Young Canadians in a Wired World — Parents and Youth Focus Groups in Toronto and Montreal

Report - Young Canadians in a Wired World — Parents and Youth Focus Groups in Toronto and Montreal

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July 2000

By:

Environics Research Group Limited
33 Bloor Street East, Suite 900
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M4W 3H1
Telephone: 416-920-9010
Fax: 416-920-3299
http://www.environics.ca

Table of Contents


1.0 Background and Purpose

In March of 2000, Environics Research Group conducted a survey on behalf of Media Awareness Network. The survey was conducted among parents of children between the ages of 6 and 16 years. All of the survey participants in this first phase survey live in computer-equipped households.

Following the completion of the initial survey, further exploration requirements were identified. A second phase qualitative investigation on issues related to child safety on the Internet, conducted among parents and children, was completed in July 2000.

This report summarizes the findings of that qualitative research. The study was conducted among young people between the ages of 9 and 16 who have access to the Internet and who use it. Parents of children between 7 and 16 years of age were also recruited to participate in these exploratory discussions.

The purpose of this series of focus groups was to explore in greater detail some of the Phase One findings, and to explore and identify key issues that will be included in a follow-up survey to be conducted in the school system in the fall of 2000.

2.0 Research Approach

Eight focus groups were conducted among children aged 9 to 16 — four groups in Toronto and four in Montreal. In each group, participants were within six months of each other in age. Groups were organized by gender.

Four focus groups were also conducted among parents who have children between the ages of 7 and 16 living in their households. Some of these households have computers and Internet access at home. In other cases, parents reported that their children are users of the Internet, but there is no Internet access in their home.

In addition to the focus group discussion, young people participating in the study were provided with computers. They were encouraged to visit sites that they like to use and/or to explore new sites. Their site visits were observed, and the history of their on-line activity captured for review and analysis. (See Appendix for detailed method and lists of sites visited.)

3.0 Statement of Limitations

Qualitative research is, by its nature, exploratory. It is designed to gain an understanding of the range of opinions held about the topic area, not to determine the weight of those opinions among the general population. Therefore, the results of research of this type may be viewed as indicative, not projectable.

4.0 Executive Summary

Context

  • Although most parents would assert that they supervise their children's on-line activities properly, it seems clear that the perception of most young people (even those as young as 9) is that their use of the Internet is almost wholly unsupervised. This disparity in perception and experience arises in part because parents, lacking a full understanding of how their children see and use the Net, approach the supervision of Internet use much as they approach the supervision of their children's television viewing. Many parents believe that if they place the computer in a nearby room and "check up" on their child from time to time, they are providing meaningful supervision.
  • A progression in Internet usage can be observed across the age groups from youngest to oldest. Younger children use the Internet as an extension of their existing interests and hobbies, and as a connection to their existing "real world" friends and family. As time passes, however, they begin (usually between the ages of 11 and 13) to integrate into various self-chosen Internet communities (described as "clans" by one participant). The importance of chatting increases and the Internet becomes a way to meet new people and maintain relationships with those they have never met in "real life." While the oldest teens seem to use the Internet much as the youngest do — as an extension of existing interests and connection to existing friends — this does not mean that this understanding of the Internet as an "alternate universe" is a phase that passes. None of the participants in any group reported that they are using the Internet less than they had been, or that it was becoming a less important part of their lives. The differences observed in the mid-range kids can more likely be attributed to their earlier access to the technology.
  • Though overall knowledge of Internet safety is low, the message about viruses has reached users. Most users, even the youngest participants, are aware of what viruses are, how best to avoid them and the fact that software exists to help protect them. If this message has reached young computer users, it seems reasonable to expect that other Internet safety instruction can reach them as well.

Experience & Use

The Internet as a Tool

To parents, the Internet (as it is with computers in general) is often simply something one uses for work. Even those who use it in connection with hobbies tend to see it as a tool, using it for making volunteer work easier or as a way to explore family genealogy. Some parents, whose purpose in securing an Internet connection at home was primarily as an aid to schoolwork, lament that their children "play" too much on the Internet instead of working more. These parents see the "games" their children play as diversions or time wasters.

