Children play it safe online

Young children are spending over 16 hours a week online without any adult supervision. But they are not trawling cyberspace to meet strangers. Instead most play games and communicate with friends

An increasing number of us spend more of our time online, but how long are our children spending on the internet? Kids Industries Digital surveyed 278 children aged between seven and 11, whose answers were verified as being true by their parents, to determine children’s online behaviour and attitudes towards the Net.

Children aged seven to 11 are spending a huge amount of time online. The results show this age group spends an average of two hours and five minutes online everyday. On average children spend one hour and 32 minutes on the internet on weekdays but the amount of time doubles by the weekend with children spending up to three hours and 12 minutes online on Saturdays.

The survey also shows that 23% of children under 11 are online for more than 16 hours a week. The sample can be divided into three types of internet users – light, medium and heavy. Light users (17%) spend less than eight hours a week online, the medium user group (60%) spends between eight and 16 hours a week online and the heavy users (23%) are online for more than 16 hours a week.

The internet may be perceived to be an excellent educational tool, but only 25% of children aged seven to 11 say they use it to help with schoolwork compared with 60% who use the Net to communicate with friends.

The survey also shows that children’s chief access to the internet is via a computer in the main “family room” in the house, yet 90% of children say they go online unsupervised.

Despite the lack of supervision and the fact they mostly use the Net for socialising, children say they do not go online to meet new people or talk to strangers. Perhaps the most surprising finding from the survey is the fact that 91% of children in the seven to nine age group are unsure about or do not like chatting with strangers online. Added to this is the fact that not a single girl in the same group says they like talking with strangers online.

Brands may be rushing to establish a presence in virtual worlds, such as Second Life or Sims, and social networking sites such as MySpace or Bebo, but children identify these sites as their least popular online pastimes. Less than half (47%) of those surveyed say they like using them.

The most popular online pastime is playing games (94%), followed by communicating with friends (78%). Communicating with friends via e-mail or messaging services is particularly popular among 11-year-old girls with 96% saying they do this online. Other activities that children enjoy participating in online include downloading music (75%) and watching films and television programmes via streamed content (61%).

The survey also reveals that only 25% of the sample uses the internet to “research” products they might buy. For children in this age group, word of mouth and communication in their peer groups, rather than linear advertising, is still how they make decisions about which products and brands are relevant to them.

The results of our survey show children’s online behaviour mimics playgrounds of the past – talking to real-life friends and socialising with familiar groups. Children of this age feel secure socialising in small familiar groups where they know everyone.

The results show that children are embracing the online world partly through the amount of time they spend on the internet and partly through what they’re doing on it, not least the shift towards e-mail and instant messaging as ways for them to communicate.

Today’s children are also listening to more music and watching more content via the internet rather than simply watching the TV. 

Gary Pope, director, and Matt Butterworth, founding partner, Kid Industries Digital, contributed to this Trends Digital Insight

Under 11-year-olds are nowhere near as social as teenage Beboers and MySpacers – they are not interested in exploring identity and dating. Nevertheless, this research exposes the growing pre-teen audience online, a phenomenon that has not escaped the attention of media owners and brands. The key has been to discover what this age group will engage with online – what are the drivers for children who are scared of sharing information and talking to strangers, but who love “playing in”, choosing online playgrounds over the “dangerous outdoors”.

We have worked with many companies looking to connect with pre-teens online. When we chart key motivators against age range, and then plot sites that are attracting children from six to 15, the area to note is those sites that combine gaming and social strategies. These are avatar-based games with some fun role-playing. It’s social gaming, where children can play as a character they adopt, customise and improve, but with little chat and no real-world relevance. We expect to see hundreds more of these surfacing in the next few months, either brand-sponsored or owned by big media houses. Pre-teen internet time will grow as more innovative ways of tapping into children’s imaginations (and parents’ pockets) are launched.

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