Plan A isn’t working

This week, and within 24 hours of each other, two research reports emerged from impeccable sources. Both said similar things, if from slightly different perspectives.

Plan A is a busted flush.

Whatever we’ve been doing up to now, it plainly isn’t working. Or at least it isn’t working well enough.

  • Professors Livingstone, Olafsson and Staksrud, I presume

First out of the traps was Professor Sonia Livingstone of the LSE, here working with Kjartan Olafsson and Elizabeth Staksrud of the University of Oslo’s Department of Media and Communications. On Monday their latest EU Kids Online bulletin disclosed that, based on a survey of 25 European countries, 38% of all 9-12 year olds who use the internet also use social networking sites. 

Because a very high proportion of all children use the internet the EU study is getting close to saying 38% of all children in the 9-12 age group use social networking sites, although there are significant variations between countries.

Put it another way: the sample sizes are so large even if 100% of all children in all countries were using the internet it is unlikely the survey results would turn out very differently.

Across Europe we don’t really know enough about the children who don’t use the internet or who don’t have ready access to it. In the UK we know that such children tend to come from less well off families. But that is not a sure indicator of how these children are likely to behave online. For now let’s just imagine they would act just as their peers do. Could be wrong.

As the study reminds us, not all social networking sites have lower age limits so the  headline number does not allow us t0 leap to the conclusion that 38% of all 9-12 year olds who use the internet are necessarily misrepresenting their age in order to gain admittance to one.

However, the study does tell us that 20% of all 9-12 year olds in Europe who use the internet are also using Facebook. Facebook specifies 13 as the minimum age so somewhere or other there is large scale misrepresentation going on.

  • What’s going on in Cyprus, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the UK?

In some countries the proportion of children in the 9-12 age group who are on Facebook rises to, for example, 53% in Cyprus. In  Slovenia it is 48%, the Czech Republic comes in at 46% and the UK shows 34%.

Moving back to the report’s main findings a quarter of 9-16 year olds on social networking sites have set their profiles to public and one fifth of these display their address and/or phone number.  Again there are significant variations between countries.

One in six 9-12 year olds and one in three 13-16 year olds have 100 or more online contacts. A quarter of Facebook users in Europe who are between 9 and 12 acknowledged they have online friends who have no connection of any kind with them in the real world.

We need a Plan B.

  • OFCOM – similar story, different angles

On Tuesday OFCOM, the UK’s statutory telecoms industry regulator, published a report on its research looking at the same sorts of issues. Children’s use of social networking sites in the UK now broadly mirrors that of adults. 54% of all 8-15 year olds who use the internet at home say they have a social networking profile. And OFCOM says 34% of all 8-12 year olds are on a site that specifies 13 as the minimum age. This is the same proportion as the EU study’s number for Facebook although they specified 9-12 year olds. 

OFCOM found that 48% of parents with children between 5 and 15 thought their kids knew more about the internet than they did. This rose to 70% for parents with children between the ages of 12 and 15.

The OFCOM survey also notes the inexorable rise of the smartphone. Around one fifth of all UK children between the ages of 5 and 15 now own a phone that can connect to the internet, and this rises to over a third for 12 – 15 year olds. A quarter of all children with smartphones say they use it to connect to their social networking site.

We have already seen how parents feel their kids know more about the internet than they do. With the growth in the use of smartphones that gap is unlikely to narrow even though, with all the geo-location stuff hanging off them, it probably means there is an even greater need for parental engagement.

The OFCOM report is crammed with interesting statistics showing, for example, the growth (to 41%) in the use of the internet in children’s bedrooms and level of usage of games consoles in online environments (16%).

I think fairly soon these latter sorts of numbers will be less relevant to the discussion about online child safety. We should just assume that almost every electronic device that children and young people regularly use will have the ability to connect to the internet so bedrooms not bedrooms will become a redundant question.

What is the name for the new company formed following the merger of T-Mobile and Orange? Everything Everywhere. That’s the way it’s going to be. 

Bits of OFCOM’s news about children’s usage were encouraging – more children say their profiles can only be seen by friends, but others are not so good e.g. 32% of 12-15 year olds say they still engage online with friends of friends or other people they do not know in real life. In the EU study it was a quarter across the 25 countries as a whole.

The upshot of all this is we might also need a Plan C.

  • This is a time for platitudes

It is a platitude to say that the technology is outstripping the capacity of policy makers, legislators and regulators to keep up. This has often been advanced as a key reason for encouraging the industry to self regulate. But increasingly I have a sense that the whole thing is just spinning out of control and too many companies are taking advantage of what they see as paralysis in the policy and regulatory community, pace the FTC and Google.

Yes it is difficult to see how some of the problems around children’s involvement with new technology will be satisfactorily resolved but that should not be interpreted as giving carte blanche for high tech companies just to pootle along doing anything that suits their business plan du jour.

  • Beware Black Swans

I’m currently reading Taleb Nassim’s book “The Black Swan”. Better late than never. No it’s nothing to do with the Hollywood movie of the same name. It is about how low probability events can have a very high impact on public policy and also, although in this context it is a secondary consideration, how we tend to rationalize such events afterwards to make them fit our human need for an understandable narrative. Suddenly it becomes completely obvious that the thing that just happened was always bound to happen.

Nassim cites 9/11 as an example. No one in authority in the West could have foreseen the attack on the Twin Towers.  If anyone had been able to predict it it would never have taken place because steps would have been taken to prevent it. Yet look at the consequences of that single, tragic event.

“Black swan events” are just like that. Nassim says they are by definition at the outside edge of knowability because there is no historic evidence on which you could predict them happening.  But Nassim argues the fact Black Swans exist is not a reason for sitting back and doing nothing to anticipate or deal with those challenges that are reasonably foreseeable. He has no time at all for what he calls aggressive ignorance.

I think there’s a bit too much aggressive ignorance around.

Companies must or ought to know that the current incoherence and anarchy which exists in the internet space is not sustainable in the longer run. We do not have a stable system. When the Black Swan does hove into view, or even something a little way short of a Black Swan happens, a number of companies will be highly exposed and have little to offer by way of mitigation. At that point watch what happens to the value of their stock. And also look how quickly what was previously unthinkable becomes the self-evident norm.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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