Life Online: Canadian students are more connected, more mobile and more social than ever

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Thierry Plante, Media Education Specialist

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Matthew Johnson, Director of Education

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Andrea Tomkins, MediaSmarts Mom

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It goes without saying that eight years is a long time on the Internet. Between 2005, when MediaSmarts published Phase II of our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, and 2013, when we conducted the national student survey for Phase III, the Internet changed almost beyond recognition: online video, once slow and buggy, became one of the most popular activities on the Web, while social networking became nearly universal among both youth and adults. Young people’s online experiences have changed as well, so we surveyed 5,436 Canadian students in grades 4 through 11, in classrooms in every province and territory, to find out how. Our first report drawn from this survey, Life Online, focuses on what youth are doing online, what sites they’re going to and their attitudes towards online safety, household rules on Internet use and unplugging from digital technology. (Future reports based on this data will look at students’ habits, activities and attitudes towards: privacy, digital permanence, bullying, commercialization, offensive content, online relationships and digital literacy in the classroom and in the home.)

One finding that’s unlikely to be a surprise is that nearly all youth are going online. In fact, 99 percent of students surveyed have access to the Internet outside of school using a variety of devices. The biggest change since our last survey is the proliferation of mobile and portable devices, such as tablets, smartphones and MP3 players, which give youth constant – and often unsupervised – online access.

Not only are students getting connected, they’re staying connected: more than a third of students who own cell phones say they sleep with their phones in case they get calls or messages during the night. Students do try to balance their online and offline activities: nearly all say that they sometimes choose to go offline in order to spend more time with friends and family, go outside or play a game or sport, read a book or just enjoy some solitary quiet time. More worryingly, one in six students has gone offline in order to avoid someone who is harassing them.

What are Canadian youth doing when they’re online? For one thing, they’re looking for information – primarily about things like news, sports and entertainment, but also physical and mental health issues, relationship advice and sexuality. Two-thirds of students play online games, though the games they play differ significantly: boys in grades 4-6 choose Minecraft, a game in which players build virtual environments, while girls prefer virtual worlds such as Webkinz, Moshi Monsters and Poptropica, which contain chat and social networking features. Social networking is also a popular activity: while rates are highest for older students, a significant number of younger students – one-third in Grade 5 and almost half in Grade 6 – have a Facebook account, despite the site being closed to users under 13.

Another major change involves household rules regarding online activities. Although our 2012 focus groups with parents and youth showed parents were more concerned than ever about what youth were doing online, the average number of household rules has actually declined since 2005: for example, in the earlier survey two-thirds of students had a rule at home about meeting people whom they first met online, while only one-half now do.

Consistent with our previous research, household rules have a significant positive impact on what students do online, reducing risky behaviours such as posting their contact information, visiting gambling sites, seeking out online pornography and talking to strangers online. In general, though, the number of household rules takes a sharp dive after Grade 7 and at all ages girls are more likely to report having rules about their online activities than boys. The greater number of rules placed on girls may be based on a sense that girls are more vulnerable in general, but this may also relate to the fact that the Internet is a very different place for girls than for boys: girls are less likely to agree with the statement that “the Internet is a safe place for me” and more likely to agree that “I could be hurt if I talk to someone I don’t know online”. Despite these differences, both boys and girls feel confident in their ability to look after themselves, with nine out of ten agreeing with the statement “I know how to protect myself online”.

How often students say they have an adult or parent in the room with them while online has also changed since the 2005 survey, but surprisingly – especially considering the decline in household rules and the proliferation of mobile devices – this figure has risen. As with household rules, however, the rate is higher for girls. One in five Grade 4 students never has a parent or adult with them when they are online at home, and by Grade 8 – a time when students are most at risk of encountering and getting involved in trouble online – four out of ten students never go online with a parent or other adult in the room.

Students do see their parents as a valuable resource for learning about the Internet: nearly half of students say they have learned about issues such as cyberbullying, online safety and privacy management at home. As students get older, they’re less likely to report having learned about these issues from parents and more likely to learn from teachers. A worrying number of students haven’t learned about these topics from any source: more than half of students in grades 4-6 have not learned any strategies for authenticating online information either at home or at school.

Life Online has raised many issues that call for more in-depth study. However, the evidence is clear at this early stage that despite their confidence with digital tools – or perhaps because of it – Canadian youth, and particularly elementary-aged children, need instruction in digital literacy skills and parents and teachers need to be given tools and resources to help them provide that instruction.

Click here to read the full Life Online report: mediasmarts.ca/ycww.

Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online was made possible by financial contributions from Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and The Alberta Teachers’ Association. 

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