Intuitive report

By Maureen McTaggart
When 12-year-old Lauren gets home from school, she says hello to her mum and heads for the computer in the living room to spend an hour on the GoldStarCafe (GSC) online service. She’s into fashion and loves swimming so will check out the latest outfits in the sports shop and maybe design a birthday or barbecue invitation which she will print off for mailing. Later she will have something to eat, play a game or send emails with her Nintendo DS Lite and maybe watch a little TV, then back to the computer to do her homework under the watchful eye of her mum.

“Mum helps me with loads of things. She tells me about not giving personal details out, she will help me download pictures from the digital camera to the computer, or help with searching on Google. A few months ago I had a French test at school, so my mum sat with me and searched the internet for a good French website for kids. She wrote down all the main words and phrases to remember then she tested me on it. I passed my test with flying colours and I think it was all because of her help.”

Lauren and Jack (below) are two of 4,600 children surveyed by Intuitive Media (who run the SuperClubsPLUS and GoldStarCafe protected online communities for 150,000 youngsters aged from 6 to 14) for a report, Learning in the Family – Parental Engagement in Children’s Leaning with Technology, backed by government ICT agency Becta, that looked at parents' roles in supporting children’s learning with ICT. Lauren sees her activities as intrinsic to her life and mirrors those of her friends. Lauren’s mum, who takes supervision and internet safety very seriously, is committed to helping her child learn.

“It's important that they are supervised in a controlled environment and safeguarded from accessing any inappropriate sites. Getting involved and doing things together enriches a child's learning. Safety online is also important. If she is just using SuperClubs, she doesn't need any help, it's just other areas of the internet. Her skills are already better than mine, so I would like to be able to keep up. I trust her at the moment, but I’m not sure I will when she's a teenager. At the moment I think I give her enough help, but I would like to do more in the future.”

Meanwhile Jack, who has his own mobile phone, a Sony PSP, X Box 360 and a laptop, goes on SuperClubsPLUS from his bedroom every day for a hour after school, just before bedtime and sometimes first thing in the morning.

According to his mother the 11-year-old regularly helps her and his grandmother find websites they like and she keeps an eye on what he is doing, checking to see if he needs any help with his homework. His dad does help him with the internet but it is mostly for hobbies, and they play computer games together.

Jack says, “My dad teaches me how to use Microsoft powerpoint/excel/word etc. and emails because he knows a lot about that because of his job. He taught me lots of things in excel and also some shortcuts because he does a lot of spreadsheets at work and home. Both my dad and me play a game online called Runescape, and he taught me a new way to train and make money on it. Mum helped me on the internet when I was researching for my money, money, money topic. She helped me because she explained all the information and helped me to understand it.”

Learning in the Family – Parental Engagement in Children’s Leaning with Technology was funded by a Becta Research Grant to support the DCSF Harnessing Technology strategy, the research included two online surveys with more than 4600 children supported by interviews with children and their families.

Published last week, the report found that children spend most of their Internet time for socialising, play and their own research rather than for formal learning and homework. On a typical school day, 58 per cent of those surveyed go online as soon as they get home from school and slightly fewer, 56 per cent, use the internet after their evening meal. Interestingly, they spend twice as much time on their computers as they do watching television.

Most of the children who use the internet at home (63 per cent) say that there is always someone else is in the room with them, with 44 per cent supervised by their mothers, 35 per cent by their fathers and 25 per cent by siblings. Nearly half use the internet in a communal family space but one third use it in their own bedrooms. Of those who used the Internet in the privacy of their own bedrooms, 53 per cent are boys and 47 per cent girls - mainly for fun activities such as game playing and social networking.

As ICT is increasingly part of the learners' experience at home and school and there is strong government interest in involving parents, particularly fathers, the report is extremely timely. It reveals that although parents are most likely to help with technical problems on the computer and with using the internet for formal learning and homework, attention needs to be paid to the role fathers play in working with their children. Mothers are twice as popular as helpers, with 50 per cent of children choosing her to help against 22 per cent preferring dad.

"It is clear from results that the internet has gained a significant place in children's daily lives," says Robert Hart, Intuitive Media’s research director. "Almost all of the children surveyed use the internet at home with their parents. Their mothers are particularly engaged with their homework and formal learning and take an interest in their online safety. Fathers join in to a lesser extent but encourage children with the fun aspects and help them with their hobbies."

Worryingly, the children surveyed report that just over a third (36 per cent) of parents get annoyed with them for staying on the internet for too long, for asking questions or asking for help.

Half of the parents restricted the child’s Internet access through direct supervision and a quarter either by restricting the sites children visit or by using site-blocking software. And three quarters of the mothers said they knew mostly everything that their children did on the Internet.

All the parents interviewed thought it was important to help children with the internet because of its relevance in society and because they see it as a vital learning tool. But some stressed that the internet was only one among many things they help their children with, and they see helping children learn as an essential aspect of parenting.

But, says Lauren’s mother, schools could do more to inform parents. “Run courses so parents can increase their confidence... a meeting just to show the parents what the children can do (on the internet). Parents don’t realise how capable children are.”

Learning in the Family – Parental Engagement in Children’s Leaning with Technology is available free from Intuitive Media (but it may also be distributed by Becta).