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Young, Safe and Online

Child internet safety expert Simon Bass, CEO of CCPAS, unpacks how to ensure the children you work with remain safe online.

Turn back the clock ten years, and neither you nor I had heard of Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest (which, incidentally, were launched in 2004, 2006 and 2009 respectively). Millions now use these sites daily.

Social media is extremely powerful; it was heartbeat of the Arab Spring uprisings, with news of the events coming through mobile phone footage being instantly aired and shared. In 2011, Blackberry’s Messenger service was blamed for mobilising young people during the riots. The Internet of course, is an incredible tool for adults and young children alike. It provides children with a fresh learning environment; it’s a place where they can communicate and share ideas, thoughts and feelings, interact socially with friends and peers and be innovative as they create and share content. A child can post a video they have shot themselves on their mobile phone and millions can view it instantly. No wonder the word ‘viral’ is used to describe this process.

It is also a social place where they can play and be entertained – and where they can explore and take risks. Television is already migrating to the Internet; the increase of online courses is a likely route for our education system and before long access to the Internet will probably be seen as a fundamental human right.

As someone working with children, how much thought have you given to their safety when online? The reality is that while children are often competent at navigating online and using social media, they understandably lack the wisdom and maturity to stay safe.

Helping children stay safe

If a child joins a social media site the first thing he or she usually does is ‘find friends’. They almost always ignore the security settings which, as the default option, allow anyone and everyone to view their personal information.

In order to show children how to use social media sites safely, talk about:

• Protecting their information and choosing what they want to share, and who with 

• How to change their privacy settings

• Explaining that information shared remains online forever, and can be used by cyber-bullies or ‘trolls’

• Talk about respecting others, and to take care in the comments they may make online

• Give clear guidance about appropriate boundaries, remembering that children socialise with other people both online and offline.

Oversharing our digital footprint

Information shared online and through social media leaves a digital footprint. Children should be careful that they don’t ‘over share’ information. Examples of this are well documented in the media – such as when a child posted on Facebook that they were having a party at home while their parents were away, leading to a mass influx of gatecrashers. Social media is so instant we have lost that thinking time. But children need to learn to think before they post.

That picture of the 16 year old, bleary-eyed from a late night out, may be just a laugh when shared with a few friends. But the consequences of posts can be serious and damaging. Some people, on reaching adulthood, have found that they haven’t got the jobs or university offers expected because employers and tutors viewed the content of their social media sites and disliked what they saw. A good example of this was Paris Brown, Kent’s first youth crime commissioner who was forced to quit in spring 2013 because of several very unwise Twitter comments she had made several years ago, as a young teenager.

Age of first Internet use

Research shows that even younger children are now going online, using a variety of methods including tablets, smartphones and apps. One report showed that 7.5 million American children under the age of 13 are on Facebook – despite this being the minimum age at which they are supposed to do so.

It should come as no surprise that a recent study showed that 90% of all American children have an online history by the time they are two. Pre-natal scan pictures are often the first source, so those children have a pre-birth history online! By the age of five, more than half regularly interact with a computer or tablet device, and by eight most regularly play video games. And these figures are not dissimilar to research findings from the UK.

So, we can no longer ignore the fact that the growth of social media and digital devices is totally transforming children’s lives. Children’s online and offline lives have merged so they are now indistinguishable. In the future we will always be connected. Wi-Fi is now available on the London underground, and advances such as 4G and cloud computing will mean constant internet connection. Already the first thing many children do, as soon as they get out of bed in the morning, is use their smartphones to check their social media accounts.

What is genuine?

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Facebook is how it has changed the construct of exactly who a ‘friend’ is. A child may well add someone to their ‘friends’ list who they have never met in person. Over time, and only through online communication, that child may come to see that individual as a close friend in the same way they do their school friends.

Children are also forming their view of the world from the Internet, and believe it to be true, which is why many teachers are concerned about Wikipedia, since it is based on user-generated content. CCPAS has seen situations where a child’s Facebook account has been cloned for malicious purposes, taking photographs and personal details from the genuine account and setting up a duplicate one; leaving people unsure which one was genuine. The unregulated nature of the Internet means we need to teach children that not everyone online is who they say they are, and not everything is genuine.

If connectivity to the Internet is to become a fundamental human right in the future, then it should equally be a right that adults take responsibility for protecting children whilst they use it.

Teaching online safety

Childnet International have resources for 4-12s, as well as advice for adults


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