Young Children and the Internet: What Puts Them at Risk?
Over the last two decades, internet use has increased tremendously all over the world. Children have become one of the primary users of the internet both for academic and non- academic purposes. It is rare that a child today is not already using a computer in preschool and learning to access the internet shortly thereafter.
In a review of the literature, it was determined that many children first use the internet before they are eight years old, though the percentages differ by country. Findings indicated that in the UK, 33.3% of children ages 3 to 4 know how to use the internet, with 3% of those accessing the internet with a cellular phone. It was also shown that 87% of children in the UK ages five to seven years old, use the Internet which is up from 68% in 2007 (Ofcom, 2012 p 5.)
In Belgium, it was determined that 70% of preschoolers start using the internet regularly by the age of 5 (Tuewen et al, 2012, p, 1). A study conducted in Belgium demonstrated remarkable findings, most notably indicating that 78% of toddlers can access the internet while 5% of babies under 1 year of age are capable of going online. (Brouwer et al., 2011).
Thomson and Laing (491), have examined the increased use of the internet among children. They determined that even young children are very able and confident at online use. Access to internet among children is common whether it is at home, school, the library or a number of restaurants and other establishments that have free Wi-Fi access.
According to study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, in the U.S. demonstrated that 23% of nursery school children are able to access the internet while the prevalence rate for kindergartners was 32 percent. Of those in grade 1 through grade 5, 50 percent accessed the internet regularly while 70 percent of those in grade 6 through grade 8, were regularly on the web and 80 percent of those in grades 9-12 frequently accessed the internet.
Gender also plays a role in the number of children who are internet savvy. Children in the U.S. were surveyed to determine the frequency with which they used the internet in children age eight to eleven based on gender. Results indicated as of March 2014, that 41.5 percent of boys and 36.3 percent of girls aged eight to eleven years accessed the internet several times a day. Twenty percent of boys and 21.1 percent of girls in this age range accessed the internet once a day. Together this means that 61 percent of boys and 57.4 percent of girls age 8 to 11 access the internet at least once a day (Statistica).
Increased use of the internet has been enhanced by certain applications and social media websites for instance, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Phones have been adapted with apps, such as Instagram and Twitter, which the children can use to update their photos and thoughts frequently increasing their internet usage. That is to say, that lack of access to a computer does not limit their internet use.
In addition to home internet availability, schools in many countries currently have a computer curriculum and libraries are equipped with internet connectivity allowing children to access online sites easily. The widespread capability of young children in using the internet without help and the ready access of internet connections, have led to concerns on the part of parents and educators. This has resulted in Internet use among children to become a main cause of debate.
There are many issues that that are being considered related to this area, with some being more serious than others. Internet use among children has caused an increase in numerous problems across domains, including social, psychological, physical and cognitive.
How Are Young Children Using the Internet?
Grownups frequently believe that children use the Internet for the same purposes they do themselves. Adults are using the internet to shop, bank, check the news online, maybe check in with a family member while kids are getting homework help, gaming, and socializing with established friends and new friends they meet online all the time.
The reasons behind why children surf the internet are strongly influenced by the age and developmental level of the child. As children age and mature, so do their interests and desires such that their internet use becomes much more diverse as they seek to satisfy curiosity. However, young children have a limited range of interests and are more restricted in terms of what they use the internet for.
Preschoolers and Internet Activities
Preschoolers gravitate towards internet activities that they find interesting and that offer a chance to learn something new, mastering an old skill or which are silly and fun. Children this age like to see familiar television or movie characters in a new internet tale. As far as learning is concerned, children this age are very practical and like to learn things that are useful such as the sounds of letters, counting to 50 and learning the names of primary and compound colors while watching them form on the screen. Preschoolers are not social in a virtual manner and don’t think about friend who aren’t with them at the time. This means they do not take advantage of the social aspects of the internet such as social media and chat rooms.
Children naturally want to show newly learned skills to their caregivers, and this is a great way to get them in the habit of being open about their internet use. However, games and skills building activities need to be simple due to their limited dexterity, attention span and memory and even visual acuity which leads to frustration. Although preschoolers do not frequent chat rooms where criminals may lurk, this low frustration tolerance and impulsivity place them at risk for these internet predators. Predators determine which games and videos are the most popular for this age group, and then make them one degree simpler than the originals while including more positive feedback for trying and for success.
The chance to do well on a skill they are working on consistently and the increase in social reward for doing so quickly, make these versions the most popular with this age group. Children this age also have a low need for constant novelty and increasing challenge. Even after they’ve managed an internet activity they remain happy achieving the same perfect score over and over.
Since children this age are trusting, this ploy can result in the child disclosing personal information and agreeing to keep secrets from family members. Predators often pose as children just slightly older and more experienced than the child they are trying to hook so the preschooler will look up to them but not be intimidated. It is a small step from there to meeting someone after school somewhere close-by.
Preschoolers are entering a phase of independence when they begin to strive toward demonstrating a degree of separation and individuation from their parents, which includes searching for ways they can be different. This is a particularly vulnerable time for children to fall prey to online predators since the very nature of a caregiver saying “no” means the child will consider doing whatever it is they’ve been forbidden to do.
At this stage their development across domains enable them to handle many simple internet activities on their own. However, just because they can, does not mean they should. It is always best that a concerned adult be available to check in with the child or remain in the room with them to monitor what they are accessing and what information they are returning to cyberspace.
