It's time to support a safer relationship with the Internet

From fake news to cyberbullying, the internet is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for schoolchildren. Much more can be done educate, engage and protect the next generation from harm, argues Rachel Neaman, CEO of Corsham Institute (Ci)

Online threats: Corsham Institute uncovered worrying dangers facing young people online
Rachel Neaman
On 12 February 2018 12:02

From swearing to drinking, ‘do as I say, not as I do’ has long been a mantra for parents trying to influence the behaviour of their kids and keep them on the straight and narrow. When it comes to appropriate use of technology and staying safe online, the pleading from smart-phone wielding adults to their iPad-surfing kids starts at a much earlier age.

Last year’s Growing Up Digital report from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office found that 42% of parents of 8-12 year olds, and 71% of those aged 13+, were concerned about their child being deprived of sleep by spending too much time online. Conversely, a survey a few years earlier found that 70% of children thought their parents spent too much time on their phones and other mobile devices.

Tellingly, a number of present and former executives from tech giants like Apple and Facebook have recently admitted that they lay down pretty strict rules for their own families on using the very products that they’ve helped to create; moreover, some admit that they are very well aware of the addictive and potentially damaging impact of tech, particularly social media, on young people.

But is it realistic to ban children and young people from accessing online and social media networks in which we, as adults, are constantly immersed? Do we understand the positive impact that online access can have on broadening their world view and improving their confidence? How can we preserve access to those huge opportunities, while also protecting them from harm? And what do children and teenagers themselves think about their life online?

Last week, to coincide with Safer Internet Day, Corsham Institute’s Communities Programme undertook a survey of over 2,000 pupils in Corsham and the surrounding area. All ten schools in the area took part and the full results have been published on our website.

The survey’s findings form the basis of an exhibition in the town’s leisure and community centre, which runs for a fortnight before touring the participating schools until Easter.

As well as providing insight into the nature of Internet and social media use in the local area, we are hopeful that the debate and engagement that will follow – in schools, in the community and in families – will start to address some of the questions above, leading to practical and positive approaches to the safe, responsible and beneficial use of technology, rather than a “do-don’t” dialogue between old and young, parents and carers, and children.

Many of the findings of our survey are in line with those from national research into young people’s attitudes to tech in recent years. For instance, the average age that Corsham children said that they had signed up to their first social media account was just under 11 years old – even though the minimum age for most social media sites is 13 years old.

The recent Life in Likes report from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office suggested that three-quarters of 10-12 year olds now have a social media account.

For those on social media, 46% of 11-18 year olds reported that Instagram was the first account they signed up to; and Instagram and Snapchat were almost twice as popular as Facebook and three times as popular as Twitter among 11-18 year olds.

Despite these high levels of social media use, the responses to our survey suggest that more needs to be done to educate and inform children, and their parents, on privacy and security. Fifty-eight percent of our 11-18 year old respondents said they had never read the Terms and Conditions of an account they’d signed up to, while 25% had their privacy settings set to ‘public’.

That said, over half of these respondents said they were careful about what they posted online, with a further third being ‘fairly’ careful.

One of the most interesting aspects of our local snapshot were the gender differences. For instance, among 11-18 year olds:

• 36% of girls said they had felt bullied online in the last 12 months, compared to only 23% of boys

• 42% of girls compared themselves to their friends online, while only 23% of boys did so

• 37% of girls compared themselves to celebrities, while only 10% of boys reported that they did

• Girls were twice as likely as boys to have been upset by something that had happened online in the last year, while boys were much more likely than girls to have never seen anything upsetting online.

These findings, and the potential impact they might have on everything from self-esteem to mental wellbeing, underline the importance of understanding and addressing digital resilience in children from an early age.

Resources for teachers and parents must continue to have all the necessary tools and up-to-date advice to safeguard children from online harms, from grooming to sexting; and to help them develop the technical skills to manage their lives online in a safe and secure way.

But increasingly, another set of conversations is needed around how to behave appropriately online; how to respect others and to protect oneself; how to understand what information is true and authentic and what’s false and fabricated; and how to feel empowered and confident in a world where popularity is judged by ‘likes’ and clicks, and where there’s an almost mandatory expectation of an ‘always-on’, flawless public image.

Our survey results, though a small sample, suggest that the approaches to these issues may well need to take account of a differential gender impact, requiring different dialogues and tailored toolkits for girls and boys. It is welcome that the policy landscape is beginning to change to account for some of these unintended consequences on children and young people.

The current joint Department of Health/Department for Education Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health acknowledges the potential link between social media use and mental health outcomes.

And the current call for evidence from DfE on changes to the relationships and sex education curriculum also includes consideration of aspects of digital resilience and critical thinking. Our survey findings would support these moves, underlining the importance of schools and parents having an honest dialogue with children about their online experiences and the way they are making them feel.

There is undoubtedly a gap between the challenges and risks posed by the “always on” digital tools at our children’s fingertips and a responsive, up-to-date package of support, information and guidance on the skills and tools to keep them safe and resilient online.

I’d hope that our small steps in Corsham, aligned with the global movement of Safer Internet Day, demonstrates the importance of everyone working together across communities to help the next generation navigate the online world with confidence. Not just to stay safe, but to make the most of all the opportunities that technology can bring throughout their lives.

Rachel Neaman is CEO of Corsham Institute (Ci), this article was originally published on The Observatory for a Connected Society app. @RCNeaman 

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