“Your precious children are unprotected online!” says internet security company

Do YOU know what your child is up to online? Nearly half of 10-year-olds say they have the technical skills to hide their activity
– One in four admitted to logging on at a friend’s house to get around rules
– Some 10% said they had never spoken with a parent about online safety
– Alarming numbers of children have been able to access online content containing violence, bad language and pornography

A worrying 42 per cent of ten-year-olds believe they have the technical skills to hide what they’re doing online from their parents, according to new research.

One in four (27 per cent) admitted to logging on at a friend’s house to get around rules set by their parents.

What’s more, an alarming 10 per cent said that they had never spoken with a parent about their online activity.

Source: Daily Mail, 6th October 2016


Scary news from the Daily Mail here, highlighting how so many children believe they have the skills to evade detection online, and an alarming number of children said they have never had a conversation about online activity. A terrifying story for any parent, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one which doubtlessly has some parents looking for ways to protect their child online… such as turning to the internet security experts who paid to have this story created:

According to the survey carried out by security firm Kaspersky Lab, 42 per cent of children as young as ten have been exposed to bad language online, while 28 per cent had seen something violent.

In case there is any doubt about the direction of this story, and the scaremongering “your kids are unprotected and you should be worried!” tone, the quote from Kaspersky confirms it:

‘As the first truly digital native generation, it’s frighteningly easy for children today to find their way into the dark corners of the internet or be exposed to content way beyond their years,’ said David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.

Let’s first take the data at face value: “nearly half of 10 year olds” can evade detection online, says the headline. Yet when we look at the details of the story:

The survey was carried out on behalf of Kapersky with 1,000 children aged between ten and fifteen over a period of 10 days in July 2016.

So, is it really 42% of ten year olds, or is it 42% of children as young as ten from a survey which interviewed children between ten and fifteen? From reading the breakdown in the story, the 42% doesn’t just refer to the ten year olds, but the overall 1,000 children – children that Kaspersky were able to find and interview within a fortnight, but we’ll come to the issues with the data gathering in a moment. For now we’ll stick to analysing the ‘findings’.

The survey also found that 42% of the 1,000 children had accessed material including bad language. Assuming that all six years in the age range were represented evenly, those 42% could be the oldest 42% in the sample group – so all of the fifteen year olds, all of the fourteen year olds and some of the thirteen year olds. 42% of these kids could have seen bad language without a single ten year old having seen anything untoward. Are we really outraged that most fifteen year olds have seen swearing online?

As for the 11% of those kids who were asked who said they had seen pornographic content, that equates to 110 children in the study. If the 1,000 children are split evenly across the age ranges, 166 of those 1,000 children are fifteen . So an alternate reading of this story could plausibly be that “almost half” of fifteen year olds have not seen porn online, and that no child under the age of fifteen has ever seen porn online. That’s just as plausible a reading from their data.

And what happens if they age ranges aren’t equally represented? What if this study of 1,000 children included 800 fifteen year olds, 199 fourteen year olds and a single ten year old? Then we have a headline which gives an entirely false representation. So it’s key that we know the breakdown of the data, how many kids of each age range were asked. But, being a PR survey for an internet security company published in the Mail, of course we don’t get that.

Now let’s look at how the data gets gathered. Crucially, of course, this is a story based on an online survey of children, and typically children don’t sign up to online survey companies – their parents sign them up. So, when we see answers from children in these stories, at best they are what children will say when asked to fill in a fairly meaningless survey by their parents.

Of course, given that online market research companies typically incentivise their panellists to take as many surveys as possible and care fairly little about their answers, it’s just as likely that a sizeable portion of the responses in this survey aren’t from children at all, but from adults who are looking to make a little bit of extra money by filling in whatever surveys they can get access to.

Where’s the downside to this? The panellists make a little extra money, the market research companies get plenty of responses to their surveys and can cut the data to bring the juciest responses to the surface, the company paying for the story gets an eye-catching headline finding, and the newspapers get to publish an attention-grabbing scare story.

It’s an all-round-win… except for the people who lose out, here. First of all, there’s the readers, who have been presented an advert as if it were news, and whose view of the world may be slightly nudged by this new ‘information’. But more importantly, what if the stats in this piece hide a genuine problem? What if there really are a lot of ten year olds accessing porn regularly – that would need to be looked at to figure out if that could have negative effects on the development of a healthy understanding of sex, and PR studies like this can completely whitewash what might actually be happening, in the name of scaring more parents into signing up for a particular product.