Living safely in the digital world

How can we equip children and young people with the skills and resilience they need to have a safe and positive time online? Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet, shares some advice.

As Google turns 18, making it older than the current generation of schoolchildren, the role of technology in our lives is firmly embedded.

Last year the iPad turned five, and now over four in five children aged 5-15 years live in a household with a tablet. Even among three to four year-olds, over half use tablets.

With emerging risks and new requirements, it’s more important than ever for all schools to make online safety a priority, while the positive opportunities offered by technology can be harnessed to create a generation of empowered digital citizens.

But how can we equip children and young people with the skills and resilience they need to have a safe and positive time online? Both now and for the next 18 years as they embark on an adulthood where digital skills and emerging technologies will play a fundamental role in their lives.

Skills for a digital generation
What does an empowered digital citizen look like? We think there are five core elements to promote children’s wellbeing online and ensure they are able to navigate risks online.

We need to ensure children are critical thinkers, able to evaluate online content and contact, and recognise how the content they are exposed to and the people they interact with can affect their own behaviour, emotions and beliefs.

Children need to be kind communicators, able to understand the feelings of others, with socio-emotional skills developed for a digital age and a passion for creating supportive online communities.

They also need to be considered creators, able to make responsible decisions when creating and sharing content, from photos and videos to conversations and comments.

Children should also be able to support their peers and able to seek help from friends, family, school and wider to ensure that concerns are responded to early and effectively.

Children also need to be digital citizens, able to take an active and empowered role in their online communities by taking action over the negatives and promoting the positives.

Emerging technologies and risks
These digital skills are essential now and will be become even more important as new issues emerge and technology continues to develop.

With virtual reality headsets close to taking off as a family device, there will be a pressing need for children to critically evaluate even the most immersive and engaging content. Meanwhile livestreaming presents new pressures for risk-taking teens who will need even more support to handle impulsivity.

Indeed, the image and video driven digital world that young people inhabit now – characterised by the popularity of apps like Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube – is magnifying issues like sexting, pornography and body image pressures, while also offering fun new opportunities for self-expression and creativity.

It is schools who are at the frontline of dealing with these complex issues and can also be a driving force for promoting the positive use of technology.

Protection from extremism
Childnet has created ‘Trust Me’, a resource which is designed to support teachers in exploring critical thinking online. It was created after hearing from schools that they wanted a resource which would start the conversations around extremism and extreme online content. Visit

‘Keeping children safe in education’, statutory guidance for schools in England and Wales, now requires schools to have ‘appropriate levels’ of filtering and monitoring to keep them safe online. At the UK Safer Internet Centre we have some helpful guidance about what that means in practice. See

The guidance also sets out clearly the need for schools to deliver online safeguarding education to pupils and training for staff, an essential part of protecting children from harmful content and other online risks.

There are also new guidelines to help schools navigate other complex issues such as sexting and cyber-bullying. We have been working alongside others in the Education Group of UKCCIS (the UK Council for Child Internet Safety) to create new guidance for schools about managing sexting incidents. With new ‘Outcome 21’ police provisions to protect children from unnecessary criminalisation, the guide sets out how to respond to sexting incidents, including when to involve the police.

Outstanding e-safety provision
Many schools are doing a fantastic job of empowering children and young people to have a positive time online.

However, research shows where many schools could look to improve their provision.
Ofsted data from 84 schools inspected about online safety in 2015 and self-review data from 7,000 schools using 360 Degree Safe has found that while schools are on the whole very strong when it comes to e-safety policies and filtering, they are weaker on staff and governor training, pupil involvement and evaluating impact of e-safety policies and practice.

Pupil involvement is a powerful way of improving your school’s e-safety provision, despite being one of the weakest areas for schools. From developing e-safety policies to delivering education sessions and campaigns, young people can be important role models and leaders in your school community.

Safer Internet Day
Safer Internet Day provides a key moment when children and young people can take the lead in making the internet a better place and when schools can provide a spotlight on the work they do throughout the year and create a ‘buzz’ in school about these issues.

Celebrated globally and coordinated in the UK by the UK Safer Internet Centre, the campaign reached 40 per cent of UK children in 2016 with thousands of schools and organisations getting involved in the day.

We know the day has real impact too, with children and parents saying they changed their behaviour or felt more confident as a result. A survey of teachers involved in the day found that half said it led to disclosures about potential online safeguarding concerns.

Will Gardner is CEO, Childnet; director of the UK Safer Internet Centre; and executive board member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety.

Further information