Is the Pope a Catholic? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? Do
children spend hours on the internet? These might appear to be
statements of the obvious, but not all of them can be taken for granted.
Even in the fast-changing world of new media, the widespread assumption
about children’s interest in the net has the quality of ancient wisdom.
That assumption has been the basis of many marketing campaigns, websites
and sponsorships. But is it right?
A recent survey in Britain by NOP Family, for instance, showed that less
than half - just 44 per cent - of children aged between five and 15 have
access to the internet. The Government has pledged to connect every
school to the net, so the number will rise rapidly. But we’re nowhere
near 100 per cent coverage.
And what the figures don’t tell us is what ’access’ means. Does it mean
an hour or two at school - every week or so - or perhaps a few minutes
at home on the family computer? Or does it mean no time at all? Let’s
not forget, 100 per cent of children in that age range enjoy access to
public libraries and bookshops. Needless to say, a sizeable proportion
do not take advantage of this.
It’s not that children aren’t interested in the web, but perhaps that
their interest has been overstated along with much else to do with the
net. Almost all the research into this field has been carried out by
those who have a vested interest in ’proving’ the value of this new
And anyway, how many children of the late 90s would admit to a
researcher that they did not know how to use the net?
According to a study by RDS Open Mind, which conducts research into
children’s behaviour, they are not as obsessed as people might
think.Like the rest of us, once they realise what it’s all about, kids
are likely just to go straight to their favourite sites.
The truth is that most children still have to put up with using a
computer at school - and there’s precious little time for surfing cool
sites when you’re meant to be swotting up on your geography homework
with your teacher peering over your shoulder. This was borne out by
recent research conducted by Kidscope, Leo Burnett’s children’s research
unit. As many as 47 per cent of respondents said they used the internet
only at school. Just 28 per cent enjoy access at home as well.
Grown-ups have, mistakenly, assumed that the web represents the ultimate
in child cool. But when Kidscope asked what children most liked to do if
they had two hours of free time, both sexes expressed a clear preference
for going out with friends rather than playing on their computer.
Football, swimming and video games also did well.
Eight-year-old Rob Cawood sums up this attitude: ’I used to think the
internet was really cool. I really pestered my mum to get me a computer
when I was at little school but people don’t really think it’s cool now.
I’d much rather be out playing football or playing computer games; but
not on my computer, they’re better on PlayStation.’
Sasha Reynolds, 11, who has an internet-linked computer in her bedroom,
agrees: ’I spend all day inside at school. In my free time, I like to go
outside or go swimming. I do use the net to help with my homework, and
sometimes to find out about bands and presenters. But I never spend long
on it - it’s more fun looking at a magazine with my friends.’
But the key barrier to internet access is the expense. ’My dad would go
mad if I spent too long on the computer,’ reveals Sasha. ’It would show
up on the phone bill.’
A further barrier is that the internet is not user-friendly. How many
adults give up in frustration when a site takes ten minutes to
Children aren’t known for their patience. At the first sign of delay,
they’re likely to switch to the TV - which meets their needs
’Children have high expectation of the net,’ explains a spokesman for
BBC Online, which recently conducted research into children’s use of the
net, ’but it often falls short.’ And using the net is often a solitary
pursuit. ’Kids seek out companionship and are sociable by nature,’ he
adds. ’We’ve had feedback from focus groups that it’s still considered a
relatively geeky pastime.’
Barbie Clark, director of NOP Family, disagrees: ’To start with,
children thought others who used the net were nerds. But it’s completely
changed now. Children are so literate it’s amazing. They are teaching
their older siblings about the internet.’ Certainly the rise in
techno-literate children has much to do with the increasing climate of
fear which has seen parents afraid to let children out of their sight.
According to Clark, they are much more likely to buy them computers and
game consoles rather than let them play in the street.
Sixteen out of the top 20 children’s advertisers have websites. Sites
picked out by the industry for particular praise include Jaffa Cakes,
Tango and Nesquick. But are they wasting their time? Craig Hill, a
director at Foresight New Media, said in a recent issue of New Media
Age: ’People belittle kids and say they have a short attention span.
You’ve got to see them as a very demanding and aware audience. They want
a lot of interaction - if there’s nothing to do they get
The rush to reach children on the web hit new heights when the
Children’s Research Unit launched a survey last year aiming to challenge
Its Youth On Line Research project will involve 7,000 children aged
seven to 15. The survey will be conducted in schools and includes
questions about savings, spending and wish lists.
NOP predicts 100 per cent internet usage in the next two years. What is
too early to say is whether net-literate children of today will grow
into adults who spend hours on the internet - or whether, like most of
us after the first flush of enthusiasm, they will use it only with