Maltese kids ‘strongly influenced’ by media sensationalism on online dangers

Instead of scaring children about online, problematic situations, parents must discuss online experiences with their children and teach them about what they might encounter and how to avoid them.

Maltese children, like their European peers, are strongly influenced by the sensationalist reporting of the media concerning online experiences, a report just published from the EU Kids Online project has found.

The qualitative study carried out in 2013 in nine European countries including Malta, consisted of 56 focus groups and 114 in-depth interviews.

The new cross-national study interviewed children from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom to explore what they see as potentially problematic while using the internet. And it reveals which risks children are aware of, why they perceive certain situations as negative and what they do to prevent or deal with them.

The report found significant age differences in the way children make sense of problematic online situations: younger children’s awareness reflected the perceptions of the media and parents, while older children draw more on personal experiences or those of their peers.

But for all children, awareness of risks that children are less likely to experience, especially “stranger-danger”, is more influenced by the sensationalist tone that figures heavily in some media representations.

The report also found that children’s perceptions of these problematic online situations differed from adults’. Children distinguished online bullying from other forms of online conflict and “drama”.

“All these online conflicts can be a negative experience, for bystanders as well as for victims,” the report says. “Sometimes children disengage, minimise the problems with online aggression, and believe that aggression ‘just happens’. Such actions cultivate a violent atmosphere online, normalising peer aggression.”

Quotes from children I was on one of those online games. And there’s a chat that allows you to speak with everyone else in the game. And I was speaking, I don’t remember what, I was a beginner and I asked different things and they offended me; and I told them to cut it out. And it got even worse, but I don’t understand why they got mad, for something silly. He said, ‘Just wait, I’ll find you and beat you up,’ and stuff like that (boy, 15–16, Romania)

Prof. Mary Anne Lauri, who was leading the Maltese team of researchers, said it was important to help children understand how “just teasing” can escalate into serious, harmful incidents.

“When children notice how online communication can make things worse, they should be motivated to take preventive measures to neutralise aggressive exchanges before they get out of hand.”

Friends and peers were also seen by children as central in preventing aggression and cyber bullying.

“The power of the peer group should be harnessed to tackle cyber bullying and other types of online victimization as children reported the usefulness of bystander support, instances of collective coping with online bullies, and peer intervention for mediating conflicts,” Prof. Lauri said.

Prof. Lauri, who led a team composed of Fr Joe Borg and Lorleen Farrugia, said that some parents were clearly less articulate about what is problematic for children online.

“This can be confusing for children. Meanwhile, parents who check up on their child's action online can create tensions and this is one reason why children sometimes do not confide in parents if they have a problem.”

Quotes from children Girl: Yes, my dad knows my Messenger and Facebook passwords. He sometimes checks to see if I’ve spoken with strangers after the cases they’ve heard of... Researcher: What cases? What do you mean? Girl: On the TV, someone killed a girl from Facebook and he checks every now and again. (girl, 12, Romania)

Prof. Lauri said that instead of prohibiting access to, or scaring children about online situations, parents might do better to discuss online experiences with their children – to explain why something is risky, be sensitive about (particularly to older) children’s desire for privacy, and teach them about range of online problematic situations they might encounter and how to avoid them.

“Given the variety of online problematic situations that children experience, it is necessary for them to receive a broader education about the online world. Such education might help children to better evaluate and deal with the greater variety of problematic online situations – also when they are out of parental sight and reach,” Prof. Lauri said.

If parents don’t feel equipped to do this, Besmartonline!, the national Safer Internet Centre, can help (http://www.besmartonline.org.mt).

DOWNLOAD THE REPORT

The full report, Meaning of online problematic situations for children. Results of qualitative cross-cultural investigation in nine European countries edited by David Smahel & Michelle F. Wright, can be accessed here

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