Be safe in the online space

With research revealing that online radicalisation of pupils is the top concern troubling IT professionals in schools, Dr Sangeet Bhullar, founder of Wise Kids, shares ways to approach the issue

Digital communications, social media and the worldwide web are intrinsic to most children and young people’s lives. Cyberspace now rivals the physical world in terms of shaping a child’s thoughts, opinions, ideas and psychology as he or she develops and this presents both opportunities as well as challenges. These range from unprecedented access to online learning, accessing entertainment and connecting with friends and family, to dangers like online exploitation, harassment, exposure to dangerous and inappropriate content, cyberbullying and newer threats like online radicalisation. As technology evolves, newer opportunities and threats emerge.

This presents a challenge for educators, school managers, safeguarding officers, families and young people themselves. In a recent survey by cybersecurity firm Barracuda, 207 IT professionals working in schools and further education reported that online radicalisation of pupils was the top concern troubling them in schools. Fifteen years ago, the key concern would probably have been online grooming.

How then can we best protect and empower children and young people in such a quickly evolving digital landscape? In a number of ways – and key amongst them is education, nurturing and developing children’s resilience and kindness. Whilst filters and blocks are necessary to protect against illegal and inappropriate content, these measures alone will not educate, protect or empower our young.

Children and many adults often have a narrow perspective of the Internet, based on their own habits and experiences. They may not always understand the inter-related nature of online content, services, communities, software - yet this is what makes up the ‘online space’, or perhaps more accurately, the multitude of ‘online spaces and communities’. Similarly, they may not fully understand or exploit the benefits the Internet can provide, or indeed, recognise cybersecurity issues - like the fact that people can lie online, and that commercial companies have an interest in their data. Similarly, they may not always recognise that others could ‘groom’ them - whether to radicalise them, or for sexual exploitation.

It is important therefore for children and young people to have a better understanding of these ‘online spaces’, and to be critical thinkers. They need to know that laws apply online, just like offline, and that negative online actions have consequences, often causing more harm. However we also need to educate them about internet opportunities. Often, in our worry about online dangers, we do not present a balanced picture of the internet or the many positives it provides. And it is important that we do.

One example for primary school children would be to consider a jewellery shop on a high street in town. Ask - don’t tell them - to consider what the benefits and drawbacks might be to the owner, of having an online shop instead of a high street shop. Ask them also to reflect on what issues the owner would need to think about if they were selling their jewellery online to a global audience.

For children who are growing up in an age of online shopping and YouTube, it will not be unusual for them to understand quickly that global reach, trust and online reputation are some of the key issues the owner would need to consider. The next question would be for them to consider how the owner could develop these values in their online business.

This manner of engagement will provide children with valuable insights and a useful lens through which they can assess other aspects of the internet they come across. Indeed having case studies and examples which capture the opportunities and challenges of being a digital citizen and learning to discern positive influences from the negative is far more exciting, empowering and, more importantly, vital if they’re going to thrive, not just socially, but in their workplace in adulthood.

Another key aspect in online safety education is listening and learning. In our own research, young people have said that they find many online safety lessons boring. Often they feel ‘talked about’ and not ‘talked to’. So how do we change this? One approach is to listen (non-judgementally) and learn from children and young people’s own online experiences and concerns. And then to work with them to co-create solutions to online dilemmas and dangers as well as online opportunities.

Nurturing digitally confident and competent digital citizens requires that we develop the whole individual – not just their digital skills, but also values like kindness, self-awareness, self-regulation and resilience. Giving them opportunities to reflect on how best they can apply these values when they are online and offline is important. Similarly, developing a school/home culture that nurtures their wellbeing is key.

Children and young people do not exist in isolation, and the people who support them also need to be digitally confident and skilled, if they are to be able to help our young be positive and safe online. This requires that we invest in the training and support needs of parents, carers, school leaders, educators and other professionals working with children and young people.

Finally, we cannot stop at online safety lessons, but must also look at digital opportunity, and facilitate lessons and projects which empower and allow our young to develop their digital understanding and creative digital skills. These are some of the ways in which we can develop a digital society in which citizens are empowered, responsible and engaged.

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