24 December 2013

Our children live in a digital world. Items such as smartphones, tablets, lap tops and even smart televisions are now everyday household items, sometimes in multiples. It is a far cry from a home 50 years ago that may have been lucky enough to house one black and white television and a radio.

Our children are also actively using the internet, and on a regular basis. The Australian Bureau of Statistics* found that for the cohort of children aged 5–8 years access to the internet increased from just under 40% in 2006 to 60% three years later in 2009. The same report found that for children (5–14 years) accessing the internet at home in April 2009 that the most common activities were educational activities—at 85%—and playing online games—at 69%.

It is these sorts of statistics and the simple fact that applications are now being developed for children as young as nine-months-old that has promoted a new research project looking into digital play, social networks and the well-being of young children.

Dr Donell Holloway, from Edith Cowan University, was recently awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), to explore this subject.

Primary school aged children are increasingly engaging in virtual worlds with social network functions, and while these spaces carry opportunities they also carry risks.

Dr Holloway said that a large amount of research had been undertaken on teenage internet use, but there was only limited research on primary aged children and home internet usage.

Her project will map the benefits, risks and competencies associated with these usage trends—through physical and virtual interviews—and develop recommendations for parents and policy makers.

Dr Holloway pointed to recent popular virtual games such as Minecraft, Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin which have social networks embedded in them.

"In contrast to children's real world play and social life, which is watched from a distance by parents and teachers who can help if things go wrong, online play is largely unsupervised. There is often no way for adults to  know if play becomes unsafe or hurtful.

"And we know from previous research that the younger a child is the less likely he or she is able to negotiate social network sites in safe and beneficial ways.

"This project will provide a better understanding of the  dimensions of risk and harm for Australian children using these sites. The research will also identify the social and digital skills and competencies children need to engage in social network activities in positive and beneficial ways.

"This, in turn, will help support Australian children's digital literacy and digital social skills, and the outcomes of the research will inform policy makers, educators and parents," Dr Holloway said.

A total of $75.7 million for 200 new research projects under the DECRA scheme was announced by the Minister for Education, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, on 8 November 2013.

For more information about these funding outcomes please visit the ARC website or view the media announcement kit.

* 1370.0 - Measures of Australia's Progress, 2010 CHILDREN AND THE INTERNET


Image: Word map. Image courtesy: Dr Donell Holloway