As is being widely discussed, in today’s fast-developing digital ecology, the nature of online risk is continually evolving, sometimes exposing children to emerging risks well before adults know how to mitigate them. This poses challenges to our understanding of children’s experience of different types of online risk and the factors that may exacerbate or mitigate any harmful consequences.
How we conceptualise online risk matters for the research we conduct, the regulation we call for, and the wider public discourse and initiatives that shape children’s life outcomes. Children’s relation to the digital environment is contested – are they victim or villain, or, in less inflammatory language, are they a recipient, a participant, an actor or a consumer of the digital ecology and its risks?
To debate the theories and concepts that underpin such questions we invited experts from different disciplines – Prof Julia Davidson (criminology), Dr Stephan Dreyer (law), Prof Elisabeth Staksrud (media and communication) and Prof Giuseppe Veltri (psychology). Exploring these different approaches can help us recognise and prioritise questions about how regulatory, technical, social or individual aspects of children’s digital lives affects risk exposure and any consequent harms. We asked our experts to talk about their definitions, models, theories, concepts, and debates and help us to clarify our tools to think with, the terms we use, and the assumptions, contextualization and priorities that underpin the different perspectives.
Children’s role in relation to online risk
Each speaker focused on their disciplinary approach to children’s online risk – the conceptualisations and factors that underpin risk both within and outside the digital domain.
A criminology perspective
Criminology has largely neglected children online. There are some notable exceptions but research has focused on specific harms to children, not risks, such as including children in the global sex trade (O’Connell Davidson), child sexual abuse (Salter), online and offline child sexual exploitation (Finkelhor; Martellozzo), and online harms from child sexual exploitation (Davidson). The focus has been on children as victims and perpetrators of various crimes but not on risks in the online environment. More recently, research has engaged with the issues of children and young people’s engagement in different cybercrimes, for example, exposure to online criminal networks and peer groups engaging in criminal behaviour, leading to recruitment for/participation in financial cybercrime, hacking or terrorism. There are two notable theoretical conceptual frameworks:
- Digital drift approach (Matza, 1965; Goldsmith & Brewer, 2014, Brewer et al., 2018, 2020): the approach suggests that the majority of us have deviant values but learn how to suppress them in the context of social norms. Some people drift between compliance and deviance throughout their life, justifying their behaviours by techniques of neutralization (e.g. denial of responsibility, victimhood, injury). In the digital environment, young people are at risk of getting involved in more serious criminal activities (e.g. hacking) by taking part in criminal interactions. These empower the individual, allowing them to control their involvement in networks and commit crimes autonomously.
- Youth pathways (Aiken et al., 2016): there is a combination of factors including drivers, motivations, and attitudes which by acting jointly can create a pathway to crime. Contributing facts include the absence of online authority figures, perceived anonymity, the opportunity for online disinhibition, peer endorsement, creation of alternative online social norms, absence of immediate disincentives and sanctions, seemingly victimless crimes, or thrill-seeking.
A legal perspective
Traditionally law has to ensure the mitigation of risk and the attribution of liability because risks are a threat to legal statuses and positions granted by law (including human rights of children). Mitigating risk and attributing liability regularly comes with limiting the rights and freedoms of others, for example, conflicting rights have to be balanced in the best way possible. From a legal perspective, states have obligations to ensure the unimpaired development of children‘s personality and situations that can impair this personal development are deemed a potential risk. Only a theoretical possibility of risk to a child is not sufficient from a legal perspective, risks need to be feasible. In situations when risks are deemed to be imminent and very likely to lead to danger for children, states can act more decisively based on how severe the harm will be. In addressing children’s online risks, there are three main challenges at present:
- Different legal reactions are possible: it is necessary to focus on preventive legal frameworks in interactive communication settings but the legal reactions can vary: protection of minors against harmful media content (e.g. prohibition and access hurdles); protection of minors as part of consumer protection (e.g. invalidity contracts); children-specific data protection (e.g. parental consent).
- New forms of risk with unclear effects: it is difficult to operationalise new risks in legal assessments. There are ethical hurdles in researching minors‘ (private/intimate) interactions, there are limited insights into the developmental effects of ubiquitous monitoring and profiling.
- Risks are dynamic: it is hard for the law to anticipate these dynamics, because of the interconnectedness of risks (e.g. content and contact risks can intersect), the fast escalation across different services, the development of one risk into another or even several risks at once, as well as the fact that risks can arise from children‘s own actions and the behaviour of others.
A media and communication perspective
Media and communication studies are like a magpie – they like to “steal” theoretical approaches from other disciplines, which makes them very multidisciplinary. However, at the heart of their theorisation is the focus on context and on seeing things in relation to each other. Attention to media is central but much of the interest is focused on its soundings or the context of digital technology.
In relation to risk, it is important to distinguish two aspects – the likelihood of risk and the level of harm and how these two aspects interact. The unlikely risks and those that are not harmful can be pushed back to allow our attention to focus on the most likely risks and those that can be particularly harmful. Such distinctions not only show the complexity of risks but also that not all risks are necessarily harmful to children.
