3. Children and digital technologies: Trends and outcomes

At the end of 2017, the number of high speed mobile subscriptions in OECD countries reached a milestone: more subscriptions than the number of people (OECD, 2017[1]). The Internet has permeated our lives, and that of our children. This begs the questions: What are the trends in use of technology in children, what is the impact of this use on their health and well-being, and what does this mean for education?

Children’s experiences are increasingly characterised by the use of digital technologies, disrupting the divide between the physical and virtual world. The digital environment provides children with many opportunities, but it also exposes them to risks. Participation in the digital environment must therefore be balanced with protection, ensuring that children have the knowledge, skills and resilience to identify and manage digital risks.

Digital inequalities must also be considered when accounting for children’s Internet access, knowledge and skills. School closures and digital teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic repositioned these issues high on the policy agenda. To ensure learning was not disrupted for their children, many families around the OECD, specifically the most disadvantaged, faced several challenges such as access to suitable devices and broadband connectivity

This chapter explores trends in children’s access and use of digital technologies in the 21st century. It looks at how children engage in the digital world, and the risks and opportunities this affords. In addition, the chapter will provide insights on the relationship between digital technologies and physical health and well-being, reviewing some of the literature in this realm.

Children are increasingly using digital technologies from younger ages. Children now tend to have their first experience with digital technologies before the age of two, often before they can walk or talk (Chaudron, Di Gioia and Gemo, 2018[2]). In England (United Kingdom), Estonia and the United States, on average 83% of five-year-olds use a digital device at least once a week, with 42% using it every day (OECD, 2020[3]). Rates in home Internet access in the 21st century are also unprecedented. From 2009 to 2018, the proportion of 15-year-olds in OECD countries with home Internet access increased from 85% to over 95% (OECD, 2019[4]). In addition both Internet quality and the expansion of mobile Internet services have risen in this time period.

With this rise in connectivity, children are spending more time in the digital environment. Across the OECD, time by 15-year-olds increased from 23 hours per week in 2015 to 27 hours per week in 2018 (OECD, 2019[4]). In Europe, children’s estimated time spent on the Internet ranges from 134 minutes per day in Switzerland to 219 minutes per day in Norway, with little variation between boys and girls (Smahel et al., 2020[5]).

While computers used to be the device of choice for young people to navigate digital environment, the popularity of devices such as tablets and smartphones has constantly increased, exceeding that of computers (Ofcom, 2020[6]; UNICEF, 2019[7]). With the shift to more mobile connectivity, and the ability to check messages and notifications at any time during the day, it becomes increasingly difficult to get an accurate estimate of children’s time spent in digital spaces. Furthermore, to make matters more complicated, as children increasingly watch videos on the Internet they might not perceive this as spending time on the Internet (Smahel et al., 2020[5]). This highlights some of the issues around relying on self-report measures when studying these trends.

Children engage in a range of digital activities. Across the OECD, 93% of 15 year-olds reported chatting online as one of their most frequently engaged in activities (OECD, 2019[4]). Social media presence is also high in many countries, as young people claim it can make them feel connected and supported. For example in the United States 97% of teens aged 13-17 are active on at least one social media platform (Pew Research Center, 2018[13]). Boys in particular tend to be more likely to discuss their personal issues in the digital environment, however the majority of young people prefer speaking face to face when discussing feelings or concerns (Inchley et al., 2020[14]). Worryingly, a small proportion of young children also have social media profiles, which violates many platforms’ age policies (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and Twitter all have a 13+ age policy).

Children also tend to use digital tools for entertainment. TikTok is an increasingly popular video-sharing platform, with children in some countries reporting that they spend at least one hour per day on it (Qustodio, 2020[15]). According to a sample of 14 children from the United Kingdom, during the COVID-19 lockdown most used the app for several hours per day to “kill time”, or to post their own content (either original or reposting content of others) (Ofcom, 2020[6]). Other video platforms that are popular with children are YouTube and Netflix (Ofcom, 2020[6]).

Playing video games is also a common activity. On average in Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, 4-15 year-old children spend around one hour per day playing mobile game apps (Qustodio, 2020[15]), although there is considerable variation across other countries (Smahel et al., 2020[5]). In the United Kingdom, 59% of 5-15 year-olds play digital games. The majority of gamers are boys, although the proportion of girls who play videogames has risen from 38-49% from 2018-2019 (Ofcom, 2020[6]). During the COVID-19 lockdowns, playing videogames became even more popular. The #PlayApartTogether initiative, highlighting the potential for multiplayer games to provide much-needed social interactions while respecting physical distancing guidelines, was even promoted by the World Health Organization.

The digital environment not only provides opportunities for socialising and having fun. It also allows children to develop their civic identity, discuss political issues and get involved with virtual campaigns or protests (Cho, Byrne and Pelter, 2020[16]). Fostering digital civic engagement is important as it is correlated with ‘real’ offline political participation such as voting (Cho, Byrne and Pelter, 2020[16]).