Older youth (aged 11 to 16) see the value of the Internet for school study, though this is not the major role of the Internet in their lives. There is also some recognition among the younger children that one can "use" the Internet as a source of information, both for use in school and for furthering hobbies and free time activities.

The Internet as a Toy

For the 9 to 10 year-olds, the Internet is a place where they can find games and information that relate to their day-to-day interests. For the most part, the Internet sites they visit are media-related. Their introduction to the Internet is through media, and Net use begins as a more interactive way to experience the various passive media they already know. Entering contests is an early means by which they learn that their actions on the Internet can affect the "other world."

Personal connections begin to form as those in the younger age segment discover chat rooms and message boards. The ability to choose where they go and with whom they will interact is often their first step toward identifying their own "communities" and perceiving the Internet as an "other world," an attitude which is more fully realized among the mid-range age cohort (11 to 14 years).

The older groups (15 to 16 years), however, also tend to view the Internet as both a tool and toy, rather than an integrated "place." While their interests have broadened, boys are more likely to look for cheat codes for PC games than for on-line games to play, while girls are likely to go to fashion and entertainment sites. Both boys and girls in this age group are inclined to treat the Internet as an extension of their interests.

Some parents have also realized the potential of the Internet as a toy. They use it to explore their own interests, play games or "travel on-line" Some parents reported taking a "virtual tour" of far away places where they have never been — the technological equivalent of astral projection.

The Internet: The Other World

For a small group of participants, mostly children in the 11 to 14 age range, the Internet is more than something one uses for work or for play. The Internet is a place where they go. They meet and make friends on-line. They join communities that exist on-line only. While this development grows from their initial attraction to the Internet (extending their interests and hobbies), the communities eventually take on an attraction of their own.

Many feel open to and comfortable with exploring ideas and on-line experiences that are outside their "real world" boundaries. The Internet is, for some, a way to "try out" alternate identities or even behaviour that is outside their normal pattern.

Ironically, the parents most likely to describe the Internet as "another world" are those who are using it the least. For them, there is a vague fear that the Internet is a whole other world, a world that is leaving them behind.

"Real World" — Loss of Autonomous Play

In Toronto, youth reported that their time is highly structured. Many parents seem to fear that there are "evil people" just around the corner and that if a child is left unaccompanied for even seconds, they could be in danger. As a result, some children in Toronto feel they are restricted in terms of independent play outside their homes. These children said that they often do not have the freedom or opportunity to meet with friends in a social environment where they can set their own rules or give vent to imagining. For some of these Internet-connected children, the only avenue for imitative play and unstructured, social "imagining" (as opposed to structured play based around games with clearly defined rules) is on the Internet and it is only there that their autonomy begins to develop.

To their credit, Toronto parents are very aware of techniques for "street-smarting" their kids and feel an obligation to teach their children how to handle themselves. However, they seem to be fundamentally unable to see the Internet as another world and do not connect street smarts with Net smarts.

Montreal parents are more likely to connect street smarts with Net smarts, but most do not seem to share their Toronto counterparts' fears about the safety of their neighbourhoods or the well-being of their children when they are out of their house playing with others. Many parents in Montreal reported that their children are not involved in parentally supervised, scheduled activities and further reported giving their children far more freedom during their spare time than was reported by parents in Toronto. Montreal kids are also much more likely to report using the Internet primarily in the evening or when the weather is too unpleasant to venture outside.

In the earlier quantitative phase of the study, 65 percent of parents reported that their children used the Internet for schoolwork. Sixty-six percent of parents also considered educational uses as the biggest benefit of being on the Internet for their children. Only 10 percent of parents listed e-mail or socializing, exposure to the world or meeting new people as the biggest benefit. Though they may not have used those terms, the identity exploration reported by some participants (particularly in the 11 to 14 age-range) is clearly a key benefit that the kids recognize but their parents overlook or don't understand.

