When we published the Global Kids Online 11 country comparison report on online children’s experiences around the world, we hardly imagined that, just a few months later, those children with access to the internet would be relying on it so heavily for their information, education, entertainment, and connection with family and friends.

While there is much we do not yet know about how children’s lives are being impacted by COVID-19, we offer some thoughts based on a snapshot of Global Kids Online findings, read from the vantage point of these difficult times.

For those expecting children to learn online, especially if they are now missing school, remember that:

  • Access to the internet remains difficult – costly, unreliable, perhaps unsafe – for many children;

“If your network is low [poor]…. When the lights [power] are out … sometimes we don’t have money to bundle or go to café.” (Boy, 12–14 years, Ghana)

­“I wish that some of the programmes, like the learning programmes on the internet were free. ‘Cos some of us need it then don’t have data to download it.” (Girl, 14–17 years, South Africa)

  • Children are more likely to go online using a mobile phone than a desktop or laptop computer, and that boys have somewhat better access than do girls;
  • Though most children in our survey described themselves as having good information-seeking skills (e.g., saying, “I find it easy to choose the best keywords for online search”), fewer claimed good critical skills (e.g., “I find it easy to check if information online is true”).

Having the ability to verify the truthfulness of online information emerges as a critical skill for children during a pandemic. They may need more support from parents to distil the massive amounts of information circulating about COVID-19, though this is not an easy task for adults either.

For those providing creative resources online to stimulate and occupy children at home, it is important to target these especially at younger and poorer children, because:

  • While most children watch videos or play games, few have the skills and opportunity to do the civic, informational and creative activities online held out to be significant opportunities of the digital age;
  • Younger children’s online activities (in our survey, 9-12-year-olds) are generally more limited, and less participatory or creative, than those of teens;
  • Still, children are often enthusiastic about what the internet can offer.

“You can share videos and games. You can share music. You can also share pictures, ideas, games”. (Girl, 9–11 years, Ghana)

­“The five of us will play at the same time, I will invite them…. we play as an ally.” (Boy, 9–11 years, the Philippines)

“You can contact somebody who is far away over Skype or a video call.” (Girl, 13–14 years, Argentina)

For those worrying that time online is exposing children to online risks, try to keep the fears in proportion, for our findings show that:

  • Yes, the risks are real, but the statistics for the percentage of 9-17-year-olds who have encountered online risks in most countries are lower than often expected;

“Everyone started teasing and playing jokes on a boy. He ended up leaving the group.” (Boy, 13-14 years, Argentina)

“Someone posts a status and starts insulting people. As we all share friends, they all get involved and make things worse in their comments … they will insult you, dare you to fight them.” (Girl, 13–14 years, Montenegro)

­“I once experienced a stranger asking for ‘my price’ – meaning how much would it cost to perform a sexual activity.” (Boy, 16 years, the Philippines)

  • That the proportion of children who are upset as a result of such exposure is even lower, with some children gaining resilience by learning to cope with risk (though more vulnerable children certainly need protection and support).

“I was very scared … I saw a picture of a boy who was shot dead.” (Boy, 12–14 years, Ghana)

“I felt worried…. A man beat his wife…. Rape cases – it was about a man who raped a three-year-old girl.” (Girl, 12–14 years, Ghana)

“I was really upset when the guy sent me pornographic pictures.” (Girl, 12–14 years, Ghana)

For those parents who worry about the impact of more time online on their children’s mental health and well-being, here are some resources that may alleviate concerns:

For those expecting parents and caregivers to add to their daily tasks not only home-schooling but also managing children’s online experiences:

  • The findings suggest that when parents practice enabling mediation (encouraging, guiding, sharing), children gain greater digital skills and wider online opportunities;
  • By contrast, parents who take a more restrictive approach (limiting, banning, policing), perhaps influenced by now-outdated screen-time advice, have children with lower digital skills and fewer online opportunities.

Lots of organisations worldwide are seeking to support children and families facing the challenges of COVID-19. We end with some valuable resources and information in the hope that this is helpful:

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