Being educated in the digital space

Increased time online while learning from home is leading to a greater online safety threat for children. So what can be done about it? Ian Stevenson, chair of OSTIA’s working group, shares some thoughts

As the whole world grapples with the uncertainty and stress brought on by the coronavirus, there are glimmers of hope that communities are pulling together. All over the country, individuals are uniting to show support for the NHS, make face masks and volunteer.

However, there are also areas that need to be handled with caution during this current climate – in particular, online safety. With official government guidance being to work from home, and schools now closed and children learning remotely online, the population is spending a greater amount of time online than usual. This is leading to the potential for greater child safety issues. Cybercriminals are among the most proficient at targeting vulnerable individuals – from phishing attacks purporting to be official government advice on the pandemic, to more aggressive predatory behaviour from those targeting children. Parents, carers, educators, governments, and technology companies all have a shared responsibility to educate and protect children from these online harms.

Heightened risks from increased time online

It is not an empty statement to say that increased time online for the UK is leading to a greater online safety threat for children. Recent data from the National Crime Agency (NCA) shows that new arrests are taking place as a result of these types of activity. The NCA has reported that child sex offenders are seeking to exploit more young people and children who are at home using the internet. In the last few weeks, the NCA has developed and disseminated upwards of a thousand online child sexual abuse (CSA) packages to UK policing, executed multiple warrants against high risk CSA offenders, and made several arrests, including two suspected transnational child sex offenders. The NCA and UK policing relentlessly fight the online child sexual abuse threat, arresting more than 500 child sex offenders and safeguarding around 700 children each month.

The threats faced certainly include traditional grooming activity which we are seeing online, but also other, more delicate issues of online harm such as children ‘sexting’ each other and sharing imagery, which could well form the basis of future blackmail and make them more vulnerable. Risks to children from each other, such as bullying often within school class groups and potentially on education platforms, and threats to teachers where pupils are sending abuse to teachers via platforms, are exacerbated when children are consistently expected to spend more time online for their education – whether using education-specific tools, or wider services that are being adopted for this use.

How educators can help

Schools have a dual responsibility when it comes to e-safety: to ensure the school’s online procedures keep children and young people safe, and to teach them about online safety, both in and outside of school. Of course, the current climate provides extra obstacles in these areas, but by fostering an open environment in which children and young people are encouraged to ask any questions, there is an increased chance of engagement and participation in an ongoing conversation about the benefits and dangers of the online world. In terms of practical and easier to implement advice, the NCA and National Police Chiefs’ Council are urging children, parents, teachers and carers to ensure they know how to stay safe on the web. The NCA has recently launched a new #OnlineSafetyAtHome campaign through its education team, with series of 15 minute activities which adults, including teachers and parents, can do with children to help them understand safety. Various organisations, such as the NSPCC, Internet Matters and thinkuknow are at the forefront of promoting e-safety for schools, offering guides online for teachers to learn how to best support children with limited face-to-face contact during this disaster.

Alongside the need for online safety education is the matter of how exactly remote teaching can be accomplished in a safe way, for instance to mitigate the risk that increased unsupervised time on devices causes, such as children using social media when their parents believe they’re on education tools. In order to get this right, there needs to be best practice considered from the very platform used to communicate through to the type of work being set. Communication is important to consider, as it can be difficult to maintain the same safeguarding practices instilled in teachers for their normal face-to-face learning environment. So again, there should be support offered by schools centrally to aid teachers in how to provide and run a safe and secure online platform for students that minimises risk without impacting on the teaching being carried out.

How parents can help

A key area of protecting children and vulnerable people online is educating parents and carers on the topic. Schools can do as much as they can but the foundations for keeping children safe online need to be promoted at home. However, it is an understandably difficult topic; people don’t like talking about the issues of sexual abuse, grooming, bullying and sextortion or nudity. By communicating with your children and explaining to them that there are individuals online that have bad intentions is how you keep them safe, so the conversations need to be approached and delivered in much the same way you’d tell your child to not get into a stranger’s car if they offer you a lift. That is especially important regarding sharing any pictures or videos, as in many ways the dangers are just as real.

Looking at it even more broadly – especially for younger children – parents also need to assess what technologies they have access to. Games on a tablet may seem innocent enough, but does that game have a messaging function that enables them to speak to other players, or contain links to install other applications, or ways to input credit card information to buy add-ons?

To help with this, there are age-appropriate design guides for websites and applications which can help steer technology companies. It is perfectly appropriate for children to be talking with other children, but if you are creating a game or a platform that is targeting young users, you should be creating safe spaces by design. That can be done through verifying the age of users and there is excellent technology available to detect instances of bullying, harassment and grooming conversations, as well as actual child abuse material and nudity. Parents and carers need to encourage children towards platforms that have displayed these capabilities.

For the maximum benefit, there needs to be collaboration between parents, carers and educators, to make sure the same rules are being reinforced in both settings, work and play. Communication between both groups, whether existing or through newly established channels to help with the current lockdown situation, can go a long way in helping make this a reality. Why organisations are joining together Stepping away from directly involved carers and teachers, clear guidance from national organisations, supported by shocking statistics and data, is leading to more collaboration than ever before. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis could have the “unexpected consequence” of increased dialogue and cooperation between tech companies and EU politicians, as suggested by Thierry Breton, EU Internal Market Commissioner. With education existing very much in the digital space, these dialogues should be followed by those involved to keep up to date with the latest in online safety. One such example of this heightened collaboration is the recently launched Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA). It is a growing association that began with 14 technology companies, with a mission to drive conversation and policy, bridging the gap between those who seek change and those who fear it will be costly and difficult to implement. OSTIA has support from the National Crime Agency, GCHQ, the Home Office and the NSPCC. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also advising OSTIA, and will hold regular meetings with the industry association. It is currently working on best practice guides for platform builders to understand these online spaces and how best to design and navigate them to promote safety. These kinds of resources break down online safety into actionable steps; which is vital as often the overall issue can seem insurmountable. The first focus for these guides will be to compile an Introductory Guide to Online Safety. This document will be drafted with specialist insight from government and civil society organisations to act as a guide for online platforms to proactively tackle online safety in the very design of their offerings. Educators should see themselves as very much the target audience for this kind of material too, both current and upcoming, as there is a lot from the wider online space that can be distilled and applied to education platforms. By working with parents, teachers and carers to educate children on the risks of online harms, as well as ensuring proper safeguarding through collaboration across the sector and government, change will begin to happen and major leaps will be made to combat the increasing online harms landscape.

 Ian Stevenson is chair of OSTIA’s working group and CEO and co-founder at Cyan Forensics