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Kids OnlineReview - Kids Online
Opportunities and Risks for Children
by Sonia M. Livingstone and Leslie Haddon (Editors)
Policy Press, 2009
Review by David Jank
Apr 13th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 15)

One of the more striking components of Livingstone and Haddon's compendium of essays, Kids Online, is its front cover. The reader is greeted by a brightly colored photo of a young girl, perhaps five or six years old, transfixed by an open laptop in front of her which appears to be at least half her size. Her arms are outstretched, the fingers of her hand spread apart, and her mouth is wide open in a joyous smile. An expression of utter amazement permeates her face, as if she had just been awarded a life's supply of free ice cream. Thus begins a rather conflicted collection of scholarly essays, the theme of which appears torn between attitudes of indulgence and dismay over the increasing presence of children in the online world of the Internet.

From the outset, the prospective reader should understand that the text's focus is European. Consequently, many of the phenomena, observations, and commentaries are directed toward that population, and are grounded primarily in the research findings generated by the EU Kids Online project. Further, all writers contributing to the volume consistently utilize the term "internet" (technically, a verb transitive root) as opposed to "Internet" (a proper noun that refers to the network backbone of the World Wide Web). This practice may prove mildly annoying to those readers who have studied the development of both the Internet and the Web itself, as well as to followers of the Internet Society Project and the InterNIC (the international Web domain governing body), as each eschews the lower case. It is possible, however, to get used to this convention when reading the essays in this monograph. On the other hand, this practice also offers fodder to the skeptical inquirer who takes exception to many of the claims presented in this work. All of this being said, though, the work itself merits reading for two reasons. First, it is difficult to find scholarly writing geared toward meta-social views of Internet use by children. Second, too much scholarship dealing with this issue is United States centric, and scholars do not have extensive empirical data regarding "kids online" in other Western countries. In this respect, Livingstone and Haddon's edited volume could be considered valuable for research collections claiming an interest in social phenomena relating to Internet use on a more global scale.

The essays in this volume are grouped into four categories (researching European children, new opportunities for children going online, new risks facing children going online, and policy implications). Although the editors do not explicitly state why these groupings are used, there is noteworthy commentary as to the empirical data indicating their importance. It would be helpful to the reader if each section were to begin with a brief introductory essay as to why it is structured as such in the volume. Fortunately, there are meaningful mini-biographies of all 45 contributors included in the forward of the book. Unfortunately, almost all of these contributors are from the same walks of life, primarily child psychologists and media studies scholars, and virtually all are academics. What seems to be lacking throughout the volume is scholarship by experts in social computing, Internet studies, law, or psychology, any of which would provide a more exhaustive examination of the topics supposedly of interest to the work.

What the scholars here bring to this volume, however, is a notable body of empirical data that should be of much use to any researcher interested in the phenomenon of children's use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Throughout the volume, the reader is greeted by tables and charts that all seem grounded in valuable empirical study. Among these offerings are purely descriptive data (such as the number of studies being published today on European children's Internet use, numbers of European children thought to be "regular" users of the Internet, and breakdowns of parent-child partnering during Web surfing). Other presentations of statistical data include regression analyses of levels of parental mediation of children's Web surfing, correlations between Internet access in European schools and at-home usage of the Internet in European countries, and curvilinear representations of levels of Internet access restriction as a function of Internet use by children. Other topics in this wealth of empirical data include subject breakdown of children's interests when surfing the Web, and demographic breakdowns such as age and gender.

The volume also offers interesting discussion of many commercially available pieces of software that are frequently used for qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing this topical data by research firms and organizations prominent in these areas throughout Europe, as well as useful profile information of these firms and organizations. What makes this collection of essays particularly valuable to the researcher and scholar is the granular level of data provided on a country by country basis. Typical market research firms (such as Forrester or Euromonitor) rarely provide this level of detail, and generally charge substantial fees for access when they do. Livingstone and Haddon, however, provide the reader these data for nothing more than the standard price of a trade paperback. The editors should be commended for their ability to aggregate within this volume a fair amount of information regarding research bodies in Europe that specialize in studying the kids online phenomenon; however, it is not clear from the title of this volume that this is even what the reader should expect to find. It would have been helpful to either single out this material within its own chapter, or at least to augment the content of the work with additional material specifically focusing on the content topic implied by the monograph's title.

