11 February 2020

On the 17th Safer Internet Day, Andy Phippen - a Fellow of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and Professor of Digital Rights at Bournemouth University - considers how well the guidance rightly given to children all year round is serving older age groups - including students and vulnerable adults.

“Back in 2004 Internet Safety was not a commonly discussed matter and we have, over the years, seen many great strides forward with young people and online safety. The DfE’s Keeping Children Safe in Education makes it statutory for schools to deliver education around online safety, and OFSTED will explicitly explore how a school keeps their students safe online in inspections.

“We see many resources provided by all manner of companies and NGOs that support this learning, and we also see the IT sector becoming increasingly sophisticated and engaged in providing tools to help the users of their platforms be able to engage with them safely.

“However a study of the higher education sector I carried out for University of Suffolk with Professor Emma Bond - Online Harassment and Hate Crime in HEIs - found this is not necessarily the case when online safety becomes an issue for adults.

“Many universities, with a duty of care for the welfare of their students, are failing in the most basic practices around providing education and support around online abuse.

“As we write in the report, it is a mistaken assumption across the sector that students transition to university equipped to deal with issues of online harassment, abuse and extortion with no further need for awareness-raising or education around critical digital literacies.

“Moreover institutions are sometimes concerned that, if they publicly address issues of online safeguarding they may raise reputational risks as a “university with an online harassment problem”’.

“We are also working increasingly with adults with mental capacity issues, and we see a lot of the old safeguarding clichés about keeping them safe by confiscating devices and preventing them from enjoying their human rights to engage, and express themselves, with online services.

“It might even be worth reflecting on whether we even have the correct term? We can never hope to make people safe (i.e. protected from, or free from, risk) online.

“We can, however, help them become resilient, by talking about the potential risks, and what we might do if these occur. When we speak to young people, they rarely ask for a lesson on cyberbullying, sexting or grooming (and they are even less likely to ask to see a video about it!).

“Instead they ask for education that will help them think critically, to make informed judgements on the online issues with which they choose to engage, and most importantly, they have many questions about the online world they want answering. And while we have made great strides forward, we fear we still have a long way to go to achieve a fully engaged, critically literate and resilient online society.”

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