Digital technologies are moving beyond the screen. The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to objects that, when tagged, can communicate with other tagged objects (Pascual-Espada et al., 2011[17]). Among the growing world of the IoT is the Internet of Toys (IoToys), in which software-enabled toys are wirelessly connected to other toys or databases. These can relate one-on-one to children, presenting opportunities for personalised play and learning and the accessibility of functions such as programming and three-dimensional design (Holloway and Green, 2016[18]; Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017[19]).

As the prevalence of Internet-connected toys is projected to increase (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017[19]), it is important for both consumers and parents to understand how they work and the implications for their children. This is especially important in terms of privacy protection (e.g. checking if the toy is certified to comply with laws to protect children’s privacy (McReynolds et al., 2017[20]). In addition to privacy and security, there are also social and ethical concerns, for example, the extent to which children perceive IoToys as human and how this impacts their development (Blum-Ross et al., 2018[8]).

Factors such as gender, socio-economic background and age are correlated with children’s digital access and opportunities, affecting how autonomously and frequently they engage in digital activities and the type of activities they engage in (Mascheroni and Ólafsson, 2016[27]). Digital inequalities are important elements for policy makers to address as they have the potential to both reinforce and exacerbate existing social inequalities (DiMaggio and Garip, 2012[28]).

On average gender differences in Internet access and use remain modest in most OECD countries, with a small trend for 15 year-old boys to outperform their female peers. Disadvantaged students tend to face barriers to device ownership and Internet access, and tend to have lower digital skill levels on average and are less likely than advantaged students to use the Internet to read the news or to obtain practical information (OECD, 2019[4]). More generally, disadvantaged individuals tend to use their smartphones more and perform less news and information activities on their devices, which may contribute to widening digital inequalities (Tsetsi and Rains, 2017[29]).

Digital divides not only separate the connected and the unconnected. They also reflect how children use digital tools and the quality of their digital experiences (UNICEF, 2017[33]). The literature points to three main categories of “digital divides” or inequalities:

  • The “first-level digital divide” – the gap between those who have Internet and device access and those who do not. Although this divide is decreasing, children still face barriers to material access, as well as access to the Internet (van Deursen and van Dijk, 2018[34]). Internet quality is also an issue in some countries, with many students lacking access to broadband of sufficient quality to follow digital lessons, especially evident during COVID-19 school closures.

  • The “second-level digital divide” – inequalities in skills and usage patterns (Hargittai, 2002[35]). Access to digital technologies does not ensure equality of opportunities, and children require adequate skills in order to make full use of digital opportunities and to protect themselves from risk.

  • The “third-level digital divide” refers to inequalities in offline outcomes (e.g. material or social benefits/outcomes). The inability to make use of digital opportunities may be magnifying existing offline inequalities (Hooft Graafland, 2018[36]).

Digital opportunities and risks go hand in hand. Efforts to maximise digital opportunities can also expose children to risks. However, efforts to limit risks and digital exposure can limit children’s opportunities (Livingstone et al., 2011[37]). Concerns over the increasing privacy risks and “datafication” of children are on the rise, requiring adequate legislative and policy responses (OECD, 2020[38]; Siibak, 2019[39]).

When something bad happens online, research shows that 41% of children tend to talk to their parents and 49% to their friends (Smahel et al., 2020[5]). Educating parents about the opportunities and risks of the digital world is thus crucial. Parental mediation strategies and support from family, friends and teachers (Helsper, 2017[40]) are key to building responsible citizens and promoting children’s digital resilience. However, the least knowledgeable parents are reported to be more prone to strongly restricting access to digital technologies (Chaudron, Di Gioia and Gemo, 2018[2]), which can limit children’s development of digital skills (Global Kids Online, 2019[41]).

Schools are also important actors in promoting children’s digital literacy and resilience. Children tend to be more aware of the risks associated with using digital technologies if schools integrate specific programmes on these topics in the curriculum (Chaudron, Di Gioia and Gemo, 2018[2]). Training teachers in digital risks and implications, and fostering a zero-tolerance approach to behaviours such as cyberbullying are other effective ways for schools to promote resilience (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[42]).

The increasing use of digital technologies and devices has raised questions about their impact on the health and development of children (OECD, 2019[47]). In particular, there are worries about screen time negatively affecting children’s physical health, influencing hours of sleep, engagement with physical activity and obesity. A review of the literature highlights the need to better investigate the links between technology use and child outcomes, by engaging in longitudinal studies and exploring how and why children use technology (Gottschalk, 2019[48]). It also suggests potential positive benefits that are often overlooked, for example: the accessible, often anonymous and peer-based features of the Internet might increase young people’s access to health and well-being information, encouraging help-seeking behaviours as well as receiving peer support and professional services (Swist, Collin and McCormack, 2015[49]).

Some key take-aways from the literature include (see (Gottschalk, 2019[48]) for a fuller overview):

  • Physical activity: A review of literature suggests that reducing screen time may not motivate adolescents and children to engage more in physical activity (Kardefelt-Winther, 2017[50]). Active video games and global phenomena such as Pokémon GO! have also shifted how children engage with digital tools, requiring a certain level of movement to participate. However, simply providing children with access to active video games is unlikely to provoke spontaneous engagement in more activity and may not provide a public health benefit (Baranowski et al., 2012[51]).