Children Age 6-9 and the Internet
Children this age are still drawn to internet related fun, learning and feeling good about what they’re acquired through the attention of others for newly learned skilled yet they are also starting to internalize reward. This means they are developing the ability to self-reinforce and know when they’ve done something good or learned a new skill internally without the constant need for external reinforcement. They don’t need to turn to caretakers for reinforcement and may have begun to feel that caregivers will automatically reinforce them even when the reward is not warranted. At the end of the stage they are also more likely to prefer friends than parents.
Children this age are also developing very rapidly in all domains including physical, cognitive and psychosocial realms. The lower range of this age group continue to be drawn to internet activities from which they can learn, have fun, and gain in self-esteem through accomplishment and positive reinforcement.
By the end of this phase, most children have adequate fine motor skills and hand-to-eye coordination to use all computer functions easily. Improving reading ability makes written directions and composition-based activities (e.g., fill in the blanks, write the story ending, practice reading) possible. Improved memory skills allow the child to participate in memory based games with less frustration than younger children. A more advanced ability to logically reason allows children this age to begin to compete in strategy based games and competitions. The beginning of mathematical reasoning draws them toward more complex number puzzles and games with the ability to keep score.
Youngsters in this age group seek out novelty and challenge in the internet activities in which they participate, and growing social skills increases the use of the internet for online socialization. However, their rapidly developing skills lead to the desire to test and use them so they are beginning to delve into areas they have not tried before, in particular social media sites.
It is not unusual for children this age to have Facebook Pages with pictures and profiles, and to belong to other social media channels. They find the idea of gaining new friends daily to be exciting and to be an indication of popularity and it can become a competition among real life friends to see who has the most virtual friends. This means they are not discriminating as to whom they befriend and whose invitation they accept. While they have advanced cognitively from where they were at during their preschool years they do not understand what aspects make someone a friend, and may conceptualize a friend as someone you call a friend. This puts them at great risk for online scams and predators.
Predators who go after this age group often build trust slowly, understanding the older child may see through them quickly than a preschool child so they will initiate the relationship is such a way so as to be providing something for the child before making any requests. They may help them with homework, join with them by gossiping about specific other people or simply pretend to like the same things the child does to establish a bond of similarity. With so much information on the internet these days, even about young children it is not difficult to gather enough information about the child and their family to slowly ingratiate oneself with a child this age.
When the first request comes for the child to “borrow” a parent’s credit card number for a “small” item which will be paid back, or the child’s allowance money which they have saved, the child only sees they are helping a new best friend. A meeting so the “friend” can pay the child back, seems like a perfectly reasonable request. Children this age are also vulnerable to subtle peer pressure not perceiving it as such when it comes from a “new best friend.” This can take the form of getting undressed in front of the camera, stealing, trying drugs originally provided for free “buddy to buddy,” or other illicit activities. At the same time these predators normalize these activities, perhaps using a partner to convince the child that “everyone is doing it” whatever “it” may be.
Strategies to Keep Children Safe on the Internet
It is critical for parents of both these age groups to make sure they are using all the internet filters and security measures that are available and that they review their child’s browsing history. Often times parents are not as computer literate as even their youngest child and the may feel they have done what is necessary to keep their child safe. Children often learn ways around these security measures and turn them off at first just because they can. However, after a while they become curious as to what was being hidden from them and may go onto adult sites or view content that is not intended for children which they cannot understand or process. This may include pornography, violence or propaganda which they cannot see for what it is.
It is incumbent upon parents to consult with a computer specialist in security not just for their overall system but specifically for keeping their child safe. Programs, malware and other types of parasitic code that can infect your computer without you knowing it is often aimed at children. There is a great deal of competition to develop the next generation of programs or code to infect computers and older security systems may not detect these new threats. Keeping up to date on new threats as they are identified and regular consultation with other parents of young children and computer security specialists can help keep your child safe from predators. The best way to keep your child safe however, it to keep the computer in a family area where others are likely to be and to set up the rule that internet use will be monitored by adults. This solution isn’t perfect but the more children can utilize a computer for long periods of time without supervision, the more likely they will run into an individual who doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
The internet has positives and negatives effects, which we all have to acknowledge. A solution that targets removal of internet services is not an effective strategy in this day and age and this can hinder a lot in terms of development. A proper solution to the safe use of the internet among children needs to include proper measures an safeguards that prevents children accessing pornographic material or ensuring privacy of internet social networks accounts is enhanced.
There are a number of resources available online that can help you keep your child safe from online risks.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides easy to understand information about how parents can protect their children from internet dangers.
Parenting offers useful strategies to help parents monitor their child's social media use.
The FBI puts out several good resources for parents including A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety and their Scams and Safety - About Protecting Your Kids page which have a great deal of useful information and links about protecting your child from internet dangers.
The Concerned Parents Toolbox includes numerous strategies to keep your child safe while online along with links to other resources including educational sites for kids, cyberbullying resources and tools, ad awareness, monitoring and filtering, file sharing and P2P, identity protection and privacy, online predators, Internet addiction, and hidden web access.
The National Crime Prevention Council has an excellent page on cyberbullying for parents which includes links to many other useful resources on the topic.
Stopbullying.gov is a U.S. government website that not only includes information about internet safety and cyberbullying but also provides resources and information on who to contact if parents or children need help.
The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a page with information about the legal protections for preventing online stalking and harassment.
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Holloway, D., Green, L., & Livingstone, S. (2013). Zero to eight: Young children and their internet use.
Lee, S. J. (2013). Parental restrictive mediation of children’s internet use: Effective for what and for whom?. New Media & Society, 15(4), 466-481.
Strasburger, V. C., Hogan, M. J., Mulligan, D. A., Ameenuddin, N., Christakis, D. A., Cross, C., ... & Moreno, M. A. (2013). Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics, 132(5), 958-961.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.