As a parent and a teacher I welcome the report by Anne Longfield, The Children’s Commissioner, which highlights that children are being left to fend for themselves in a digital world. This is something I have been concerned about for a long time, and in my role as a specialist computing teacher I am fortunate to be in a position where I can teach children about online threats and advise them on how they can help to keep themselves safe.
There is no doubt that children face more risks online than ever before, and that they currently find themselves in the middle of dangerous pincer manoeuvre.
On the one hand, the world is becoming more ‘online’ by the day. Access to phones, tablets, smart TVs, games consoles (the list goes on) means children spend more time online across a wider variety of platforms. They are also accessing online and electronic content at much younger ages than ever before – how often have you seen a toddler in a pushchair being placated by a screen? It’s got to the point now that children are not even aware that they are online, or even what ‘online’ actually means.
On the other hand, children face the pressure of being able to connect with their friends and peers across a hugely blossoming range of social media and gaming platforms. Inevitably, the pace of change and the reluctance for children to share platforms with their parents means that there is a growing disconnect between the services used by adults and children. In the last 5 years there has been a big swing away from Facebook by primary age children. Why? Because it’s what their parents use and they don’t want to be spied on by them.
I have been blogging about the importance of teaching digital literacy for a long time and this issue stretches beyond Internet safety. Digitally literate children will have better career opportunities, will be better problem solvers, more effective communication skills, and perhaps most importantly have a better chance of using technology safely and responsibly. In my view digital literacy should be on a par with Maths and English in the National Curriculum. How many children will pursue careers, which require them to write stories or solve long division problems on paper? Yet core skills such as communicating online, spreadsheets and, of course Internet safety are not given anything like the importance of Maths and English.
In my opinion there are two critical issues, which need to be addressed. Firstly, digital literacy has to be given a higher profile. Contrary to some of the coverage in the media today (including comments by The Children’s Commissioner herself), digital literacy and specifically Internet safety (here’s the KS1 & 2 curricula as an example) is part of the National Curriculum from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 4. However, its profile is not high enough, coverage is not broad enough and scrutiny not rigorous enough. I hope that those commenting that it’s not on the curriculum are using a rather blunt instrument aimed at raising its profile and it’s not a sign of their ignorance or lack of understanding.
The second issue is parenting. From the first moment a child picks up a tablet or a smartphone parents have a responsibility to ensure that they are using it safely and responsibly. Technology should not and cannot be seen as a ‘babysitter’. The view that it’s OK to leave a child unsupervised on any online device for any extended period of time has to be challenged. It’s habit forming and leads to children relying on technology to keep themselves occupied. This is far more dangerous than TV ever has been – whilst a TV can be addictive, traditionally they were not interactive, so the potential for damage was much more limited – very few people will ever be groomed by a non-interactive TV. Parents must also be aware of age appropriate sites and games. I’m staggered by the number of parents who do not hesitate to let their children register on social networking sites when they are far too young – who else do they think will be using them? Would they send their 9-year-old son or daughter out to meet strangers in the street? Would they let their children watch 18 certificate movies at the cinema? Yet online they don’t see the risks.
The solution has to be in education, not just of children but also children. There needs to be a cultural step change – it’s not OK for children to roam unsupervised online and it’s neither is it OK for them to access whatever they like, regardless of their age. There is also a responsibility for service providers to take this issue more seriously – reporting has to be made easier, responses need to be quicker and there has to be a way of stopping children signing up to social media accounts simply by making up a date of birth.
Some of you maybe aware that I am currently conducting some research into the online habits of primary age children. I intend to use the results of this to further the debate into Internet safety and specifically its place in the digital literacy curriculum. If you are a teacher and would like to take part in this survey, please contact me on twitter via @hengehall.