When "Toys" Mean More than Dolls and Kites

Parenting Options for Kids Surfing the Net

When "Toys" Mean More than Dolls and Kites

As our experience with the Internet grows, so does our knowledge about the opportunities as well as the drawbacks of the online world. This article examines the concerns that parents in America and Europe have with regard to their kids' online behaviors. As we'll find out, parents worry about very different things depending on what part of the world they come from. American parents are glomming on to content filtering software, while Europeans are much more interested in restricting the time their kids spend online.

As a result of the World Wide Web, people in a growing number of countries have virtually unbounded opportunity to publish and receive information of any sort if they have access to an Internet-enabled computer. This, to advocates of free expression, is fantastic. But even those--especially those who are parents--who do consider themselves liberal and for free speech have to review their philosophy when it comes to children's and teenagers' being allowed to participate unfettered in the wild world of the Web. Young people, for all the unique intelligence their stage in life provides them, are relatively easily influenced and are generally less likely to have as fully developed a stable set of judgement skills as their older counterparts have.

When they surf unrestricted, children can gain access to as great a range of materials as adults can on the Web. Some of these materials aren't meant for them, and some of them--to many people's chagrin--are, even though they shouldn't be. Children can view pornography, participate in chat rooms where offensive comments or dangerous invitations are made, play violent video games, and even learn how to make bombs if they are interested on the Web.

Including youth into the debate about the limits of unrestricted access to the Net can lead to a number of different parenting choices for those with kids living in the household. The following is a simplified detailing of what these include, ordered from the least amount of disciplinary involvement to the most amount.

It isn't up to us to decide which of these options is the "best"; they simply represent different ways of approaching the challenge of feeling comfortable with kids accessing the Web. Which approach is right for an individual child depends on his/her age, maturity, and family environment. What this article will focus on, however, are Ipsos-Reid's recent findings about which option different nationalities are choosing, based on our recently completed The Face of the Web: Youth study, which documents the prevalence of the Internet among international youth in 17 countries, as well as these young people's online propensities, behaviors, and attitudes.

Parenting Options re: Kids Surfing the Net

(1) Some parents simply trust in the mutual respect they have developed with their children, and have faith that their children will use good judgement when it comes to surfing the Web (i.e., avoiding those sites and situations that contradict the basic moral framework that has been established within the family). These parents take the view that the Internet is populated with much the same people and influences, good and bad, as exist in the real world. They take the position that it is more unrealistic to shield their offspring from potential dangers than it is to allow them exposure to these risks. Essentially, this is a "learn from your mistakes" type of approach.

(2) Others opt to make their children's use of the Internet just another area to exercise guidance and supervision. For example, parents spending time with children to ingrain NetSmarts, much as they would communicate StreetSmarts to deal with real-life dangers. Components of this approach might include parents' warning children against meeting in-person anyone they have "met" online; telling them not to disclose personal information online; letting them know that not everyone is necessarily who they claim to be online; and letting them know what information or sites they consider dangerous or offensive. Parents might choose to place the Internet in a busy, common room where they can keep an eye on what sites are being visited, and set time limits on how long their kids can be on the Internet to make sure they balance their time online with other activities

(3) The last bunch do not trust that they have the time or the hands-on effort required to monitor their kids' surfing behavior on the Net. As a replacement or supplement to personal parental involvement in youth Internet culture, they spring for the purchase of an Internet filterer such as NetNanny. This software installation, available for double-digit dollar figures, allows parents to impose settings that prevent children from accessing what they deem to be inappropriate content, and it includes a number of actions that result from the user's deliberate or unknowing access of restricted material (like blocking, shutting down, or restarting the computer). It can also block or mask the sending of personal details.

In The Face of the Web: Youth, Ipsos-Reid found that American youth are much more likely than youth in other countries to report that their parents install software like NetNanny on their home computers. One-in-five (19%) surveyed American youth (aged 12-24) with home Internet access said that their online activities are limited by this type of software. By contrast, only 4% of surveyed youth with home access in France, 3% of them in Italy and Sweden, and 2% of them in the Netherlands report that they are similarly curtailed by filtering software.

But software and site censorship isn't the only way of limiting kids' Internet activities. The amount of time (and the time of day/night) that online access occurs is of more concern to some parents than the nature of the sites visited by their children. What's interesting is that American youth are less likely than youth of most other countries to be hindered in terms of time allowed online. Again, one-in-five (19%) American youth with home Internet access report online time limits, but in this case, French, Italian, Swedish, and Dutch youth are far more likely to report the imposition of time limits (respectively, 28%, 24%, 37%, and 24%).

What does it all mean? All of the countries mentioned above are in advanced economic and social states. All of them have populations with good potential to gain access to a computer with the Internet. So why would American and European parents differ in their concerns about what their kids do on the Internet? Why would content censorship via software like NetNanny be more popular in the U.S. than in Europe? We can offer a number of possible reasons.

