Convergent mobile media are increasingly popular among European children. However, up-to-date and comparable findings regarding the use of mobile media (especially smartphones and tablets), divides in usage and skills, the incidence and nature of risks and safety associated with mobile internet are still lacking. Net Children Go Mobile aims to provide robust and comparable data on children and mobile internet in Denmark, Italy, Romania and the UK, through a survey and a qualitative research.
Such a rapid adoption of convergent mobile media and the changes associated with mobile internet access at home, school and when out and about provide children with potential new opportunities, while at the same time exposing them to new risks.
As regards opportunities, mobile media may represent resources for overcoming the digital divide among children who do not have access to domestic broadband connectivity but their use may equally result in new divides, especially between children who are one-platform internet users and those able to access the internet from a variety of platforms and places.
Among those children who are already online, being able to access the internet anywhere, anytime and stay in ‘perpetual contact’ with peer groups by means of mobile devices may further expand specific opportunities associated with internet use, namely sociability, self-expression, learning, creativity and participation. The ‘ladder of opportunities’ identifies a progression from basic to more creative and participatory use, whereby the more children use the internet the wider array of opportunities they take up, and vice versa. But if in one scenario the increased connectivity afforded by mobile devices supports that progression, this is not inevitable and has to be examined empirically. In fact, previous research suggests that children tend to restrict their online practices on mobile media to a small set of mundane, primarily communication and entertainment activities (such as social networking and gaming), while neglecting the opportunities appreciated by adults, such as educational and participatory activities.
In principle the portability of mobile media enables more flexible practices of media consumption and communication, by diminishing time and space constraints. This can occur even within the domestic context, where the smartphone can become an ‘alternative’ to PC-based experience of the internet, as children no longer have to share computer access with other family members. However, we need to examine whether other constraints on the use of such devices remain, temporary or long-lasting, such as their cost, the availability of a 3G connection, the preference for using the domestic free wifi connection and that fear that expensive hand-held devices such as smartphones may be stolen or damaged if taken out into different public spaces, including schools.
At a more general level, it is the further privatisation of access and use of digital media, which mobile media foster, that potentially has the most relevant consequences. This is because mobile access implies the creation of different social conventions of freedom, privacy, sociability, and – not least – supervision by parents and adults.
From this perspective, the intensification in space and time of the practices related to computing, internet and social media use may extend the exposure to a range of online risks. One thing that seems fundamentally to have changed is the speed at which these risks may occur via mobile devices. In addition, smartphones and other handheld devices, may also pose new challenges in terms of risky experiences. For example, there are potential new risks associated with geo-positioning and near-field communication technologies that are able to locate one’s position in space, connect the user with content, services and other users located nearby and access contextual information. Those geo-location services offer more scope for the abuse of personal data, geo-location tracking and threats to privacy (be it for commercial goals or for grooming).
Lastly, and beyond current policy discussions of ‘risk’, the main novelty posed by smartphones is an even more compelling pressure towards the perpetual accessibility of children to peers, on the one hand, and the constant availability to them of a multimedia environment. This can lead to a potential conflict between the contexts in which children are physically co-present with others and their ‘telepresence’, involving immersion in digital activities (such as gaming) whereby children may isolate themselves from face-to-face interaction by being absorbed in the virtual world. This interaction with mobile media is also one of the on-going concerns of parents, and also a source of tension.
Drawing on these premises, the Net Children Go Mobile project investigates access and use, risks and opportunities of mobile internet in the European context.
The project is aimed at studying the post-desktop media ecology that children inhabit and its consequences on young people’s online experiences. More specifically, the project is articulated in the following objectives:
a) producing new, relevant, robust and comparable findings regarding the use of mobile internet and divides in usage, skills and participation, among children aged 9-16 in Denmark, Italy, Romania and the UK
b) providing robust and comparable data on the incidence and nature of online risks associated with accessing the internet by means of mobile devices, as compared to online risks more generally;
c) pointing out which children are particularly at risk and why, by examining vulnerability factors (at both individual and country levels)
d) evaluating children’s own coping responses to risk, including their media literacy
e) examining the motivations behind and effectiveness of parental mediation, teachers’ and youth workers’ mediation and awareness strategies
f) identifying and disseminating key recommendations relevant to the development of safety awareness initiatives in Europe.