  • Sleep: excessive screen-time can affect sleep quality (Aston, 2018[52]) by delaying bedtimes, lengthening sleep onset (Cheung et al., 2017[53]), shortening sleeping hours and delaying melatonin secretion (a sleep-promoting hormone) (Higuchi et al., 2005[54]). Interactive screen time such as playing videogames is reported to be more harmful to sleep quality in comparison to passive screen time, such as watching television (Hale and Guan, 2015[55]). However, recent studies suggest that the real reduction in sleep time associated with digital engagement is small, maybe only a matter of a few minutes, underling the importance of studying contextual factors surrounding screen time and paediatric sleep (Przybylski, 2019[56]; Orben and Przybylski, 2020[57]).

  • Obesity: Over recent decades, extended screen time has also been linked to obesity in children (Subrahmanyam et al., 2000[58]). One way in which this might happen is through mindless eating while watching television (Bellissimo et al., 2007[59]). However, again the relationship is not clear and there are other important factors that might play a role, such as targeted advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages to children (Inchley et al., 2020[14]).

Despite the proliferation of research on this topic, there are still many unknowns. Currently, gaps in the research base include (see (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[42]) for a fuller review):

  • There is a paucity of research on young children.

  • There is restricted coverage of countries and contexts, with much research concentrated on higher-income English-speaking and/or European countries.

  • There is a heavy emphasis on risks of digital technology use, with not enough knowledge on digital opportunities.

  • There is a strong focus on certain risks (e.g. cyberbullying) while others remain relatively unstudied (e.g. cyber-bystanders, or children who witness cyberbullying).

  • Research lags behind the rate of technological development especially in terms of digital platforms used by children.

  • There is a heavy emphasis on self-report measures, which are difficult to rely on especially in terms of screen time.

  • Research regarding well-being tends to be weak, focusing on correlational results often using poor research methodologies, with few longitudinal studies.

The diversity in children’s experiences and of social, cultural and economic contexts make it complex to develop policy measures that provide children with the access, skills and knowledge to responsibly engage with the digital world. Generally, policies focus on improving the technological infrastructure and material access to the Internet for all children, while fostering digital skills development. The issue of affordability and quality of Internet access is high on the agenda, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic.

To allow children to fully exploit digital opportunities while being able to recognise and manage digital risks, successful policies should emphasise building children’s digital skills and resilience. Promoting the development of children’s digital skills requires a coordinated effort including providing hardware in schools, teacher training and professional development opportunities, as well as supporting the integration and implementation of digital tools in the curriculum (Hooft Graafland, 2018[36]). Successful policies need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable children, many of whom are still excluded from the digital world due to social and cultural barriers, unequal access and participation, higher-order skills and literacies and poor integration with information and services. It is essential to also ensure that the voices and views of children are always included in the debate (Livingstone and Third, 2017[60]; Hooft Graafland, 2018[36]).

The 21st Century Children Policy Questionnaire asked systems to identify the most pressing challenges they faced in their national or regional context. Burns and Gottschalk (2019[42]) provide an overview of those responses and the interactions between them (see Figure 3.1 for a recap). Cyberbullying was the challenge most consistently at the forefront of the policy agenda, with concerns around digital outcomes and emotional well-being highlighted.

Often, programmes targeting behaviours such as cyberbullying feature a digital citizenship component. For example, in 2012 Common Sense Media developed a media education programme for digital citizenship education, with foci on topics such as cyberbullying, copyright and privacy (Common Sense Media, 2012[61]). Digital citizenship education can be both a preventative and a reactive measure to digital behavioural issues.

Inequality and digital divides were also highlighted as key concerns, especially for large countries and those with large rural populations. It should be noted that this questionnaire was administered in 2018; as the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, large differences exist within and between OECD countries regarding provision and quality of broadband, although this is not reflected in these results.

It is important to keep in mind that children, despite being exposed to digital technologies for their entire life, need guidance on safe and responsible use (see also Chapter 9). It is essential that adults are adequately skilled and knowledgeable in the use of digital technologies in order to be able to effectively guide and support children. It of course remains essential to base policies and guidelines on robust, high quality evidence (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[42]).

Digital technologies are a reality in the lives of children in the 21st century, affecting the ways in which they learn, communicate, play and participate. Children are going online more often, for longer, at younger ages, with more devices and for different purposes. Despite the opportunities the Internet affords, there are accompanying risks and not all children can benefit equally from potential opportunities online. Despite the burgeoning body of research in this field, methodological issues, quality issues and difficulty discerning what outcomes are actually caused by children’s use of digital technologies remain contentious. There are a myriad of topics requiring more research to fill the knowledge gaps, and to determine (i) how to protect children effectively from emerging risks while encouraging them to take up all available opportunities and (ii) the relationship between technology use and children’s physical health and well-being, which will be further explored in this volume.

Policy makers are cognisant of these challenges, and many countries are facing obstacles regarding access, different digital risks and developing a generation of ethical digital users.


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