In the space of a decade, Australians have embraced digital technology at an ever increasing rate, making us among the world’s most prolific Internet users. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 7.7 million Australian households (86%) have Internet access from home, and 13.5 million of us have an Internet subscription. When it comes to young people, digital technology is nearing saturation point. Known as digital natives, this is a generation of children and adolescents who have never known life without computers or the Internet. For these young people, the virtual world is a familiar place that they find easy to navigate. It’s a vital part of their education, entertainment and social lives. By the age of 5 and 8 years, 80% of Australian kids have accessed the Internet, while 99% of 15 to 17-year-olds surf the web for personal use at least once a week.
Australians are comfortable using a range of digital devices, from mobile phones and tablets to laptops.
Families in homes with kids under 15 have an average of seven devices which they can use to access the Internet.
The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner found that 80% of children and adolescents use more than one device to access the Internet.
Mobile phone usage is becoming more common among younger Australians. ABS figures show that nearly a quarter of Australian children own a mobile phone by the age of 9 to 11 years, jumping to 67% for 12 to 13-year-olds.
Children mainly use their mobile phones to contact family (60%) and friends (36%); just 4%t use their own phone to access the Internet.
The way children use the Internet changes with age. While very young children are likely to play games and see it as entertainment, older kids use it for information and socialising.
According to the ABS, older boys prefer interactive role-playing games and using YouTube, news, sport and weather websites, older girls prefer emailing, messaging and social networking.
Staying in touch online is the primary source of communication between teenagers aged 14 to 17 in Australia. According to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, 90% of this age group have a Facebook account and 70% have a YouTube account.
It found that on average, children aged eight to 13 years have two social networking site (SNS) accounts and teens aged 14 to 17 have three. Sites that appeal to younger groups include YouTube, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Facebook.
Alarmingly, around 30%of nine to 10-year-olds and 60% of 11 to 12-year-olds have at least one profile page on a networking site, despite most sites having a minimum age requirement of 13.
As attitudes change and digital technology becomes more prevalent in day-to-day life, children are being exposed to social media earlier.
It is estimated that as many as 90% of today’s two-year-olds have at least moderate ability when it comes to using tablets, while a third of Australian parents believe pre-school aged children should have access to tablets at home or in school.
There are over 80,000 children’s apps marketed as educational in the Apple App Store alone. Many of those are advertised as appropriate for age groups that include zero to five years and five to eight years.
The use of digital technology has opened up new ways to share and spread hurtful information, otherwise known as ‘cyberbullying’.
In other findings, one in four young people aged 15 to 24 years reported someone had uploaded ‘nasty or embarrassing’ images of them onto a social networking site without their consent during the past six months.
In data collected by the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, 8% of children and 19% of teens reported being cyberbullied. Another 12% of children and 29% of teenagers reported witnessing cyberbullying.
Sexting – a new phenomenon
Another dangerous trend that has emerged with the use of digital communication is ‘sexting’; sending a sexual image or message via a text message, email or social networking site.
And in data collected by the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, 9% of children and 17% of teenagers reported being exposed to inappropriate content.
More alarming still is the finding that 5%of children and 9% of teenagers reported being contacted by strangers.