CO:RE Blog

Authors: Sonia Livingstone & Mariya Stoilova – CO:RE WP5 – Theories

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” This famous quote by social psychologist Kurt Lewin challenges the idea that theories and concepts are less useful than empirical findings.  A review of the outcomes of EU Kids Online, whose research now informs CO:RE, revealed that even more cited than the results of its 2010 pan-European survey of 25000 children, the first of its kind, was its 3 Cs classification of online risks.

The 3Cs – of content, contact and conduct risks – were originally developed to answer obvious yet puzzling questions such as – “what online risks are we talking about?” and “why should policymakers take action, what’s the problem?” The idea was to disaggregate specific risks, with their different causes and consequences, and to broaden the public agenda beyond the then predominant focus on pornography, grooming and cyberbullying (all of which are important but so are other risks).

When Uwe Hasebrink, who leads CO:RE, recently quoted Lewin, he went on to explain the importance of the:

“Constant cycle between theoretical reflection, empirical observations, testing empirical observations, considering implications for policy and practice, and back to theory again.”


When we came to update the 3Cs, for our work on CO:RE theory, we could build on a lot of empirical observation, testing and reflection – including with another pan-European survey of children’s online experiences released for Safer Internet Day 2020. This told us that some new risks are emerging and that there are some problems with the 3Cs.

So, to revisit the classification with an open mind, and to benefit from the practical insights of European child safety professionals who manage awareness-raising campaigns, law enforcement interventions, helplines and more, in November 2020 we joined a training meeting  of Insafe and INHOPE. We asked them:

  1. To identify familiar and emerging online risks affecting children across Europe and consider whether these are common or specific to different countries
  2. To consider whether classifications of online risk are useful and what purpose they might serve, as well as the strengths and shortcomings of available classifications.

In terms of practice, they told us that risk classifications are useful for:

  • Identifying the range and diversity of risks, including emerging risks.
  • Making comparisons and capturing trends across risks and across time/contexts.
  • Systematically communicating results and priorities to both expert and lay audiences.
  • Highlighting the need for resources, budget and training.
  • Classifying the types of risks reported via input from helplines and complaints mechanisms.
  • Targeting planning, interventions and awareness-raising campaigns.
  • Mapping evidence to risk categories and identifying evidence gaps.

In terms of theory, that called for a fourth C: contract. And they deliberated over the idea of cross-cutting risks. After reflecting on this, we went back to the drawing board, recalling also what we had learned from empirical research, and from feedback from policy makers over the years. We agree with the idea of 4Cs, and while we love how the original scheme prioritised children’s agency, reluctantly we also now recognise the power of the digital environment, and the businesses who design and promote it, to impact on children in ways that are often beyond their control. So we propose a redefinition of the 4Cs, to recognise how children:

  • engage with and/or are exposed to CONTENT;
  • experience and/or are targeted by CONTACT;
  • participates in and/or are victims of CONDUCT;
  • are party to and/or exploited by CONTRACT.

Putting this together with the original distinction between aggressive, sexual and value domains of risk, and the cross-cutting risks that now influence children’s outcomes and well-being, we offer this revised classification:

Updating the 4Cs of online risk.
Updating the 4Cs of online risk.

We’re posting this blog for Safer Internet Day 2021, whose theme is “Together for a better internet.” We welcome feedback and thoughts (send to m.stoilova[at] – and we will publish a final version in a CO:RE report soon.

Understanding online risks is vital if stakeholders are to work together for a better internet. But so too is understanding online opportunities. The ways in which children engage with content, experience contact, participate in conduct and are party to contract online are also worth exploring further. Since we have long known that risks and opportunities go hand in hand, we will explore this next.

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Header image by Mary Taylor on Pexels.

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