The internet is not designed for children…or adults!

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[This post first appeared on the Independent Schools’ Council Blog]

Following recent comments by the Children’s Commissioner regarding online safety, Mrs Caroline Dunn, Deputy Head (Pupil Progress and Welfare) argues that adults do not necessarily have a greater understanding of emerging technologies than young people.

I don’t disagree with the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, when she describes online terms and conditions as “impenetrable”.  They are.  But they are as impenetrable to adults as they are to young people, filled with jargon and legal terminology which only the most enthusiastic technological expert can fully understand.

Digital media and social networking are part of the world today’s young people are growing up in.  As a School, we have a responsibility to help young people make sense of that world, to ask questions of it and to make their own choices as they develop.

It is important that our Wellbeing programmes are always relevant in this fast-changing world –an education of online safety and personal data is certainly an important part of this.  But we cannot presume that we, by nature of being adults, necessarily have a greater understanding of emerging technologies than the young people we teach or care for.

How many terms and conditions have you read fully before ticking the ‘Agree’ box?  If you have, how much of it did you fully understand?  We are all as easily manipulated by new and exciting trends, regardless of age.

jl_picture_56_webThe students we work with are fully aware of their digital footprint and of the choices they make when they interact online.  There are times when they are more savvy to the way their data will be handled than some adults are.  This isn’t simply through what they have learnt at school but because they are the digital natives.

That’s not to say that schools and parents don’t have a role to play.  There are a wealth of free resources available, through the likes of ParentZone, Safer Internet Centre and the Thinkuknow website from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which are of great value and should be utilised to help guide young people through the “impenetrable”.  However, the objective of our education should not be to instil fear but to help children make their own informed choices. We work together with our parents to help them realise that parenting online is the same as parenting offline. It’s about clear boundaries, open and honest communication and taking an active interest in what young people are doing and who they are doing it with.

A child chooses to climb a tree despite the number of times they’ve been told why it’s dangerous and what the negative outcomes could be for them if they do.  If they choose to climb it, then hopefully they will at least do so in a safe way, taking on board what has been said to them.  It’s likely that they will go ahead anyway (when Mum or Dad isn’t watching!) and gain a sense of achievement, adventure and accomplishment.  If they fall, they will hurt themselves but, importantly, they will learn a vital lesson.

And so it is online.  There are so many positive outcomes that can be achieved through safe and adventurous use of the internet and social media.  Some of our own students have started their own blogs, created positive worldwide Twitter communities and set-up their own YouTube channels.  In doing all this, if they come across something less savoury, it’s important that they have an open and honest relationship with their parents or teachers, so that they can discuss it, learn from it and move on.  This is how resilience is developed – something we all benefit from.

I do agree that more could be done by online companies to ensure that they are fulfilling their social corporate responsibilities.  The control of access, advertising and age-appropriate content lies with them.  Offering parents and carers a transparent reporting system would also go a long way to reassure and help keep young people safe.

How terms and conditions are written or the way they are presented is unlikely to deter young people from making some of their potential mistakes.  What’s important is that they learn to stop, to think and then make an educated and informed decision for themselves.

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