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Published 09.04.24

VOICE: Children's and caregivers' perspectives on online safety

Torsten Krause, SDC

On April 8, ECPAT International, terre des hommes Netherlands and Eurochild presented the VOICE study in Brussels. Together, they surveyed over 400 children and around 6,000 caregivers in 15 countries in Europe, Asia and South America about their attitudes, opinions and experiences regarding children's safety online. The survey revealed that children benefit from the advantages of online services in the areas of communication, entertainment and education. At the same time, however, they also perceive negative consequences from the use of online services. As examples, the children often mentioned effects on their mental health and well-being as well as concerns about the protection of their data and privacy. They are worried about possible contact with strangers (stranger danger), also in context with potential sexual violence. In principle, however, almost half of the children surveyed (46%) feel safe online, while one in ten children (10%) feel unsafe in the digital environment. In this circumstance, the organizations point out that when assessing this data, it should be taken into account that children have a high tolerance for online risks, which is due to the fact that desensitization and normalization towards them has occurred. However, ignorance and a lack of experience also appear to contribute to these assessments. This contrasts with the self-assessment of many caregivers that they have comprehensive knowledge of existing online risks. However, the researchers found that this does not apply to the risks of sexual violence against children online and that there is also a considerable discrepancy between caregivers' perceptions of the usage and conduct of children online and children's actual experiences.

Children often associate safety measures with the protection of their data, and similarly with the protection of their privacy. They are aware that there is content and offers on the internet that are not appropriate for their age or development and/or could be harmful to them. They can therefore understand the need for protection measures for children online. In this context, caregivers are of the opinion that these are not adequate to sufficiently protect young users from sexual violence online. The majority of them also estimate that the protection of children in the digital environment cannot be achieved without compromising privacy. While every second caregiver (52%) partially or fully agrees with restricting their right to privacy for measures to protect children online, around 18% of the caregivers surveyed reject this. The participating children, on the other hand, require a balance between these interests and prefer measures that take both their protection and their privacy into account. Over half of the children are open to the use of measures to verify their age, while some express concern that the data required for this could also be used for other purposes. Concerns were also expressed that this could restrict their participation online. In any case, children want safeguards that are incorporated into the design of the service (safety by design). They often consider existing services to be too complicated and not user-friendly.

The study also comes to the conclusion that children and caregivers often feel responsible for protecting children online themselves. In doing so, they underestimate the options of the providers of online experiences and the role of governments and authorities in supporting to protect young users. They prefer reporting procedures to the providers and are less likely to turn to (their) caregivers. They in turn rely on parental control measures and support to safeguard the online use of (their) children. However, this support raises challenges in the exchange, as children and caregivers share different perspectives and experiences.

In order to turn digital environments into safe places for children, ECPAT Internation, Eurochild and terre des hommes Netherlands recommend, in light of these study results, that more information and knowledge be provided to children and adults likewise. Gaps in knowledge need to be closed and skills for the safe use of online services need to be developed. Providers, governments, caregivers and children are part of a shared community of responsibility. The views of children and caregivers should be taken into consideration when designing protection and safeguarding measures. It is important to children that these do not violate their privacy and are incorporated directly in the design of the services.

The full report "Speaking up for change - children's and caregiver's voices for safer experiences" can be accessed here.