EU Kids Online – How media literate are our children?

Who are we?

With the EU Kids Online research, we want to gain more insight into the online activities, skills and experiences of children and their parents, and how they deal with both the positive and negative sides of the internet. The EU Kids Online research consists of a network of 25 European countries (see map below) coordinated by prof. dr. Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The national team of each participating country provides the necessary analyses and reports, and also makes sure that the findings of the EU Kids Online research team are transferred to the national/regional policy makers and organizations, who establish a bridge towards for instance parents and teachers.

Who is the Belgian EU Kids Online team?

  • Leen d’Haenens, Institute for Mediastudies, KU Leuven (coordinator)
  • Sofie Vandoninck, Institute for Mediastudies, KU Leuven
  • Verónica Donoso, Interdisciplinary Centre for Law and ICT, KU Leuven-iMinds
  • Katia Segers, CEMESO, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Joke Bauwens, CEMESO, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

The EU Kids Online network is active since 2006.

EU Kids Online I


Mapping out the field of existing research in Europe on the use of internet and online risks among children and adolescents
Identifying the research methods, topics and target groups who are under-represented in research

EU Kids Online II


Development and recording of a uniform and quantitative face-to-face survey among 25.000 children (9-16 years old) and their parents in 25 countries

EU Kids Online III


Deeper and topical analyses based on the EU Kids Online survey
Qualitative research on the perceptions of online risks by means of focus groups and interviews in a sub group of 11 countries

Media literacy in the EU Kids Online research

Media literacy within the EU Kids Online research is being interpreted broadly. Firstly, it deals with a range of online activities children develop; we can consider children who utilize the educational, entertaining and creative possibilities of the internet more as more media literate. The idea of media literacy is not limited to the so called ‘basic activities’ such as looking something up for school, but also takes up the challenge to discover the more complex and creative possibilities of the internet. Examples are keeping a blog, producing and sharing video clips, actively contributing to a forum, citizen participation through social network sites, etc. Secondly, media literacy refers to more ‘technical’ knowledge and skills. In the EU Kids Online survey, eight digital skills were measured. Some of the skills are on the domain of the so called instrumental knowledge; this means only technical actions, or ‘button knowledge’. Besides this, so called information skills were measured; this means in what amount young people use online information in a critical way. Finally, we can connect media literacy with online defensibility. Young people, inevitably, come into contact with online risks, but they respond to it very differently. Young people, who are capable of dealing with these risks in an adequate way, who use certain strategies to avoid risks, and who choose for a problem solving approach when things go wrong, we can call ‘media literate’.

How media literate are our children?

In the summer of 2010, a survey was recorded among 25.000 children (9-16 years old) and their parents in 25 European countries. In total, 1005 Belgian children participated with the EU Kids Online survey, 561 of them Dutch speaking children [1]. In the fall of 2012, a follow-up survey was recorded among 2046 Flemish youngsters, from the fifth class of primary school to the fourth class of high school. This survey focusses on the development of online defensibility and coping strategies among vulnerable young people. In 2010, the internet was the primary source of entertainment and a resource for homework for Belgian youngsters. Communication applications such as instant messaging, email and social network sites play an important role, especially among the older age groups. Only a minority of young people fully utilizes the possibilities of the internet, and are occupied with the more complex applications such as posting messages on a forum, keeping a blog or exchanging files.

Which differences are there between Belgium and the other European countries?

The applications aimed at communication and entertainment have in Belgium, in comparison to the rest of Europe, a little bit more popularity. On the other hand, Belgian children score a little bit less in comparison to their peers from the rest of Europe on informative and educational use of internet; such as internet use for homework and following online news.

What has changed between 2010 and 2012?

Two years later, in 2012, there were no newsworthy changes in these user trends. Almost all young people go on the internet to look at YouTube videos, and (especially in high school) for home work. Again, the older age groups are the ones who massively chat and exchange messages, especially through social network sites. Applications which demand more effort or more knowledge remain behind, such as downloading files, webcamming, following online news and blogging. Young people are massively present on social network sites, and have made a catch-up when it comes to interactive activities who are often connected to social network sites such as posting messages and sharing photos or videos with each other. But still, some part of the SNS users are rather passive, and not (yet) utilize the possibilities that require more effort and input. Initiatives who motivate young people to, in a positive way, utilize the more creative and interactive possibilities of the internet, certainly deserve extra support.

Graph 1 – Online activities during the past month in 2010 (EU Kids-survey, N=1005) and in 2012 (follow-up survey, N=2046).

Which digital skills do Belgian children master?

