How much do young children understand about the internet? Zheng Yan at the University of Albany recruited 83 children, aged from 5 to 12 years, to find out how much they used and understood the internet.
Children aged from five to eight years tended to have little online experience, and to be naïve about both the technical and social side of the internet. One five-year-old-boy said “Um, it has two computers on it. It is ten square feet large. It wouldn’t hurt you”.
The children aged between nine and ten appeared to be in a transition phase. They had limited online experience but showed greater awareness of the internet’s uses and dangers. “It’s somewhere for finding stuff”, and is made “of a thousand computers”, one nine-year-old explained. But the internet “can give us bad ideas” a 10-year-old girl warned.
By 11 to 12 years of age, the children reported having extensive online experience and showed a mature understanding of the web. “The internet is in a lot of places and thus no one can point out exactly where it is”, one 12-year-old explained. You can go to “inappropriate sites” or “get addicted”, warned another.
Zheng Yan said that direct online experience was not the only predictor of children’s understanding – experience derived from films, TV, and watching other people was also relevant. “Filtering out harmful online content is not the only strategy to protect children”, Yan advised. “Other strategies such as offering age-appropriate educational programmes via TV and Internet and considering developmental differences to guide online activities can help to increase immunity to internet dangers”, he said.
Yan, Z. (2005). Age differences in children’s understanding of the complexity of the Internet. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 385-396.