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What is the nature of childhood today? Older, better educated parents are increasingly advocating for their children and playing an active role in their education. New technologies empower children’s self-expression, information seeking and socialisation, and in times of need, help could be just a phone call – or WhatsApp message – away. On a number of measures, modern children’s lives have clearly improved: better health care, public safety, and support for their physical and mental well-being.

At the same time, there are signs of new stresses. Children in the 21st century are reporting more anxiety, including from increased pressure to excel in an ever more competitive educational environment. Technologies that help parents stay connected to their children also make it more difficult to monitor children’s behaviour once they have their own devices. And the omnipresent nature of the digital world means that risks like cyberbullying follow children and youth from the school yard into their homes.

There is an urgent need to examine the lives of modern children and better understand what this means for education. How can teachers and schools work together with parents and communities to protect and guide children while still allowing them to be children, and learn by making mistakes? This volume explores the potential of education systems to proactively adapt and develop along with our societies, focusing on children’s emotional well-being and use of digital technologies.

Part I: Setting the stage: 21st century children

Part I explores trends in digital technology use and emotional well-being. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the volume, looking at the concept of 21st century children and identifying what has changed and, equally importantly, what has not. Chapter 2 examines the increasing use of digital technologies by children who go online at younger ages. It looks at high priority policy challenges, such as digital citizenship and cyberbullying, as well as the interconnections between those challenges. Chapter 3 covers trends in emotional well-being indicators and key protective and risk factors underlying these trends. It also looks at high priority policy challenges such as anxiety, stress and mental illness, as well as the interconnections between them.

Part II: Children’s relationships in the 21st century

Part II focuses on children’s relationships and the supporting players in their lives, from parents to peers. Chapter 4 reviews the literature on the importance of positive and supportive relationships and provides an overview of parenting styles and research on friendships, both real and virtual. Chapter 5 takes a closer look at online and offline friendships. Are online relationships replacing offline ones or are they improving friendship networks and empowering disadvantaged groups?

Chapter 6 explores digital parenting practices. The example of sharenting (the practice of sharing information about one’s children on social media) is highlighted and the chapter argues that such practices can not only jeopardise children’s rights and privacy, they can also negatively affect both the parent-child relationship and child well-being. Chapter 7 examines how global trends such as climate change, forced displacement, increasing individualism and digitalisation can affect adolescent development, relationships and mental health.

Part III: Online opportunities and risks: Ensuring child well-being

Part III of this volume examines the complex interplay between online opportunities and risks through the lens of child well-being. Chapter 8 reviews the research on children’s time online and highlights the lack of conclusive evidence of the impact of digital technology on children, calling for a more careful consideration of methodological limitations in research and policy. Chapter 9 examines disparities of digital outcomes against the backdrop of social inequalities, paying special attention to the most disadvantaged – young people not in employment, education, or training. Finally, Chapter 10 reports from the renewal of the 2012 OECD Recommendation for the Protection of Children Online. It highlights the dynamic nature of online protection as a public policy and legislative area and provides an overview of recent regulatory responses across OECD countries.

Part IV: Children as digital citizens: Policies and partnerships to foster digital literacy and resilience

Part IV explores children as digital citizens, highlighting examples from countries to address many of the challenges laid out in the preceding sections. Chapter 11 profiles the important efforts countries have made to close digital divides and strengthen digital literacy while also taking care of student well-being, including policies on screen time. Chapter 12 focuses on digital citizenship in all of its complexity, including country policies to encourage active and empowered users while minimising cyber risks. Children’s understanding of their privacy, netiquette and the importance of building resilience is also covered. The last chapter in this section, Chapter 13, looks at what these policies mean in practice for the education world, with a special focus on teacher education and partnerships.

Part V: The pending agenda

Chapter 14 highlights a number of transversal themes that have emerged through work with countries and across the publication. In order to empower an active and ethical (digital) generation, gaps in our knowledge and areas for improvement are identified, followed by orientations for policy, research and practice.

This volume aims to identify key changes that may fall outside the conventional education discourse and the challenges they could pose for education. It suggests research and policy options that will help countries in educating 21st century children and the opportunities and challenges they face in the modern world. Many of these trends are a continuously moving target, and reports such as this can become quickly outdated. The task for education systems around the world is to try to stay ahead of, or at least on top of, the curve.

To do this, education, like all public sectors, must break down its silos and work across government departments and research disciplines. It must engage an increasingly broad variety of actors, including the private sector. It must also evolve and grow as our societies and citizens develop, anticipating change and finding preventative solutions rather than simply reacting to problems. We owe it to our children to separate fact from fiction, and help support them to get the best start in life.

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© OECD 2019

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Executive summary