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Children’s online behaviour and parental involvement – new research insights

Three new Research Highlights from the UK Council for Child Internet Safety’s Evidence Group explore children’s use of new media and the internet, and how parents engage with and mediate their children’s online activities.

Findings from the Ofcom Media Use and Attitudes survey:

Children’s internet use continues to expand

While children aged 5-15 still spend most time watching TV, children age 12-15 now spend more time online – clocking up 17.1 hours a week on average.

Children are going online via a wider range of devices, including one in seven 5-15s using tablets at home. It is very common for young people to use many devices at once, also known as “cross-media multi-tasking.”

Even three and four year olds are online

This year, for the first time, the Ofcom survey included questions on media use among 3 and 4 year-olds. 37% use the internet via a PC, laptop or netbook, and even this age group are using a wide range of devices, with 6% going online via a tablet, 3% via a mobile phone, 2% using a games console and 2% using a portable media player to go online. You can explore our Early Surfers’ Zone for classroom ideas, ebooks, lesson plans and films, to help educate this age group about staying safe online.

Parents play an important role in setting the rules – but there are some gaps

Most parents of 5-15s have rules in place for their child’s use of television (83%), internet (79%), mobile phones (72%) and gaming (76%).

However, parental controls are less likely to be used on devices. Only a third of parents of 12-15s with smartphones have applied filters to exclude websites aimed at over-18s. Parental controls are even less likely to be in place for handheld games players or games consoles connected to a television.

What stops parents from using parental controls?

The most frequent reason given by parents of younger children (aged 5-11) for not having technical controls is that their child is always supervised, while for parents of older children (aged 12-15) it is because they trust their child. 

The qualitative research found parental controls were seen as something to be used in addition to, not instead of, other forms of parental mediation. This was partly driven by a perception that parental controls do not protect against ‘contact’ risks (eg bullying or grooming). For some parents their lack of confidence with technology also resulted in a reluctance to completely trust parental controls. 

Lack of awareness of the availability of controls or understanding of how to install or activate them is also an issue, particularly with internet-enabled devices. This was cited by 10% of parents of 5-15s in relation to PCs, laptops or netbooks, 21%-25% for controls on fixed/mobile games consoles, and 35% of 12-15s for controls on mobile phones. 

The qualitative research also found that levels of awareness of parental controls and what they can do tended to be low, and that the process of selecting and installing parental controls was seen to be complex and time consuming, particularly for parents with lower levels of confidence about technology. This combination of factors resulted in a lack of engagement with parental controls. 

It is important that we continue to support parents in making the most of the parental control tools available. You can find out more about setting parental controls on internet-enabled devices in our Parents’ Guide to Technology.