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Child online safety – regulation or education?

03 October, 2018 | Blog

I saw an event advertised recently that was about childhood and the internet, and was looking at the areas of safety and regulation. The event was billed as ‘an opportunity to consider the emerging regulatory and public policy priorities for protecting young web users’ and covered topics such as ‘adult and offensive material, unwanted attention via social media and damaging websites, such as those promoting hatred and forms of self-harm.’

The degree to which young people engage with the internet and use it to help with their education and understanding of the world is only going to increase, and it is important that they do so safely and aren’t exposing themselves to extra risks and dangers.

However, and I may be being unfair as it could be that the event will offer a balanced view that includes positive messages about using the internet, by obsessing about the dangers it represents there is a risk that we discourage people from using it for the many wonderful things it can offer.

Online safety

The BBC ran a story this week about online safety and the risks that young people face online which included a survey (commissioned by the Anti-Bullying Alliance) that includes the worrying statistic that 55% of young people in England accept cyber bullying as part of everyday life.

The report was also based upon a survey drawn up by the ISC2 IT security education group, which shows that 18% of the children queried said they had arranged offline meetings with friends made via the web. The report states that while young people are technologically competent they do not always necessarily understand what is risky.

Regulation

The other aspect of this event that I noted was the issue of regulation. Personally, I’m not sure that internet regulation will automatically make children safer online. Proactive online child safety should be an obvious priority for any society. However, censorship or regulation may not automatically be the best way forward as it may create an unrealistic and inaccurate expectation that the internet is safe and risk free.

The unfortunate reality is that online abuse exists – the internet is full of people and all the ‘people problems’ are there. Bullying for example, is a reality that kids do to each other online, but that is a human problem, and it’s the bullying that is the problem, not the internet.

My instinct tells me that parental control is the way forward (to prevent the behaviour and to let children know how to protect themselves) rather than censorship or government led regulation. What I want to achieve as a parent is not just about safety but about making sure my children can become happy, effective, able digital citizens.

In order to monitor online activities properly we (as parents) have to fully understand the world children are operating in. Positive mediation where we actively encourage safe online activities can increase children’s competencies and confidence; however restrictive mediation has the potential to lead to lower digital skills.

A parent’s natural instinct and overriding priority is to ensure children are not vulnerable to harm. My worry is that if I practise more restrictive regulation, while my children will encounter fewer risks, they may develop lower digital skills and have fewer opportunities in life.

Another worrying statistic from the BBC report was that 40% of parents surveyed acknowledged that they did not know how to respond to cyber bullying. On this theme, a recent article in The Telegraph, covered the importance of parental intervention and protection but included a warning that “Never before have parents known so little about the mistakes their children are making on a daily basis, or been less educated about the perils and pitfalls they face, or less able to offer any wisdom or guidance.”

Effective considered parental efforts can empower children online by enhancing their opportunities and digital skills while also going some way to reducing the risk from online harm.

To support this there I think is a need more for people of all ages to have a wider understanding of digital citizenship which balances the dangers that exist online with more positive messages and provides the wider level of awareness that young people need to have.

I’d be grateful for any comments you have about how we get the balance right between regulation and education, or about child online safety.

Thank you for reading.

References and resources:

SecEd – The nine elements of digital citizenship that all students must understand http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/the-nine-elements-of-digital-citizenship-that-all-students-must-understand
Telegraph – Internet safety: it’s time to learn what your children know http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationadvice/10370012/Internet-safety-its-time-to-learn-what-your-children-know.html
BBC – Young net users engage in ‘risky’ behaviour http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24580139
ISC2 IT security education group https://www.isc2cares.org/Default.aspx
Anti-bullying Alliance http://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/
EU Kids Online http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/Home.aspx
Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre http://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/?utm_source=ie9&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=pinned-ie9