SWITCH spoke to media psychologist Daniel Süss of the ZHAW about the SWITCH Junior Web Barometer's findings.
Abstract: These days, children play, listen to music and watch TV shows on the Internet. According to media psychologist Daniel Süss, this is because it is easier, more flexible and cheaper than using traditional media. Of course, children need help to get started on the Internet as well as recommendations for suitable sites. Whether or not they choose to read books depends on their role models and the exciting content recommended to them, not on the technical channels available to them. Facebook is now part of young people's day-to-day lives and, as such, is no longer thought of as particularly "cool". Media skills courses, reports and campaigns are having an effect in that the younger generation is protecting its data better than it used to. Another positive aspect is that many of today's parents are themselves "digital natives" and active on social media, but more needs to be done to raise their children's awareness of online threats, which varies a lot depending on their social background.
The SWITCH Junior Web Barometer shows that children and young people are using the Internet more and more and tend to use it for entertainment rather than homework and suchlike. Games, chat, music and video are the most popular types of content.
SWITCH: Mr Süss, where do you think the shifts are taking place as regards school students moving from conventional channels to the Internet?
Daniel Süss: We can see that Internet use is becoming more commonplace because the proportion of children and young people who are online every day is rising steadily. The time they spend on the Internet isn't increasing so fast. The share of heavy users – the ones who are online for more than four hours a day – is more or less constant, except for in the oldest age group. Youngsters increasingly go online briefly to communicate or be entertained, be it on public transport or during breaks at school. We're seeing a shift to some extent in the sources they use to access media. They're getting games, music, TV shows and films on the Internet because it's more flexible and cheaper than, say, CDs and DVDs. It's behavioural economics at work: where there's an alternative that's cheaper, faster and easier to access, they use it.
Would you conclude that they are favouring the Internet and perhaps reading less?
The types of content they're interested in remain relatively constant. That said, there does seem to be less reading of classic print formats, while picture and video-based communication is on the increase relative to text. Whether or not children choose to read books depends primarily on their role models and the exciting content recommended to them, not on the technical channels available to them.
Young Internet novices certainly need supervision.
Is this cause for concern? This is still a very young age.
Young Internet novices certainly need supervision. Families and schools must help them learn the skills they need to behave sensibly and stay safe online. Blocking access to specific websites is less important than recommending ones that are suitable for children. There has to be dialogue based on trust between children and the adults responsible for them so the children know how to avoid bad experiences and how to get help quickly, for example, if they feel they're being bullied online.
Instagram is the big winner among the platforms in use. The number of children and young people saying they have joined has roughly tripled. YouTube remains the most popular platform, while WhatsApp and iMessage have seen a fall in membership, albeit at a high level. Facebook has lost out in a big way, and MSN appears to have virtually faded into obscurity. This trend is clear from both the membership figures and the popularity rankings: YouTube is in first place, followed by Instagram, with WhatsApp in third place and iMessage in fourth. Facebook is down in sixth place.
What is your view on this trend?
We have to be quite careful when commenting on trends because the data underpinning this study aren't representative. It's fairly difficult put all of these platforms into a single league table because they perform very different functions. Certain functions can switch from one platform to another relatively quickly if a group of friends changes its communication habits. YouTube is popular for watching entertaining videos, but it's increasingly being used to find specialist information as well, for instance on school work topics. Instagram is heavily focused on communication through sharing pictures. The comments are shorter and more irreverent, often made up entirely of emoji pictograms. Here too, platforms that can be used more quickly, even just for a moment now and again, get more use than complex ones.
According to the SWITCH Junior Web Barometer, Facebook has lost out to YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp. Older students in particular are tending to see it as less fun. More than half of them actually said that Facebook has started to get on their nerves.
The JAMES study, by contrast, attested that Facebook remains as popular as ever. Can you explain this?
Facebook has definitely lost some of its novelty factor among young people, who no longer regard it as "cool". It's now part of their day-to-day lives, so it's not as new and exciting as it was in the early days. On average, they have more contacts on Facebook, as a result of which they get an growing flood of notifications about friends' posts. This can mean an increase in annoying or uninteresting content, including obvious or hidden advertising. Anyone who's been on Facebook a long time and given away a lot about themselves is also more likely to have a bad experience. Another reason could be that young people develop quickly in their teenage years. A Facebook profile started at 13 might not seem appropriate any more at 16 because they're at a completely different place in their lives. The Facebook timeline in particular can really get on their nerves. They live in the here and now, not in the past, which they might find embarrassing now. Someone who's trying to reinvent themselves will want not only only new content in their old profile, but also new digital spaces to express themselves.
The more personal details children and young people give away, the more likely it is that they will be victims of cyber-bullying, stalking or grooming.
Children and young people have become more careful with their personal details on social media. Nevertheless, many of them admit that their photos, real name and date of birth can be found on the sites they use.
Is that worrying?
The more personal details children and young people give away, the more likely it is that they will be victims of cyber-bullying, stalking or grooming. That said, photos and personal information are important ways to connect with people you know and like-minded people. The younger generation really have learned to protect their data better in recent years – girls more so than boys. Media skills courses, campaigns and reports in the media on the negative experiences of careless users have helped raise awareness.
Parents' influence on Internet use has increased, especially among young children. This is good news in view of the risks they are exposed to, which include bullying and sexting.
Can we assume that parents are teaching their children about these dangers?
Parents are genuinely taking their responsibility more seriously than they were a few years ago. Many of them – especially those who are digital natives – use the Internet a lot themselves and are active on social media, so they know the risks as well as the positive aspects, they are more comfortable talking about them, and they take a more balanced view.
Is that true in all social groups?
No, there isn't yet the same level of awareness across all backgrounds. This is precisely why schools and youth workers have to appeal to everyone. Topics have to be embedded in a broader context. It's hard to discuss sexting if any form of sex education is frowned upon, and most cyber-bullying is an extension of bullying that happens face to face, so we need to address the wider issues of violence, conflict and fairness.