As for the scholars' contributions to this volume, each chapter is wonderfully accessible in its measured use of jargon and statistical data. Every chapter is highly readable, and given that all contributors here are professional academics, they should be commended for their ability to address the lay reader to whom much of this work appears to be directed. This writing style, however, does seem to invite some rather broad strokes and claims that, while most likely not inaccurate ("all human life is now online," or "everyone's greatest fear is sexual predators") certainly should not be utilized in scholarly writing without some attempt to ground them. On the other hand, there are chapters where this technique works. For example, almost all contributors in this volume address the importance of ethnographic approaches to the study of children's Internet use, and these views today are generally supported in the literature.

In this respect, Lobe, et al's, chapter on methodological approaches to research with children constitutes an excellent, though sadly too brief, primer for the novice researcher engaged in studying the social activities of minors for the first time. On the other hand, Staksrud's chapter examining problematic conduct on the Internet seems obsessed with "juvenile delinquency." Though certainly an important topic, it is surprising that there is no discussion of less criminal, though just as problematic, conduct. There is no mention of copyright and plagiarism abuse, downloading of videos or music, identity theft, or even excessively violent gaming. Wold et al.'s chapter on inappropriate content addresses important issues such as race, stereotyping, and pornography, but is given only a scant half dozen pages. Fortunately, their discussion includes useful documentation of the extent of child pornography on the Internet. Tsatsou et. al. offer a fresher view of the digital divide than is sometimes provided in similar essays. Rather than focus exclusively on socioeconomic breakdowns, the generational divide of parent-child differentials of access to the Internet is highlighted and documented, which is a valuable contribution to the literature.

It is a little unclear as to why there are so many chapters dedicated to children and the Internet "in the news." Although many of these provide interesting tidbits and statistical pieces of knowledge reflecting what has been published in prominent newspapers about children's online activities, it seems something of an excessive use of space considering all of the topics that are not addressed in the volume. Paus-Hasebrink et al. rise to the occasion in this regard, however, in their somewhat detailed discussion of information and communications technologies (ICT) and their role in the Web-based classroom. Statistical data collected from various European media outlets are clearly discussed, and should be useful to scholars engaged in the study of educational technology and school libraries in the United States.

Each essay chapter in this work includes a relatively hefty bibliography and list of references cited within each essay. This should prove useful to the serious researcher or scholar determined to explore this monograph thoroughly. In retrospect, consideration of the content of these essays and the sources from which they present their secondary data for discussion suggests that rather than providing a discussion of the social world of children when exploring the Internet, Livingstone and Haddon are actually providing us with a monograph focusing on how this phenomenon is often studied. In essence, the editors have brought together a group of intelligently written essays from scholars who are tangentially interested in this topic. Together, these writings constitute something of a virtual scholarly panel discussion of what some people somewhere are saying about "kids online" in Europe. While useful in and of itself as a unique addition to the scholarship of children and Internet use, it is far from substantive.

Upon completing this volume, the reader is forced to wonder (almost aloud) where is the rest of it? This collection of essays would have benefited from the inclusion of scholarship addressing important related topics. Among these might have been discussions of children's Internet use specifically within the classroom, data presentations on educational impacts of Internet use, and at least some mention of interactive learning environments for kids online (such as tutoring, home learning, and library or museum access). There is also no coverage of Web-based publishing or online multimedia distribution with which scholars claim Internet-active children are obsessed. Similarly, the volume is seriously lacking in any  substantive acknowledgment of social computing phenomena among children. While there is limited discussion of kids using the Web for social interaction, there is no data presented addressing such prominent themes as chat rooms, "Yahoo! Kids" and similar online social groups, Web 2.0 activity, or second life presence of children online. Finally, it is lamentable that the volume includes no scholarship on the quite salient topics of cyberpsychology or Internet addiction among children.

To be fair, Livingstone and Haddon do not claim to attempt exhaustive inclusion of anything in their collection of essays, other than those topics investigated in the EU Kids Online project. Further, the book's subtitle, "Opportunities and Risks for Children," does not necessarily suggest that anything other than "opportunities" or "risks" will be discussed. On the other hand, few topics might attract persons interested in the issue of kids and the Web more than the book's very title and its attention-grabbing cover photo. The introductory essay, authored by the editors, reads well for both the initiated and uninitiated reader who seeks to learn more about what research on children and Internet use can tell us. That the editors are choosing to tell us much less than their work's title suggests they will is more disappointing than it is misleading. This collection of writings meets a real need in the published scholarship on kids and the Web. It is just unfortunate that it offers so little, and that the void it tries to fill remains as wide as ever.

 

© 2010 David Jank

 

David Jank, Ph.D., Dowling College


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716