When we tell children to be safe online, are they thinking what we are thinking?

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From Nosy Little Brothers to Stranger-Danger: Children and Parents’ Perception of Mobile Threats

The rise in youth mobile media use has heightened parental concerns about the safety of children online. This raises some interesting questions about how children conceptualize privacy, whether children and parents’ perceptions of online threats differ and how parents protect their children from threats. Zhang-Kennedy, Mekhail, Abdelaziz and Chiasson conducted semi-structured interviews with parents and their children. They wanted to explore the perceived privacy and security threats faced by school-aged children and what they do to protect themselves. 

The researchers interviewed 14 families of children aged seven to eleven. The interview questions were chosen to gain insight into children’s use of mobile devices. They also looked at parents’ and children’s understanding of privacy related risks They applied ‘Grounded Theory’ methodology to systematically and progressively classify and reclassify the results until a structure and then broader explanation was revealed. 

The researchers found that the children’s understanding of external threats was very basic and reflected their experiences with offline safety. This included privacy models such as ‘to be alone’ or ‘to hide secret or special things’. Children have specific threat concerns. Most children thought friends and siblings posed a threat because they could tamper with their device, compete for screen-time, ‘mess up’ their game, or get them into trouble with adults. They were concerned about exposure to bad words, violence, and other adult content. Consequently, they worried about punishment from adults for viewing ‘bad’ content. Only a small number of children raised the threat from strangers, but the risks perceived were limited to getting teased or bullied. However, parents perceived risks differently than children. They perceived more severe external risks from peers, media and strangers, as well as from technology and from the children themselves. 

Parents protect children against potential threats with a variety of protection strategies which include: monitoring use; reviewing, restricting or prohibiting access to particular services or applications; increasing their own and their child’s education about threats; and reviewing and configuring privacy and authorization settings for devices and applications. Unfortunately, some of their protection strategies put their children at further risk. Some examples include writing down the child’s passwords, encouraging simple passwords that are easily guessable or creating password protected accounts for children that go unused. 

As it might be expected, there is a clear gap between threats perceived by children and adults. Children showed less concern for online dangers because they do not yet know how to apply the concept of privacy online. Young children have underdeveloped models of privacy based on knowledge of the physical environment. They see their greatest security threats as coming from family members. Parents felt the need to safeguard children by limiting what they could access and who they could talk to online. They used many different methods to protect the safety of their children. However, these efforts sometimes unintentionally placed the children at greater risk. Interestingly, the results of this study suggest that security and privacy risks from family members or friends are far more common than harm from outsiders. It is important to take into consideration the differences in the perceived threats of children and parents when addressing security.

Children appear to define risk by the dangers they can understand and not those they are faced with. They behave differently to parents in ensuring their safety.