It's a common joke in many families that the only person who knows how to programme the video recorder is the youngest in the house. Now that household technology has spread to the PC and the internet, it's not surprising that children are also the masters of the new-media domain.
According to research by NOP Family, children under 16 are one of the fastest-growing groups of internet users. The kids.net survey, conducted in June, shows that the number of seven- to 16-year-olds using the internet has reached a peak of four million - double the amount 18 months earlier.
The most rapid take-up is among the seven- to 11-year-olds logging on to the internet from home, which reflects the growing penetration of PCs into UK homes and the lowering cost of internet access. With the Government investing nearly pounds 2 billion in getting schools online, children are being exposed to the internet at every turn. Some schools are starting to teach Information and Communications Technology to pupils as young as five.
So what do children use the net for? Education and 'edutainment' sites are widely used but, for many, the net is primarily a social tool. E-mail and chatrooms are the most popular pastime, with more than half of the respondents to NOP's 1,000-sample survey saying they like using e-mail to chat with friends. Youngsters clearly love all forms of electronic communication, as the surge in popularity of mobile phone text messaging has shown. Steve Laitman, the chief executive of e-district.net, a community website with a large proportion of young users, says: 'E-mailing is as much of a cult activity to the under-12s as text messaging is to the older teens. An e-mail address is seen as a must-have accessory.'
Because of this trend, some of the most popular sites are those with chatrooms which can be used as a social portal. One such popular site for girls is www.swizzle.com, while www.yahooligans.com is also much visited.
A lot of children also use the net to interact with their favourite TV characters from programmes such as The Simpsons, South Park or Pokemon. Kellogg is cleverly using its website as a Pokemon portal, with links to Pokemon games and the chance to win prizes related to the hit cartoon show. This type of tie-in is a good example of the way in which some favourite children's brands are using the net to deliver valuable content in a non-threatening environment.
Both Kellogg and Disney have extensive interactive play areas on their sites.
The online popularity of characters such as Pokemon shows that today's children have a seamless view of the TV and the net. Lindsay Green, the research manager at McCann Junior, says: 'They see the net as just another medium. They're not wowed by it or give it an artificially elevated status like adults do. They just pick from it what they want and move on, like they do with TV and magazines.'
This view of the net compared with other media also means that children don't spend as much time online as you may think. According to NOP, they spend an average of 1.7 hours per week online at home and one hour a week at school. This is compared with an average 21.3 hours a week that is spent watching TV. Green says: 'In the future, we're not going to have a generation spending all their time online with no friends. They'll just absorb it into their lives.'
Scarily for parents' credit cards, children also seem more than ready to embrace e-commerce. Barbie Clarke, the director of NOP Family, says: 'Some parents let their children shop on the internet for them, because they don't understand it. We interviewed one nine-year-old girl whose mum regularly asks her to do the household Tesco's shop online. She frequently sneaks extra things into the order and always offers to unpack the bags so her mum never sees what she's bought.'
This tendency for some children to be the eyes of their parents on the internet is interesting for some brands that are not in the children's market at all. For example, Ford and GM are rumoured to be investigating how they can make their sites more attractive to children. This is because of a growing trend for technologically inept parents to ask their children to research car deals for them on the internet.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from how children use the net is that they take it for granted. They have a far deeper understanding of it than many older people and seamlessly fit it into their new-media lives.
INTERNET USE BY UK CHILDREN
- Four million seven- to 16-year-olds use the internet
- 68 per cent of secondary school pupils and 46 per cent of primary school children are online
- 53 per cent of users are boys, 47 per cent are girls
- 22 per cent of children who use the net have looked for something to buy, with music being the most popular item sought
- 50 per cent of seven- to 16-year-old web users would use it to look at details of their bank or savings account
- 63 per cent of children surf while online, compared with 37 per cent who go to their favourite site
Source: Kids net survey of 1,013 seven- to 16- year-olds. Conducted by NOP Family, June 2000
MY NEW-MEDIA LIFE: CHRIS PAVITT, 12
I live with my mum and little brother in North London. We've got a PC and a PlayStation in the front room and I've also got a TV in my room.
I use the internet a lot, but mainly at the weekend because my mum gets worried about how much it costs. I use it for a mixture of school work and entertainment and don't tend to surf around for the sake of it. I usually go to the sites that I know and like. My brother doesn't use it at all. He's only seven and doesn't know how to.
The internet is great for school work, especially www.britannica.com, where you can find information on everything. But you can't just take stuff off the web, because that's illegal. You're allowed to download pictures to use in homework, though. Other sites that are good for school stuff are the Science Museum (www.nmsi.ac.uk/science_museum) and the Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk). The best search engine for homework is www.37.com. When I want to look for entertainment, I use Yahoo!.
I've got my own e-mail address, but I hardly ever get any messages. We've got a family e-mail address too, but I'm the only one with my own. I actually prefer using the phone to e-mail - I find it easier to express myself.
For entertainment, the best site is the PlayStation one at, www.playstation.com. I'm also really into cheat sites, and so is everyone at school. They tell you how to cheat in games, so you can do things such as get more guns.
Once you've got the cheats, the games become really easy. As soon as there's a good new cheat, it spreads around school. It's cool if you can go into school and tell your friends about it and sometimes we trade them.
The best site is Cheat Index (www.cheatindex.com).
I occasionally buy things off the net, such as new PlayStation games, computer kit and books from www.jungle.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.bigsave.com - they are the best. Jungle is really good for buying PlayStation games before they come out in the UK.
My mum trusts me not to go to any rude sites. And I don't. We don't have one of those family filter things, but it wouldn't be much good anyway because I'm the one who'd have to install it. I know much more about computers than my mum does.
My mum's just got a WAP phone which is great. I love using it, but I'm only allowed ten minutes at the most because it's so expensive. She'd go mad if I used it when she wasn't around. There's actually not that much to look at - I'd rather use the internet.