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child on internetA new study on young children (0-8) and digital technology was conducted by Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre, as part of a European-wide study, coordinated by European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. A fieldwork was conducted between November 2016 and January 2017. The current research is a continuation of a 2015 study about how children aged 8 years or less and their families use and manage digital technologies. The result of that study was a valuable new knowledge that partially filled a considerable gap in the existing scholarship, which has previously largely neglected how the youngest children cope in the digital world.

During the first research, we interviewed 10 families with children aged 0-8. During the second stage, taking place roughly one year and a half after the first interviews, five of these same families were visited again. The main objective was to assess how the perceptions of different family members changed over time, what are the differences in children’s interests, skills and practices, and what (if any) are modifications in parents’ mediation of children’s use of online technologies.

A year and a half after the first study, online technologies not only continue to play a very important role in the lives of children aged between 7 and 9, but have become an even more indispensable part of their daily routines. Children continue to use the devices predominantly for entertainment (games, movies and video clips, music, photography, social networks), but the devices are rapidly becoming an essential tool for children’s everyday communication with family members and friends. Children are also starting to employ digital technologies for education and school-related work. Since they have learned to read and write children have become considerably more efficient in independent use of search engines. As they become more skillful, they also become more demanding – they prefer devices, which are faster, have more memory, are mobile, have a touchscreen. Therefore, smartphones and tablets are their favourite devices. The peer pressure to own a particular device and engage in certain activities is also becoming stronger. If children have older siblings, they learn from them and their own skills and interests are similar to the skills and interests of their older sisters and/or brothers. The easier it becomes for the children to use the online technologies independently, less time they spend doing something together online with their parents.

Parents have mixed feelings about the online technologies. On the one hand, they acknowledge their benefits for the children’s development, but on the other, they are increasingly concerned with different risk factors. In general, parents continue to favour a permissive approach, preferring an open dialogue to prohibitions. However, it appears that most parents are not well prepared to provide guidance and support on the issue of online safety (fathers appear to be more active but their mediation is in most cases limited to technical aspects as preventing viruses and malware). All parents support restrictive school policies, which prohibit the bringing of digital devices to classroom. At the same time, they are in favour of creative and meaningful inclusion of online technologies in the process of education.

The findings were used for elaboration of recommendations for educators and other practitioners working with children, policy-makers and parents regarding the benefits and challenges of young children’s use of digital technologies.

Parents must not assume that improved technical skills and abilities of the children are sufficient to protect them from potentially dangerous situations online. Instead, they need to take special care to support the early digital and media literacy of their children, focusing on critical thinking, creative activities and responsible online behaviour. Parents should be proactive and continuously improve their knowledge and skills regarding the devices, apps and websites their children are using/visiting. They should consult other parents, teachers and relevant experts such as the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre. Also, parents should not postpone or avoid talking with their children about potential online risks and dangers.

Rather than limiting the use of online technologies, schools should introduce clear and effective rules for their use,. As the study found, children always learn from their peers. The learning can include positive and useful skills, but also unsafe and risky practices. Schools should provide appropriate environment and facilitate peer-to-peer training programmes. Training of young trainers should be undertaken in a partnership between NGOs, schools, state institutions and corporate actors to achieve best and lasting results.
The national strategies and plans for safeguarding children and for promoting and protecting their rights must take into account the reality that children start using digital technologies very early. This should be addressed in a proper way by championing early digital literacy, encouraging high quality positive online content, preventing potential online crimes against children and prosecuting them efficiently when they occur.

A report on the study can be found here.