Canada’s youth are highly connected, girls face different rules online: study

Researchers warn of major security flaws in systems used by cellphone carriers around the world. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP / Getty Images

TORONTO – Canada’s youth are highly connected, increasingly social online and are embracing online activities at younger ages than ever before, according to a new national study.

On Wednesday, MediaSmarts – a non-profit charitable organization focusing on digital and media literacy – released Life Online, a comprehensive national survey examining youth Internet use in Canada.

In 2013, MediaSmarts conducted a national survey of 5,436 Canadian students, grades 4 through 11, in 140 schools. The purpose of the study was to examine the online behaviours and habits of Canadian youth, exploring how they connect and learn online and how they feel about issues such as online privacy, security and cyberbullying.

Some study findings:

  • 99% of all students have access to the Internet outside of school
  • 6% rely on computers at public libraries and community centres
  • 39% sleep with their cellphone
  • 60% of boys access the Internet through a gaming console
  • Girls are more likely to search online for information on health and relationships
  • Girls face stricter parental rules online
  • Nearly one third of younger students never sit with a parent or adult when online
  • Canada’s youth say they are aware of potential risks online

Canada’s youth are highly connected

The study found that almost all students (99 per cent) have access to the Internet outside of school, 6 per cent rely on community centres and public libraries to access the Internet outside of school.

Story continues below advertisement

Not only are they connected, they’re mobile (a significant shift since a previous study in 2005, which found most youth accessed the Internet though desktop computers).

A whopping 39 per cent of students said they sleep with their cellphones, just in case they get a text or call during the night. This trend peaks in grade 11 with 51 per cent of students saying they sleep with their cellphones, but even 20 per cent of grade 4 students said they do the same thing.

But Canada’s youth may not be as addicted to their devices as adults may think. One third of all students said they worry they spend too much time plugged in. And while half said they would be upset if they had to unplug for everything but school-related activities for a week, 46 per cent said they wouldn’t care if they were unplugged for a week.

Nearly all students surveyed (94 per cent) said they go offline to participate in other activities such as spending time with family and friends, going outside to play a game or sport, reading a book, or having some alone time.

How youth connect online

The study found that portable devices are used more than desktop computers to access the Internet. Cellphones and smartphones are the primary devices used to access the Internet.

Story continues below advertisement

In one of the biggest differences between the genders, 60 per cent of boys access the Internet through a gaming console, compared to 27 per cent of girls.

Since the 2005, it’s not surprising that more and more students have their own cellphone or smartphone. Nearly one quarter (24 per cent) of students in grade 4, 52 per cent of students in grade 7 and 85 per cent of students in grade 11 have a cellphone. In 2005, only six per cent of grade 4 students and 46 per cent of grade 11 students had a cellphone.

Online risk, parental guidance and gender differences

The majority of Canada’s youth said they are aware of the potential risks online, with 73 per cent across all grades agreeing with the statement “I could be hurt if I talk to someone I don’t know on the Internet.” But the majority said they know how to protect themselves (90 per cent of boys and 89 per cent of girls).

In 2013, there seemed to be fewer rules in place for students’ online activities, with 84 per cent of students saying their parents had at least one rule in place around using the Internet, a decrease since 2005.

The most common rules include, posting contact information online, talking to strangers online or on a cellphone, avoiding particular websites and treating other people with respect.

Story continues below advertisement

Girls are more likely to have rules put in place by parents regarding their online activities.

The rules that had the biggest difference between boys and girls involved talking to strangers online (21 per cent difference), posting contact information (19 per cent difference), and getting together with someone they’ve met online (17 per cent difference). They were also more likely to have rules about treating other people with respect online and telling their parents about anything that makes them uncomfortable online.

Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’ director of education, said these gender differences are not new.

“When we looked at our focus groups in 2012, this was something we heard from girls in particular, that they felt they were getting a lot of scrutiny from their parents,” Johnson told Global News.

Johnson said some participants said their parents acted as if the Internet was more dangerous to girls than the physical world.

“It does seem to be reflected in girls own attitudes because girls are much more likely than boys to say that the Internet does not seem safe to them,” said Johnson.

Johnson said gender differences in online activities is something that needs to be researched furher, adding they can only speculate at this point as to why girls are treated differently.

Story continues below advertisement

“Part of it is quite likely the long-standing double standard that we’re more worried about girls and we see girls as being more vulnerable. But there is also a lot of evidence that the Internet is a more hostile place for girls and women,” he said.

As was also found in the 2005 survey, the more parental rules students reported correlates with less risky online behaviour.

For instance, more students who have rules in place about not visiting certain websites – never visit gambling sites (94 per cent versus 88 per cent without the rule in place) or look for porn online (86 per cent compared to 72 per cent without the rule). Students with rules in place about not contacting personal contact information are less likely to do so (78 per cent said they never do, compared to 64 per cent without this rule).

Parents and teachers play a primary role in teaching youth about digital literacy. Almost half (45 per cent) said they learn about issues such as cyberbullying, online privacy and online safety from their parents – 41 per cent said they learned this from teachers.

READ MORE: Canadian youth have fewer rules, less supervision online

What’s concerning, according to the study authors, is that nearly one third of younger students said they never sit with a parent or adult when online. “This reinforces the need for education interventions to teach children digital literacy skills so they can make wise and healthy decisions about their online activities,” read the report.

Story continues below advertisement

Social networking increasing in popularity

Online activities have become increasingly social, with online media primarily being used for entertainment and to communicate with friends and family.

When asked about their favourite websites – the youth surveyed listed over 3,000 different sites. But YouTube is the top site amongst all grades with 75 per cent, followed by Facebook (57 per cent) and Google (31 per cent).

Seven of the top 10 favourite websites allow users to post and share content (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Minecraft and Hotmail).

Even youth in younger grades like socializing online. Almost one third of students (32 per cent) in grades 4 though 6 have a Facebook account, and 16 per cent have a Twitter account (despite the terms of use agreement that bars children under 13 years of age from using these social networking sites).

Relatively few students use the Internet to post creative content on a regular basis. While 38 per cent of students said they went online to post a story or artwork they created, only nine per cent said they do this frequently.

Nearly half of students (49 per cent) have gone online to find information on news and current events, few participate in civic discussions (either by participating in online debates or commenting on news stories).

Story continues below advertisement

The majority (78 per cent) of students use the Internet to find out information on news, health and relationship issues. Girls are more likely to seek out information on mental health (14 per cent compared to nine per cent in boys), physical health (20 per cent compared to 16 per cent in boys), and relationships (18 per cent compared to nine per cent in boys).

About the study

In 2013, MediaSmarts conducted a national survey of 5,436 Canadian students, grades 4 through 11, in 140 schools. The report, Life Online, is the first in a series of reports examining the data collected.

As with all survey data, the researchers caution readers from drawing interpretations from the conclusions, especially since self-reported answers are generally less reliable than data gathering from direct observation. The study authors also caution against drawing too many comparisons to data collected in 2005, since there have been significant changes and advances in online activities and technology since then. Mobile devices and social media networks are more pervasive, the culture surrounding online content and technology is very different today than it was in 2005.


Sponsored content