Earlier this month I attended Ukie’s annual Digital Schoolhouse launch, in which they presented the findings from their most recent survey of online safety in schools. At this event they hosted two respective panels of industry experts and teenagers to tackle the following question: could our industry be doing more to facilitate safer online experiences for children?
When it comes to online safety, a combination of rapidly changing technologies and tech-smart kids is beginning to render tried and tested ‘stranger danger’ warnings obsolete. While parents struggle to keep up with their children, legislation is struggling to keep up with technology. More than this, the way that children are engaging with technology and the online world has changed - no longer a mere source of information, the internet is an outlet through which people socialise, connect with new communities, and seek entertainment. It’s never been more important to ensure that our youngest generation is receiving sufficient information and education on the importance of internet safety in our current cultural climate.
The first step in supporting online safety for kids across the country is undoubtedly making sure that they are equipped with the best tools and information possible when entering online spaces.
Although most schools now make some attempts to introduce online safety education as part of a wider PSHCE curriculum, according to the Online Safety: A Pupil’s Perspective report, 30% of students believe that what their school covers isn’t relevant to their use of technology outside of the classroom. What’s more, many reported a sense of repetitiveness in what they were being taught.
In essence, there are two things that are bound to improve the relevance and applicability of online safety education in the classroom. Firstly, we need to ensure that the teachers leading these wellbeing sessions have the appropriate training, information, and skills that are required. So often the PSHCE curriculum is divided between teachers of fields as diverse as IT, PE, and Religious Studies, as supplementary lessons to their primary fields. We can’t expect every IT teacher to be qualified in discussing the politics of online spaces, in the same way that we can’t expect every PE teacher to be a natural at delivering sex education lessons. This is where something like Ukie’s Digital Schoolhouse works perfectly - DSH Lead Teachers are able to use specifically developed workshops to educate not only pupils, but also teachers.
The second way in which the relevance of online safety education can be improved is through a tech-first approach to the subject matter. Generic terms such as ‘privacy settings’, ‘sensitive information’ and ‘stranger danger’ mean little to a generation that are, on the whole, pretty clued up about the potential risk they expose themselves to when online. Instead, educators need to meet kids on their level; let’s talk about Instagram, or Snapchat, or YouTube, and from there we can work out the more nuanced aspects of online safety.
35.5% of respondents in the A Pupil’s Perspective survey reported that their family set no limits for the amount of time they were allowed to spend online; a further 29.9% suggested that while there were limits set in their homes, they weren’t really enforced.
If parents and caregivers aren’t actively engaged in creating an environment that nurtures a thoughtful relationship with the online world - with appropriate moderations and boundaries - there is only so much that can be done through external education. In the pupil panel at the DHS launch, young panellists explained the ways in which their caregivers’ use of technology at home – specifically the presence of mobile phone at the dinner table - had a profound effect on their own use and understanding of acceptable social behaviour.
This is a simple thing to tackle when it comes to device usage, but becomes more complicated when we start to think about more generational aspects of online engagement - particularly social media platforms and online gaming. When parents feel disconnected from their child’s online activities, it becomes difficult for them to operate as a reliable source of help, information, and advice should any concerns arise.
A lack of understanding can then become cyclical - the less the child feels that their parent ‘gets’ the online media that they use, the less likely they are to share their experiences, and the parent’s understanding remains stagnant. And if a child is experiencing harassment on a social media platform, they may feel uncertain of seeking help from a parental figure if a lack of understanding could result in their social media access being shut down completely.
We need to equip caregivers with the information, resources, and confidence that will enable them to play a vital role in their child’s experience of online spaces.
The challenge for digital industries is often in balancing huge user numbers with comparatively small development teams. How are we realistically going to be able to provide thorough support for every user on a social media platform or online game, to the extent that parents are assured that their children are sufficiently protected?
Advances in technology are allowing our industry to experiment with bots and AI as a means of ‘checking up’ on users in online gaming spaces, filtering out false alarms in order to accurately target serious breaches of safety that users may face. A great example of this is Spirit AI, who are developing tools that can decipher and moderate conversations in online games. By interpreting the use of language in specific contexts, these tools aim to determine malicious intent and challenge any toxic behaviours. It seems appropriate that problems as complicated and context-reliant as cyberbullying should require similarly complex tech solutions. Keyword blocking is not enough.
However, the value of information cannot be understated. If organisations in the digital industry are going to submit to the importance of online safety and protection, they will need to provide consistent and up-to-date information and tools to allow users - and parents of users - to educate themselves.
At the rate at which technology continues to move, there’s difficulty in finding ways that legislation can act to protect individuals without being suppressive. The FOSTA/SESTA bills in the US, for example, may have been developed with the best intentions for curbing online sex trafficking, but in doing so inadvertently created a number of issues for sex workers using online spaces for their own safety. Many of the online spaces through which we live out portions of our lives are still relatively new; it’s going to take some time before legislation can ‘get it right’ with the brand-new issues we’re experiencing.
Of course, this doesn’t absolve legislators of responsibility when it comes to facilitating online safety, but it does mean that preventative strategies need to be set in place by educators, caregivers, and digital industries. There are always going to be new technologies, digital platforms, and methods of exploiting vulnerable people online, but it’s our job to educate ourselves and educate each other, utilising our influence to ensure that online wellbeing is at the front and centre of everything we do, and not an afterthought.