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Challenges and Opportunities in Researching Online Risks for Children

The Growing Up in the Digital Age Summit organised by Google offered valuable insights into the complex and evolving landscape of online safety for children. It is no news that the internet presents children with both immense opportunities for learning and connection, and also poses real risks. With technologies constantly evolving, it is imperative to understand these risks and develop effective solutions. 

One recurring theme throughout the summit emphasised the unique developmental needs of children. It highlighted the importance of embedded safeguards and strong regulations to protect children online. Balancing these measures, considering factors like cultural diversity and digital poverty, is crucial. Additionally, the principle of best interests of the child was extensively discussed. While this principle is embedded in laws across jurisdictions, understanding what truly serves a child’s best interests in the digital realm remains multifaceted. Consulting children themselves becomes imperative in gaining insights into their perspectives and needs, which is why research becomes a crucial cog in this complex system. 

As we reflect on the discussions and insights shared, it becomes evident that the field of social research, particularly concerning children and online safety, presents unique challenges. However, the insights it provides are vital for shaping effective solutions and fostering a safe and enriching online experience for young people.

Among the challenges, researchers in this space need to ensure they: 

  • Understand Nuance and Complexity: The online experience is diverse, with varying impacts on children depending on developmental stages, cultural backgrounds, locations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and access to resources. Research needs to capture these complexities, avoid simplistic narratives and acknowledge the complex interplay of factors contributing to online risks and opportunities.
  • Adopt a Global Perspective: The internet transcends borders, yet research often focuses on specific regions. Including perspectives from the Global South is crucial in order to recognise the unique challenges faced by children in the Global South, address the digital divide and enable a holistic understanding of the online experiences of all children.
  • Balance Protection and Empowerment: While safeguarding children is paramount, overprotective measures can hinder their ability to explore and learn. Research needs to inform interventions that foster both protection and empowerment. One way to ensure this is to have children by actively involved in the research and design processes. Research that acknowledges the agency and voice of children empowers them to contribute to solutions that directly impact their online experiences.
  • Address Evolving Technologies: The digital landscape is constantly changing, with new technologies like AI presenting both opportunities and potential risks. Research must adapt to stay ahead of the curve. As Bo Viktor Nylund (Director, Global Office of Research and Foresight – UNICEF Innocenti) said: “AI is not blind but perhaps it is needing glasses” and it is important for research to take this factor into consideration to ensure that AI is not posing new risks to children.

    Emily Cashman Kirstein (Google) and Bo Viktor Nylund, (UNICEF) during their Fireside Chat
  • Engage with the Methodological Complexity: Research methods need to effectively engage children in sensitive discussions while ensuring the validity and reliability of the findings. This involves navigating the challenges of abstract topics, language barriers, and ensuring children feel safe to share their experiences.
  • Foster Collaboration: A collaborative approach fosters a shared understanding of the issues and facilitates the development of comprehensive solutions. Building a collaborative ecosystem means involving researchers, industry leaders, policymakers, educators, and most importantly, children themselves. 

Despite these challenges, research offers invaluable insights and serves as a catalyst for positive change. It can have a significant role in: 

  • Evidence-based Decision Making: Research provides robust data and evidence to inform effective policy interventions, educational practices, and the development of responsible AI technologies.
  • Understanding the “Good” in the “Iffy”: Research can explore the positive aspects of online experiences alongside the potential risks, providing a more balanced perspective.

    Panel Discussion: Listen, Understand, Implement – How Research Can Shape Privacy-by-Design for and with Children
  • Promoting AI Literacy: Research can contribute to developing educational resources and fostering critical thinking skills in children to navigate AI-powered environments responsibly and ensure that AI systems are leveraged to augment one’s capabilities rather than automate processes without adequate engagement. 
  • Fostering a Culture of Safety: Research informs the development of robust safeguards and educational initiatives that equip children with the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking abilities necessary to navigate the online world safely and responsibly.
  • Emphasising Human Connection: Research can explore ways to leverage technology to promote compassion, empathy, and human connection, addressing the societal need for these qualities.
  • Empowering Parents: Parents want to do the right thing in a very confusing landscape. Research can inform the development of practical tools and resources to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to navigate online safety conversations with their children.

Research in this space is by no means easy. Yesterday’s summit helped to acknowledge these challenges, and at the same time emphasise how a multi-faceted collaboration between researchers and industry can create a safer and more enriching online environment for all children, their parents and educators. 


Lorleen Farrugia

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A1 Research is a company headquartered in Malta with reach in the UK and EU through a nework of Associated Consultants
OUR LOCATIONSWhere to find us?
A1 Location Malta
GET IN TOUCHA1 Research on Linkedin
Follow us on LinkedIn for a stream of online updates on our most recent projects