In both surveys (2010 and 2012), the children were asked if they master the following eight digital skills:

  • Changing settings (of the computer/browser)
  • Adding a website to ‘favorites’/bookmarking it
  • Blocking undesired ads/spam
  • Erasing browser history
  • Adjusting privacy settings
  • Blocking undesired contacts
  • Looking up/finding information on safe internet
  • Comparing websites/checking information

Graph 2 – Digital skills in 2010 (EU Kids-survey, N=767) and in 2012 (follow-up survey, N=2 046).

On average, the Belgian EU Kids Online respondents (survey 2010) can only execute 3,4 of these 8 tasks. With the Flemish follow-up study in 2012, this rose lightly, to 4/8 [2]. Despite this cautious progress, the children of the fifth and sixth class of primary school can only execute 2,5 of these 8 tasks. Still, half of these primary school children daily go online, and 49% have an account on a social network site. Remarkable is that, in 2012, there has been significantly less scored on the information skills; less than half of the Flemish youngsters thinks they are capable of comparing and checking information on different websites, and of searching and finding information on safe internet. For the most instrumental skills, it increases (lightly), except for blocking spam and undesired contacts. This could point towards platforms becoming more complex, and that the (young) users have a constantly harder time blocking undesired messages and contacts [3].

Online risks

Which risks are the Belgian children confronted with?

Graph 3 – Exposure to online risks in 2010 (EU Kids Online survey, N=1 005) and 2012 (follow-up survey, N=2 046)

Children and adolescents deal with sexual risks the most. It immediately stands out that the numbers in 2012 are a lot higher. Probably, this has partly to do with the way of questioning, and children are possibly more inclined to admit this in a written questionnaire than in a face-to-face interview with an adult. The questions on sexting were only asked to the +11 year olds in the EU Kids Online survey, and to the +12 year olds in the follow-up survey. This also (partly) explains the strong increase. A little bit more young people in 2012 took the step towards a meeting with someone they only know from the internet, although it almost always is a meeting with peers. Cyberbullying occurs the least, but has the most negative impact from all online risks.

Risks and damage are no synonyms

A lot of children and adolescents sooner or later deal with online risks, but in most cases there is no ‘damage’ at all, i.e. having a bad feeling about what has happened. If there are negative emotions such as an annoying, uneasy or painful feeling, it can be an indicator for a lower level of online defensibility. Cyberbullying is the most damaging online risk, and entails for the largest part of victims negative feelings, regardless of age and gender. For online risks such as exposure to sexual images, exchanging sexually tinted messages and meetings with strangers, the amount of children who are really left with ‘damage’ is a lot lower. Still, some young people keep indicating that they found this ‘really annoying’ (see graph 4). Especially girls, younger children and children with psychological problems are more susceptible for this. For older children and boys, we sometimes see the reverse; they experience sexual images or meetings with strangers as something more positive. In the Flemish follow-up research, significantly more young people indicated that, after a bad experience with an online risk, they were left with a pretty annoying to really annoying feeling. Here does the manner of questioning possibly also a role, and are the children in a written questionnaire more open about their negative feelings.

Graph 4 – Children who felt pretty or really affected after exposure to online risks in 2010 (EU Kids-survey, N=25 142) and in 2012 (follow-up survey, N=2 046).

Policy recommendations from EU Kids Online

Children have the right of protection and a safe online environment, with respect to the online safety and rights of other (young) internet users.
More attention to online risks and safety with the younger age groups, also in primary school and even starting from kindergarten.
Support at school is necessary for children who do not spontaneously acquire the different digital skills, and remain with a limited (basic) internet use.
The school is a particular important environment to acquire digital skills, but teachers need to be sufficiently supported with that.
Investing in the development of positive/informative online content in the own language, especially for the young age groups
Initiatives aimed at making children and parents aware have to be up to date, have to handle the different online risks in a balanced way, and especially have to be aimed at the most vulnerable groups.

Support with (negative) experiences with online sexual risks, in the first place, need to be aimed at groups who are left with a bad experience the most.
Actions against bullying need to take into account that cyberbullying often goes together with classical bullying and that victims can also be perpetrators, and vice versa.
Parents need to be aware that the internet, for a lot of young people, is a source of new social contacts, and that a meeting with unknown peers can be a positive experience. The chance of a bad experience when meeting a stranger is small, but the consequences can be severe.
Online risks evolve, and the new risks mostly seem to go together with contacts between peers and user generated content.

Want to read more?

d’Haenens, L. & Vandoninck, S. (reds.) (2012). Kids Online: vaardigheden, kansen en risico’s van kinderen en jongeren op het internet. Gent: Academia Press.      

[1] Children who live in Flemish region.     

[2] EU Kids Online: two answer possibilities (yes/no). Flemish follow-up survey: three answer possibilities (I can do this well, I can do this a bit, I cannot do this). This result relates on children who indicate they control the skill ‘well’.   

[3] It cannot be ruled out that the difference in answer possibilities has an effect, so the comparison of both survey results has to be interpreted with necessary caution.