SYDNEY/LONDON: 6 February 2024Children routinely interact with people they don’t know online and respond with caution when approached, but they want tech companies and governments to do more to keep them safe according to preliminary research findings released on Safer Internet Day. 

The research was conducted by the Young & Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University and Save the Children and was funded by the online safety investment vehicle Safe Online as part of the Tech Coalition Safe Online Research Fund.  

Young & Resilient conducted workshops with 597 children and young people aged between 9 and 16 across Australia, Cambodia, Finland, the Philippines, Kenya, South Africa and Colombia to learn about their thoughts and experiences regarding their online interactions.  

Preliminary findings of the ‘Protecting Children from Online Grooming’ study found that children primarily use intuition and background checks rather than seeking help from trusted adults to manage their online interactions with people they don’t know. Children are more often abused or exploited online by people they know, but the internet creates additional opportunities for people they have never met to engage with them.  

The data also showed that children distinguish people they know well in person from those they do not, with 86% approaching the latter with caution. Yet despite this wariness, children are still three times more likely to ignore or decline an inappropriate or unwanted request than they are to report or block it.  

Online violence doesn’t affect all children equally. The study shows a stark difference between children in high and low-income families. Initial analysis shows that children from high-income families in any country were twice as likely to use privacy settings to protect themselves from unwanted contacts compared to children from low-income families. Children from low-income homes were also nearly 35% less likely to block inappropriate or unwanted contacts. 

When children do speak to someone about their online safety, the preliminary findings show that more than half were likely to speak to their parents, highlighting the importance of supporting caregivers with online safety education. Only 10% of children would consider speaking to their teachers or the police. 

Children believe tech companies should be doing more to protect them from unknown people online, including verifying accounts, in-app education and enforcing age restrictions. 

Sophie*, 12, from Australia, said: 

“I suggest all websites are age restricted and require proof when putting in age. People should be kept safe when interacting with strangers online, because one message, video or post can have a great impact on a child’s mind.”  

Governments also play a critical role in holding tech companies to account and ensuring laws and policies are aligned with the constantly evolving digital landscape, Baraka*, 15, from Kenya, said: 

“I personally would like the government to put strict rules on different social media platforms working together with organisations. I would also like the government to create more awareness to young people who use the internet and don’t know about the risks online.” 

Steve Miller, Save the Children’s Global Director of Child Protection, said: 

“Children have high hopes for digital technology, but the internet wasn’t created with their safety in mind. We urgently need to reimagine a safe digital environment with and for children, to give all children the access to the future they are expecting. This involves collaboration between children, parents, governments, tech companies, and educators to prevent and respond to the multifaceted challenges of online safety.”  

Amanda Third, Co-Director, Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University said: 

“Children are growing up online and need support to safely navigate their constantly changing digital landscape. Children are not passive participants because they often know at least as much about technology as their parents and have creative solutions. This research plays an important role in helping us to understand their perspective and to design innovative solutions that draw on their insights. Children are telling us that parents, teachers, governments and technology companies need to do more to keep them safe online. It’s so important that we listen and act.”