Accession of Croatia to the European Union opens opportunities for a better and more intensive cooperation between the Child Protection Center of Zagreb and the Council of Europe and the European Union member states. We have been invited to present our practice of hearing children-victims during the criminal pre-trial in the child friendly environment. The presentation was held at the Council of Europe Strasbourg Seminar on 9 February 2012.
Professionals of the Child Protection Center of Zagreb and of the Brave Phone are conducting a major national study about the experience and behaviour on the Internet and on the social network Facebook as well as about the relation between the experience and their emotional characteristics, behaviours and relationships with peers.
One quarter of Facebook users are children
We have been motivated for this study by the increasing presence of the Internet and social networks in children’s everyday lives, which has not been researched in Croatia. Our Center and the Brave Phone conducted a study on children and the Internet in 2008. It involved 4,000 pupils from 19 primary schools (from the 4th to the 8th grade) from ten Croatian cities. The study showed that 73 percent of the children had some experience in using the Internet, and even 48 percent of those who had not had a computer available at home still used the Internet. Fifty-eight percent of the children were on the Internet almost daily, 26 percent of them once a week, and 17 percent once a month or less.
In the meantime, the development of so called smart mobile phones and the ADSL Internet is available everywhere all the time, and the number of Facebook users, the most popular social network in Croatia, reached 1.6 million. One quarter of that number are children aged 13 to 17. This is exactly the reason why the participants of our study are children from the 5th grade of primary school till the 2nd grade of secondary school. The study comprises a representative sample in the rural and urban areas – we expect the participation of fifty schools with 90 classes.
The number of children and parents who ask for help due to unpleasant experience on the Internet
Besides numerical data which impose a need for conducting such a study, our experience in working with children show that an increasing number of children encounters unpleasant experience on the Internet and social networks. During the past two years, the number of children calling the Brave phone help-line because they have experienced abuse via the Internet has multiplied, and the increasing number of children and their parents come to the Center for the same reason.
This is why we, professionals, as well as parents, ask ourselves if we know what our children do and what they encounter in the virtual world and how much time they spend in that world which, because of technological advance, they literally carry in their pocket or bag. Can we gain an insight into that important part of their life, and how? Can we protect them from unpleasant experience and dangers? How can we educate them in using the Internet and social networks the same way we educate them in crossing streets and in traffic behaviour?
Good quality prevention programmes should emphasise the dangers of the Internet, but also its benefits
In this study we are looking for answers to the questions about children’s habits on the Internet and Facebook, how much time they spend with these, in what kind of activities, who their friends are, why they use or do not use Facebook, how many children below the age limit use Facebook, if they are careful with their personal data? Do those children who do not have a Facebook profile feel excluded from their peers? Do they use the Internet and Facebook during their classes? Do they show signs of addiction and lack of control over their use of the Internet and Facebook? How much do they neglect their daily obligations due to the Internet and Facebook? We are especially interested if there is a connection between the behaviour of children on the Internet and some of their emotional characteristics, like anxiety, depression, anger, self-image and obstructive behaviours.
Having collected data about children’s behaviour on the Internet and social networks, we will gain an insight into the real needs for the education of children and youth about the safe use of the Internet and social networks and online non-violent communication. We well also be able to design good quality prevention programmes which will emphasise not only the dangers of using the Internet, but also the benefits.
Just as we are not going to forbid the child to independently walk in the street due to traffic dangers, we are not going to and we cannot forbid access to a plenty of useful information they share with their friends and their participation in online activities which children nowadays abundantly use to learn. However, we have to educate them how they can do it safely for themselves and for others.