Family Involvement

Location, Supervision and Control

It seems clear that most young people (even those as young as 9) use the Internet almost wholly unsupervised. Parents believe that they supervise their children, but the nature of the supervision they provide is similar to their approach to supervising television. Many parents believe that if they place the computer in a nearby room and "check up" on their child from time to time, they are providing meaningful supervision. Very few parents know what exactly their kids were doing on-line, other than to say that they play games or chat. Only a very few indicated any real concern or interest in the sorts of games or the nature of "chat" in which their kids are engaged.

Some parents restrict access by keeping the computer locked in a room or not giving their children the password required to log on; however, even these parents do not stay with their children while they are on-line. Controls and rules governing the use of the Internet are most often related to the parents' interest in keeping phone lines open, ensuring that schoolwork takes priority over play or keeping peace among multiple users.

Those parents who understand filters feel their children are either too young to visit inappropriate sites or are old enough to understand how filters work (better than their parents) and could easily defeat them. Those who do not understand filters (who also tend to be less familiar with the Internet in general) often long for software that would stop their children from visiting inappropriate sites.

Younger participants (aged 9 to 10 years) choose to visit commercial sites that restrict their searches to sites that the kids consider age appropriate. Many young people reported that they like to use such sites because it keeps them from having unwelcome surprises on-line. One youngster even suggested it would be better if there were two Internets — one for adults and one for kids.

Kids 15 to 16 years of age feel they should have unrestricted use of the Internet, free of parental blocks or controls. Most feel that, although their parents may not think they are ready for this freedom, there is in fact very little their parents can do to restrict them when they are on-line.

Most parents respect their children's on-line privacy, but some believe that setting rules and guidelines for their children's Internet use does not constitute an invasion of their children's privacy, but simply sets a framework within which their children can learn from their experiences and from their mistakes. Some parents feel that chat should be monitored closely and that checking Web page histories is an acceptable practice.

Other parents feel that their children deserve private e-mail that could not be monitored. Among parents who believe in educating their children about proper Internet use and trust them to know right from wrong, such "checking up" on children constitutes a betrayal of their children's trust.

Conversing and Sharing

Children aged 9 to 11 feel they can ask their parents for help if they find themselves accidentally arriving at a "bad site" on the Web. Most kids aged 12 and over feel they can get themselves out of any "bad site" they encounter on the Net and, since they believe they are more knowledgeable about the Web than their parents, rarely discuss Net issues with them. Some youth mentioned other adults from whom they seek Internet advice, some of whom they initially met on the Internet.

Parents are more likely to discuss the Internet with their kids if they themselves are more knowledgeable users.

Only a few parents reported going on-line with their kids. A few parents of children under 12 years of age reported playing games on-line with the kids, while only a couple of the parents of older children reported playing the on-line equivalent of TV game shows with their kids on-line.

A few parents and kids reported that, in their household, working on homework and doing research sometimes involves parent and child working together. Some of these parents reported that they "supervise" their kid's work on-line to make sure that it is being done "properly."

Privacy, Safety & Values

While children know that giving out private information to strangers is dangerous, their definition of "strangers" does not include corporations whose logos or brand names they recognize. As well, there is no single definition of what kind of information is private. Some will give out e-mail addresses, feeling that this is not identifying information. Others will give their e-mail addresses only in on-line environments that they perceive as "safe," where they feel this information cannot lead to a person finding their home. Phone numbers are considered too much information to give out, but for some children, the name of their city or neighbourhood, or even their postal code, are not considered to be identifying information.

Additional Issues of Concern about the Internet

Technology Issues

Most users, even the youngest participants, expressed concern about viruses. They are aware of viruses, the damage that they may cause, and how best to avoid them. They also know that there is software to help protect them. Other technology issues addressed by participants included hacking, connection speeds and slow download times.

Competencies

The Internet's reliance on typing can disadvantage some users. For young users, who fear that every mistyped URL may lead them to a "bad" site, this creates considerable concern, given their developing spelling skills. Even older teens find themselves unable to navigate the Internet successfully if their literacy skills are underdeveloped.

French youth seem adept at surfing in French and even use the Internet to help them learn English, while bilingual and multi-lingual youth navigate and chat in any language (or a mixture of those they know).

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