CO:RE Reports

Authors: Sonia Livingstone & Mariya Stoilova – CO:RE WP5 – Theories
Updated: This blog posting was initially published in anticipation of the Safer Internet Day 2021 and was revised on 08 March ’21.
The CO:RE Key Topics Short Report Series is coordinated by Veronika Kalmus | CO:RE WP4 on Key topics.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” This famous quote by social psychologist Kurt Lewin challenges the idea that theories and concepts are less useful than empirical findings.  A review of the outcomes of EU Kids Online, whose research now informs CO:RE, revealed that even more cited than the results of its 2010 pan-European survey of 25000 children, the first of its kind, was its 3 Cs classification of online risks.

The 3Cs – of content, contact and conduct risks – were originally developed to answer obvious yet puzzling questions such as – “what online risks are we talking about?” and “why should policymakers take action, what’s the problem?” The idea was to disaggregate specific risks, with their different causes and consequences, and to broaden the public agenda beyond the then predominant focus on pornography, grooming and cyberbullying (all of which are important, but so are other risks).

When Uwe Hasebrink, who leads CO:RE, recently quoted Lewin, he went on to explain the importance of the:

“Constant cycle between theoretical reflection, empirical observations, testing empirical observations, considering implications for policy and practice, and back to theory again.”

It is timely to update this classification, given the variation in its use, the emerging risks in the digital environment, and our growing understanding of children’s experiences of online risks of harm. Hence, we propose a new classification of online risk, launched today in a new report, part of the CO:RE Short Report series on Key topics.

A new classification of online risk – the 4Cs

The new CO:RE 4Cs classification recognises that online risks arise when a child:

  • engages with and/or is exposed to potentially harmful CONTENT;
  • experiences and/or is targeted by potentially harmful CONTACT;
  • witnesses, participates in and/or is a victim of potentially harmful CONDUCT;
  • is party to and/or exploited by a potentially harmful CONTRACT.
Updating the 4Cs of online risk.
Updating the 4Cs of online risk.

The 4Cs classification also distinguishes between aggressive, sexual and value risks, as this is helpful in retaining a balanced view of the range of risks that children can encounter. We note that risks to the values that shape childhood and society are increasingly prominent. In addition to the 4Cs, the new CO:RE classification recognises important cross-cutting risks, notably to children’s privacy, health and fair treatment. These risks, we suggest, can occur in relation to any and all of content, contact, conduct and contract risks.

Importantly, it should be noted that, although some risks are particularly cross-cutting in nature, many of the online risks to children intersect and hybridise, depending on the circumstances, and more so as the digital environment evolves. Hence the classification and its exemplars are offered here as a way of organising and opening up further investigation, rather than as implying that risks are simple or disconnected.

Why was the update needed?

So, to revisit the classification with an open mind, and to benefit from the practical insights of European child safety professionals who manage awareness-raising campaigns, law enforcement interventions, helplines and more, in November 2020 we joined a training meeting of Insafe and INHOPE. We asked them:

(1) To identify familiar and emerging online risks affecting children across Europe and consider whether these are common or specific to different countries

(2) To consider whether classifications of online risk are useful and what purpose they might serve, as well as the strengths and shortcomings of available classifications.

In terms of practice, they told us that risk classifications are useful for:

  • Identifying the range and diversity of risks, including emerging risks.
  • Making comparisons and capturing trends across risks and across time/contexts.
  • Systematically communicating results and priorities to both expert and lay audiences.
  • Highlighting the need for resources, budget and training.
  • Classifying the types of risks reported via input from helplines and complaints mechanisms.
  • Targeting planning, interventions and awareness-raising campaigns.
  • Mapping evidence to risk categories and identifying evidence gaps.

In terms of theory, that called for a fourth C: contract. And they deliberated over the idea of cross-cutting risks. After reflecting on this, we went back to the drawing board, recalling also what we had learned from empirical research, and from feedback from policy makers over the years. We agree with the idea of 4Cs, and while we love how the original scheme prioritised children’s agency, reluctantly we also now recognise the power of the digital environment, and the businesses who design and promote it, to impact on children in ways that are often beyond their control. Hence, we propose the revised  definition of the 4Cs.

Understanding online risks is vital if stakeholders are to work together for a better internet. But so too is understanding online opportunities. The ways in which children engage with content, experience contact, participate in conduct and are party to contract online are also worth exploring further. Since we have long known that risks and opportunities go hand in hand, we will explore this next.

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Header image by Mary Taylor on Pexels.

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