, almost half think information on the Internet can be trusted (49%), 38% trust most of it, 9% trust 'not much of it' and 1% trust none of it. These authors conclude that few children are aware of the commercial or persuasive strategies at work, although they are optimistic that such skills are beginning to develop.

Parents' competence

In the case of the Internet, the most significant question here is more about the extent of parents' expertise than about children's. Facer et al (2003) concluded that there was a significant 'digital divide', which derived from parents' work and educational experiences, and that this had sizeable implications in terms of parents' ability to support their children's use of ICTs at home. Even so, when they asked parents with access at home if they (or another parent) understood the technology well enough to help their child get the most out of it, 64% said that they did. In terms of finding information, which these authors see as the key skill associated with Internet use, a large majority of parents (77%) expressed confidence. Where parents' expertise was seen to be lacking, children's social networks, friends, and parents' contacts were particularly significant. Overall, these authors conclude that to effectively manage, guide and regulate children's use, parents need more guidance in developing their own media literacy or Internet skills. Furthermore, the UKCGO project (Livingstone and Bober 2004a) found that parents' anxiety may lead to over-restrictive practices impacting on children's access; including limiting time spent on the Internet; sitting with the child at the computer (31%), overseeing their activities; and banning particular activities such as visiting chat rooms. Underpinning these kinds of restrictions is the finding that 53% of parents consider that the Internet has made children's exposure to pornography much more likely. As Livingstone and Bober (2004b) point out, limitations on children's use can undermine their exploration of the Internet's potential. As with the research on television, they find that young people often resent regulation, particularly as they get older, and expect more trust and respect.

Mobile telephony

Academic research on mobile telephony is still at a relatively early stage of development, at least in the UK. Although a great deal of research has been undertaken within the industry, little of this is in the public domain; although several academic studies are now starting to emerge. From this we know that children and young people in the UK have extensive access to mobile phones. In terms of use, Vincent (2004) notes that over 16 billion text messages were sent in the UK in 2003, with teenagers being the most avid users. Although most of the research in this field focuses on teens' use of mobiles, children as young as two and a half are reported to be aware of text messaging and know when a text has arrived (Marsh 2004). This is an area where young people are popularly held to be significantly more competent than the majority of adults. In fact, the bulk of the research in this field looks at teenagers and focuses on the social functions of mobile phones. From this research, we can safely say that there is a high degree of functional literacy, at least amongst teenagers. Teenagers are generally fluent at texting, retrieving messages, playing games, checking call history, downloading ring tones and using their address books.

Meanwhile, there is emerging public concern regarding children's safety in connection with new 3G (third generation) mobile phones offering photo messaging, video streaming, unlimited Internet access and Bluetooth technology (BBC News 2004; Carr 2004; O'Connell 2003). Advocates for regulation of these technologies argue that children are more likely to be susceptible to bullying and paedophiles (Batty 2004). However, such claims have yet to be sustained by any empirical research; and, as with research on Internet risk, we need to find out how these risks are understood and experienced by children, and how they learn to deal with them.


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