Evidence on the extent of harms experienced by children as a result of online risks: implications for policy and research

The range of academic literature analysing the risks and opportunities of Internet use for children has grown substantially in the past decade, but there’s still surprisingly little empirical evidence on how perceived risks translate into actual harms. Image by Brad Flickinger

Child Internet safety is a topic that continues to gain a great deal of media coverage and policy attention. Recent UK policy initiatives such as Active Choice Plus in which major UK broadband providers agreed to provide household-level filtering options, or the industry-led Internet Matters portal, reflect a public concern with the potential risks and harms of children’s Internet use. At the same time, the range of academic literature analysing the risks and opportunities of Internet use for children has grown substantially in the past decade, in large part due to the extensive international studies funded by the European Commission as part of the excellent EU Kids Online network. Whilst this has greatly helped us understand how children behave online, there’s still surprisingly little empirical evidence on how perceived risks translate into actual harms. This is a problematic, first, because risks can only be identified if we understand what types of harms we wish to avoid, and second, because if we only undertake research on the nature or extent of risk, then it’s difficult to learn anything useful about who is harmed, and what this means for their lives.

Of course, the focus on risk rather than harm is understandable from an ethical and methodological perspective. It wouldn’t be ethical, for example, to conduct a trial in which one group of children was deliberately exposed to very violent or sexual content to observe whether any harms resulted. Similarly, surveys can ask respondents to self-report harms experienced online, perhaps through the lens of upsetting images or experiences. But again, there are ethical concerns about adding to children’s distress by questioning them extensively on difficult experiences, and in a survey context it’s also difficult to avoid imposing adult conceptions of ‘harm’ through the wording of the questions.

Despite these difficulties, there are many research projects that aim to measure and understand the relationship between various types of physical, emotional or psychological harm and activities online, albeit often outside the social sciences. With support from the OUP Fell Fund, I worked with colleagues Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova and Monica Bulger to review the extent of evidence available across these other disciplines. Looking at journal articles published between 1997 and 2012, we aimed to identify any empirical evidence detailing Internet-related harms experienced by children and adolescents and to gain a sense of the types of harm recorded, their severity and frequency.

Our findings demonstrate that there are many good studies out there which do address questions of harm, rather than just risk. The narrowly drawn search found 148 empirical studies which either clearly delineated evidence of very specific harms, or offered some evidence of less well-defined harms. Further, these studies offer rich insights into three broad types of harm: health-related (including harms relating to the exacerbation of eating disorders, self-harming behaviour and suicide attempts); sex-related (largely focused on studies of online solicitation and child abuse); and bullying-related (including the effects on mental health and behaviour). Such a range of coverage would come as no surprise to most researchers focusing on children’s Internet use—these are generally well-documented areas, albeit with the focus more normally on risk rather than harm. Perhaps more surprising was the absence in our search of evidence of harm in relation to privacy violations or economic well-being, both of which are increasingly discussed as significant concerns or risks for minors using the Internet. This gap might have been a factor of our search terms, of course, but given the policy relevance of both issues, more empirical study of not just risk but actual harm would seem to be merited in these areas.

Another important gap in the literature concerned the absence of literature demonstrating that severe harms often befall those without prior evidence of vulnerability or risky behaviour. For example, in relation to websites promoting self-harm or eating disorders, there is little evidence that young people previously unaffected by self-harm or eating disorders are influenced by these websites. This isn’t unexpected—other researchers have shown that harm more often befalls those who display riskier behaviour, but this is important to bear in mind when devising treatment or policy strategies for reducing such harms.

It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to determine the prevalence of harms. The best-documented cases are often those where medical, police or court records provide great depth of qualitative detail about individual suffering in cases of online grooming and abuse, eating disorders or self-harm. Yet these cases provide little insight into prevalence. And whilst survey research offers more sense of scale, we found substantial disparities in the levels of harm reported on some issues, with the prevalence of cyber-bullying, for example, varying from 9% to 72% across studies with similar age groups of children. It’s also clear that we quite simply need much more research and policy attention on certain issues. The studies relating to the online grooming of children and production of abuse images are an excellent example of how a broad research base can make an important contribution to our understanding of online risks and harms. Here, journal articles offered a remarkably rich understanding, drawing on data from police reports, court records or clinical files as well as surveys and interviews with victims, perpetrators and carers. There would be real benefits to taking a similarly thorough approach to the study of users of pro-eating disorder, self-harm and pro-suicide websites.

Our review flagged up some important lessons for policy-makers. First, whilst we (justifiably) devote a wealth of resources to the small proportion of children experiencing severe harms as a result of online experiences, the number of those experiencing more minor harms such as those caused by online bullying is likely much higher and may thus deserve more attention than currently received. Second, the diversity of topics discussed and types of harm identified seems to suggest that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work when it comes to online protection of minors. Simply banning or filtering all potentially harmful websites, pages or groups might be more damaging than useful if it drives users to less public means of communicating. Further, whilst some content such as child sexual abuse images are clearly illegal and generate great harms, other content and sites is less easy to condemn if the balance between perpetuating harmful behavior and provide valued peer support is hard to call. It should also be remembered that the need to protect young people from online harms must always be balanced against the need to protect their rights (and opportunities) to freely express themselves and seek information online.

Finally, this study makes an important contribution to public debates about child online safety by reminding us that risk and harm are not equivalent and should not be conflated. More children and young people are exposed to online risks than are actually harmed as a result and our policy responses should reflect this. In this context, the need to protect minors from online harms must always be balanced against their rights and opportunities to freely express themselves and seek information online.

A more detailed account of our findings can be found in this Information, Communication and Society journal article: Evidence on the extent of harms experienced by children as a result of online risks: implications for policy and research. If you can’t access this, please e-mail me for a copy.

Victoria Nash is a Policy and Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), responsible for connecting OII research with policy and practice. Her own particular research interests draw on her background as a political theorist, and concern the theoretical and practical application of fundamental liberal values in the Internet era. Recent projects have included efforts to map the legal and regulatory trends shaping freedom of expression online for UNESCO, analysis of age verification as a tool to protect and empower children online, and the role of information and Internet access in the development of moral autonomy.