Possible Reasons for Americans' Greater Likelihood of Installing Filtering Software

(1) As in the case of movies and videos, the majority of sexual and violent material online originates in the States. As a result of being surrounded by a culture which simultaneously promotes and abhors this kind of content, parents in the States are more likely to (1) be exposed to the debate about what is or is not harmful to minors and (2) to have taken a stance on it. There is a strong puritan, fundamentalist core in America, and it permeates the whole culture in one fashion or another (whether in support or in backlash). Attempting to protect the innocence of children in this context is doubtlessly one reason that installations like NetNanny must seem like a godsend to some American parents.

(2) Second, America represents the most lucrative market for the computer industry in general, as so many of its citizens are connected to the Web, especially young citizens. Makers of filtering software have targeted North America first; many of these manufacturers, of course, also originate in this country.

(3) Third, and related, Americans are a ready-made market of ultimate consumers. The economic prosperity enjoyed by many Americans affects the consumer mind frame of the whole population. Parenting, according to this logic, has its own set of appropriate consumables, and programs like NetNanny is but one example of this. Being a parent, among other things, of course, makes one fall into a unique consumer segment.

And as for Europeans' greater emphasis on restricting time spent by kids online as opposed to the sites they visit, there are also some probable causes:

Possible Reasons for Europeans' Slower Uptake of Filtering Software, but Greater Emphasis on Time Restrictions

(1) Europeans are famous for their relaxed attitudes toward sex in general, and toward exposing their children to "adult" parts of life. Just think of the French tendency to allow children to sip wine at meals, whereas in the States, most children are told not to drink anything until they are past their teenaged years. It may be that this more relaxed attitude extends to Internet content as well; parents in Europe may be more likely to take the first parenting approach mentioned earlier ("learn from your mistakes.") If this is the case, filtering software would be a harder sell in Europe than in North America.

(2) Europeans have been slower to integrate the Internet into home life as comprehensively as North Americans. They are by no means unaware of the possibilities inherent in the Internet (for example, many European countries are advanced in terms of installing it in schools), but it hasn't attracted the hype that it has in North America. As opposed to being the "be-all-end-all" of information and communication, the Internet seems to be just one important element of learning and socializing in Europe. The latest Internet accessories, therefore, are slower to take off in Europe.

This is particularly true of Southern Europe, which is less sophisticated in the sense of access, integration, and Web savvy than Northern Europe.

(3) In keeping with this idea of balancing Internet culture with other parts of life, European parents are likely keeping a check on time spent by their kids online so as not to have them become totally immersed in Net play. Because of the greater online time limitations imposed on them, European children are probably more likely to spend more time on other play activities than are home-Internet-accessed American kids.

(4) Perhaps most important, Europeans have different cost infrastructures for access to the Internet than do North Americans. Flat fees are quite common in the U.S., and much harder to come by in most parts of Europe. Most Europeans don't simply pay to log on, they pay for the amount of time they are online. For that reason, they are far more sensitive to time considerations than are North Americans.

As the addictive "alternative reality" of the World Wide Web becomes increasingly a part of our lives, it is certain that more and more social transformations and dilemmas will result. Parenting in the age of the Internet is one fascinating example of this. That so many children are more Internet-literate than their parents are represents a real revolution in the tradition of authority and knowledge being passed down from elders to the young. Teenagers have always taken their youth as the time to assert independence, stretch limits, and rebel. It will be interesting to see how far they will push the boundaries in this new and exciting era, and to see what their parents will do as a result.

Marketing Implications

  • Manufacturers of Internet filterers--if they are interested in European markets-- should promote software features that restrict the amount of time per online session that the user can spend. At this stage of the Internet's evolution in Europe, content concerns register much less than time concerns among parents.
  • Content providers appealing to youth should pay due attention to reviewing their sites to make sure that they will in fact reach their intended markets by getting past filtering software blocks.
  • ISPs might do well to follow the AOL example and provide parents with filtering defaults for free. Many parents will choose an ISP that positions itself as caring for the welfare of their family. Offering filtering for free is one good way to demonstrate this thoughtfulness.

Kiley Turner Editor, Ipsos-Reid

Ipsos-Reid is a leading North American market and public opinion research firm with global capabilities in 80 countries and offices across the continent. This year, Ipsos-Reid conducted a study among thousands of young people aged 12 to 24 in 17 countries around the world: The Face of the Web: Youth. The following article shares some insight gained from some of the data of that study. For more information about The Face of the Web suite of studies or other Ipsos-Reid capabilities, please call:

Ed Morawski, Ipsos-Reid, New York (212-265-3200) or e-mail info@ipsos-reid.com.

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