Shaping the digital citizens of the future

Simon FinchBy Simon Finch, Online Safety Officer, Digitally Confident

Part 1

When people ask me for support, they’re certainly not going to get ‘10 ways to stay safe online.’ What they are going to get is something that one teacher once described as “delightfully unsettling.”

Online safety is part of the safeguarding agenda, a fundamental duty of care of every organisation and individual working with children and young people. But the ways that many are dealing with the threat of e-safety are not fit for purpose.

For example, teachers often ask me or a police officer to come in after an online bullying incident to “scare the children.” That’s not very helpful. I can offer some positive ways forward by talking about behaviour and experience. Crucially, I can challenge people to understand online safety by asking teachers, children and young people to think again about some of the existing messages around staying safe online.

Good digital citizens

One of the mantras you often hear is ‘never share personal information online’. I think that’s a lazy message, there are many instances when we need to and choose to share our personal information face to face and online. I ask students ‘which of your personal details would you need to provide to perform an everyday scenario, like buying a gift-wrapped present for a friend online?

They get it right every time. They have no hesitation in saying; ‘name’, ‘address’, ‘postcode’, ‘phone number.’

In other scenarios, young people also tell me you could lie about your personal information, for example, when playing games online with other players from around the world. Again, they’re right. The default should be to withhold information. Why tell the truth?

It’s not about never sharing personal information, but how you share it, when you share it and understanding the benefits. The benefits of sharing personal details with an online store are clear, while sharing your home address with an online gamer has no obvious benefit.

Encouraging children and young people to understand the benefits and challenges of sharing personal information is part of getting them on track to be safe, confident digital citizens.

‘Real-world’ relationships?

Too often adults will make a distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘online’ world. Much of my work is to help them understand that the online world is the real world. Social media is about people.

The challenges our children face online are about people and relationships, not buttons and technology.

It’s not good enough for adults to say: ‘I don’t know anything about Facebook or Instagram.’ Maybe they don’t know how to use these services but they have a lifetime’s experience of people. It’s this expertise they must share with the young people in their care.

It’s important for adults who are responsible for young people to understand that online relationships can be as real, valid and meaningful as face-to-face friendships. I remind adults that many of us had pen pals; friends who we never met but who we liked, trusted and confided in, even though they were perhaps hundreds of miles away.

Our role as guides for young people is to provide appropriate support in how to manage relationships and to keep themselves safe.

Ofsted expects schools to provide age-appropriate online support and guidance for young people and the new Computing curriculum requires schools to teach online safety. There’s increasing evidence that many adults meet their partner online and if this is the case, then surely schools need to consider how they can provide support and guidance for children around online relationships?

Children are the same as we were. And, just like us, they need role models for healthy relationships, they also need role models for their online behaviour.

Part 2

Online safety is not about filtering, banning and blaming young people. Traditionally, the attitude has been in many cases; ‘how could the young person be so stupid as to speak to a stranger online and then meet them?’

It would be more helpful if we were to look at ways in which we can help young people recognise when grooming takes place and how to identify strategies to stay safe. ’Never talk to strangers’ isn’t helpful advice – each of us speaks with strangers every day.

We need to provide our young people with the skills and strategies to stay safe while engaging with strangers, who may be, or appear to be, online friends.

But young people emulate what adults are doing online. The trouble is, there are few adults modelling appropriate online behaviour and we frequently see adults engaging in rude, bullying behaviour often making hateful comments about celebrity sports people and game show participants.

How can we expect young people to be kind, considerate digital citizens when they watch their parents and other adults behave in the most disgraceful ways online?

Future leaders

Modelling good behaviour should start in infants and junior schools.

Some schools choose pupils to be ‘digital leaders;’ advocates of technology who light the way for the less experienced. They tend to be the pupils who usually show teachers and children how to use devices.

In workshops, I ask pupils to think about how to best get positive online safety messages out to others, including their parents. Often they choose to make a poster, as they think that’s what the teacher wants, but I encourage them to use technology creatively, by making a video, for example.

The way I see it, children and young people are all digital leaders. They need to be. Online safety and digital literacy aren’t about technology, they’re only about people.

Teach a man to fish...

In my job, the conversation often turns to reputation. Explaining to young people that what you do now online could spoil your chances of getting a job in 10 or 20 years is like persuading them not to smoke or binge drink.

You post once and you post forever. But you can’t live without mistakes.

The main message I try to convey is that they’ll be one of millions of people who have something online that they don’t want to be there. But it is there, and although some doors will be harder to open, it’s OK.

We also need the wider world to grow up, including those companies that withdraw successful job applications, because they found that Facebook photo.

So the idea of a ‘digital amnesty’ where all content published is erased after the age of 16 is relevant, albeit technically impossible. Giving young people a strategy to survive is much more important.

Three e-safety tips
    1. Demonstrate to children and young people how and when to give out your personal information online and explain the benefits.
    2. Ensure that every child has a range of trusted adults to turn to if they find themselves in trouble online. It doesn’t have to be a parent or teacher (which is why I run sessions for dinner ladies). In fact, as parents, we’re often the last to find out, because online safety issues can bring about feelings of shame.
    3. Understand that children and young people are often actively involved in an online community of friends and it is ‘the real world.’

      About Digitally Confident
      Digitally Confident supports adults who work with young people as well as parents and carers, with a focus on digital literacy and online safety, covering topics including Ofsted requirements, online bullying, grooming, radicalisation and sexting. It also provides face-to-face support and resources for young people. It is a service of Northern Grid, a non-profit consortium of seven local authorities in the North East which trains and supports organisations working with young people in the public and private sectors.

      About Simon Finch
      Simon Finch, who founded Digitally Confident, started his career as a teacher in 1984. He is now online safety officer for the organisation and an experienced, well-regarded keynote speaker and workshop leader at events throughout the UK and abroad. In 2013 he won ICT association Naace’s Impact Award for Leadership for his commitment to ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment for the education sector.

      Follow Simon on Twitter: @simfin
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