Safer Internet Day 2019: three hard questions educators need to ask

The online safety curriculum keeps evolving – and it needs to. As children and young people’s use of online media evolves, so too do the safety challenges that arise. Last week’s Ofcom report into children’s media lives provides a snapshot of what children are doing online and how online interaction is changing. For example:

  • YouTube is becoming the viewing platform of choice, with rising popularity particularly among 8-11s. Within this, vloggers are an increasingly important source of content and creativity
  • Online gaming is increasingly popular; three-quarters of 5-15s who play games do so online
  • Social media can bring a combination of social pressures and positive influences
  • A majority of online 12-15s think critically about websites they visit, but only a third correctly understand search engine advertising

And, critically:

  • Children are still being exposed to unwanted experiences online, but almost all recall being taught how to use the internet safely

Image from Ofcom (2018) Children and parents: media use and attitudes report

While there are clearly trends we can see year on year – TV use decreases, mobile use increases, more and more children have their own devices at an ever younger age – some of the details do also change in ways that we need to be alert to. Apps change – musical-ly has become TikTok – with new features bringing both new opportunities and new challenges.

In Safer Internet Day (SID)  assemblies this morning we have been discussing the Pokemon Go app and some of the concerns it has raised. For example, children need a Google account to play the game and there have been reports that the app is granting itself permission to access their Gmail and Google Drive accounts, while a malicious version of the Android app gives attackers full control over the victim’s phone (find out more in this excellent ParentInfo guide to Pokemon Go).

This year the theme of Safer Internet Day is consent. In case that’s a word you don’t use with the age range that you teach, how about ‘permission’? As this week’s SID presentation puts it,  ‘put your hand up if you’ve ever asked permission to go to the toilet in school?’ That’ll be just about all of us. And just about all of us are affected not only by the choices that we make knowingly or unknowingly online on a daily basis (most children included), but also those choices that others make.

Three hard questions

1. Are we talking to children about data and companies collecting their data?  

To what extent do children understand that, with free services, they are not the customer but the product? That the data they are giving away is valuable? That they may be exposing others’ data? Very few adults read the terms and conditions of the networks and platforms they sign up to so it is beyond unrealistic to expect children to. Instagram’s latest Ts and Cs are 5000 words long.  However, the Children’s Commissioner has produced a brilliant jargon-busting guide to the Ts and Cs of social networking sites Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp or Instagram. These simplified Ts and Cs reduce them to a few hundred words with relevant headings and bullet points and turn them into a great resource to use in class.

2. Are we making links to bridge the gulf from a Computing focus to the rest of the curriculum?

Too often ‘online safety’ is framed as a computing issue. It needs to be all-pervasive. As the Children’s Commissioner says, children see no difference between online and offline life – it’s just life. ‘Consent’ has relevance for all areas of the curriculum, from PSHE and Citizenship to RE and values. Is there any part of school life that ‘polite and civilised respect for other human beings’ should not touch? Is your school embedding ‘consent’ into every aspect of school life?

3. Are we making a link with the impact this is having on us all?

According to a report published today from the Prince’s Trust, which has been gauging youth opinion for 10 years,  just under half of young people who use social media now feel more anxious about their future when they compare themselves to others on sites and apps such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A similar amount agree that social media makes them feel “inadequate”. More than half (57%) think social media creates “overwhelming pressure” to succeed.

As the debate about the value – or not – of ‘screen time’ rages on, we prefer to shift the focus to the activities that children and young people are investing their time in on their devices rather than the amount of time they spend doing it. Is it creative and enhancing or is it passive consuming and shallow scrolling? Is it part of a healthy and balanced digital diet? And are we talking enough about how those choices are influenced by the software design of the devices they use, with smartphones optimised for consumption over creation?

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