It might sound controversial, but risks can also have a positive role for children – they can help build resilience and support child development. As not all children are alike, what might be harmful to one child might have a positive role for another. Therefore, it is important to include children’s views and experiences to assess what is harmful and what is beneficial, especially from a long-term perspective. It is problematic that the focus of public discourse is mostly on risk perception (moral panics) and not on actual risk assessment (what actual risk does). To add to the complexity, when we study risk it is mostly retrospectively, which creates a theoretical problem for our conceptualisation of risk. Hence, a risk framework needs to accommodate the context of digital technology use, to include the full complexity of risks, to allow for multidisciplinarity, and to create a shared terminology.
A psychology perspective
There are unfolding and emerging ways in which technology is designed to interact with children’s (as well as adults’) vulnerabilities and susceptibilities to risk (and, indeed, interest in risk) in ways that amplify those risks. From a psychological perspective, it is important to look at the cognitive elements that people use to navigate an increasingly complex digital environment. Traditional methods of enquiry struggle to capture the complicated interactions between users and the online environment – how we are presented information, how we make choices. There are challenges in four, sometimes overlapping, areas that pose difficulties to the way we reason: persuasive and manipulative choice architecture, false and misleading information, AI-assisted information architectures, and distracting environments.
Not only the effects of these areas on children are largely unknown, but it is also difficult to establish how effects from various segments work in a combination. Hence, new segmentation strategies are required to be able to identify vulnerable children and families and to address the complexity of individual needs through personalised strategies and tools.
Moving towards a multidisciplinary approach to online risk
To grasp the complex nature of the online risks to children, and to highlight the several distinct roles they may have to such risks, within CO:RE we have reviewed the ways in which risks are classified – by EU Kids Online, ITU, UNICEF, OECD, and others. After a lively consultation with Insafe and INHOPE, we learned how practical theory can be (with risk classifications useful for identifying the range and diversity of risks, making comparisons and capturing trends across risks and across time/contexts, systematically communicating results and priorities to both expert and lay audiences, and more).
We propose a new CO:RE classification revolving around the 4Cs of online risk – content, contact, conduct, and contract. The classification recognises that online risks arise when a child: engages with and/or is exposed to potentially harmful CONTENT; experiences and/or is targeted by potentially harmful CONTACT; witnesses, participates in and/or is a victim of potentially harmful CONDUCT; is party to and/or exploited by a potentially harmful CONTRACT. The 4Cs classification also distinguishes between aggressive, sexual and value risks, as this helps retain a balanced view of the range of risks that children can encounter. In addition to the 4Cs, and the many intersections among them, the new CO:RE classification recognises important cross-cutting risks, notably to children’s privacy, health and fair treatment. These risks, we suggest, can occur in relation to any and all of content, contact, conduct and contract risks.
Bringing the different approaches together, several thematic directions can be identified:
- Multidisciplinarity is necessary to help us understand the complex online environment, newly emerging risks, and how children experience them. No single discipline can provide a holistic view, but each approach can offer a different tool. Taken together these tools can create a framework to understand the effects on children’s wellbeing and the long-term implications of growing up in a digital age.
- Conceptually it is important to distinguish between risk severity and risk probability (as suggested by the risk management theory, Aven & Renn, 2009; Slovic, 2010) and consider the different possible combinations of (low/high) severity + (low/high) probability. Besides theoretical value, this distinction can also have practical implications. It can help identify the most significant areas of vulnerability for children and where legal, regulatory and child support efforts need to concentrate. It will help choose priorities in risk prevention and foster collaborations between different agendas.
- Attention to risks needs to be balanced with attention to online opportunities to avoid the boomerang effect where solutions in one area can create limitations in another. Thinking about both risks and opportunities can help conceptualise the full spectrum of children’s experiences in the online environment and avoid the danger of reducing risks at the expense of opportunities.
- Giving into moral panics might take our eyes off the real problem – harm. Moral panics creates heightened but often inaccurate risk perceptions producing laws and interventions that may not tackle the actual underlying problem. Public debates around risk perception influence parents and their approach to mediation, while children’s views on risk tend to be quite different based on their own experiences. Instead of focusing on risk perception, we need to learn more about the actual problems and their effects on children’s wellbeing.
- In some cases, the mechanisms to tackle online risks are more established – for example in relation to aspects such as risky content and contract. In other areas, such as “conduct” and “contact”, we require new approaches and interventions. We need a shift away from static protective regulation towards a more pro-active and preventative approach that also empowers children.
- It is important to start with a child-rights perspective and to take a broad view of rights that goes beyond legal definitions and incorporates ethical issues. The new EU strategy on the rights of the child recognises the need to create an online environment in which children can “safely navigate.. and harness its opportunities”. An in the light of the new General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, just published by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, our efforts need to focus on wellbeing, diversity, and reducing inequalities at a global level.
- Speaker presentations and biographies
- The 4Cs: Classifying Online Risk to Children (report)
- Content, contact, conduct and contract – updating the 4Cs of online risk (blog)
- Classifying known and emerging online risks for children: a child practitioners’ perspective (output from a consultation with Insafe and INHOPE)
Children online – theoretical perspectives
- CO:RE Theories Vlog Series: Understanding children’s online lives
- CO:RE Theories Blogs:
- Empowering young people in the digital world: digital skills, literacies and citizenship
- Children with disabilities in the digital environment: turning disadvantage into opportunity
- Understanding children online: Theories, concepts, debates
- Chasing rainbows: children’s well-being in a digital world (blog)
- CO:RE Theories Webinar: Digital technologies in the lives of children and young people
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Header image by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.