The internet and social media are a permanent part of modern childhood and for most children they offer huge opportunities to learn and connect. Today’s ‘Safer Internet Day’ brings schools, parents, teachers and industry together to make sure children have the power, information and resilience they need to make safe and informed choices online.
The theme of Safer Internet Day, ‘Create, Connect and share respect: A better internet starts with you’ reflects how it is the responsibility of all of us to work together to be positive, safe and respectful online, and encourages young people to consider how they interact with others to develop healthy online relationships.
These aims are at the heart of our work on digital resilience. In January 2017, I published ‘Growing Up Digital’, which made a number of recommendations aimed at improving children’s experiences of the digital world. A year on, I am pleased that some of our proposals are being introduced by the Government, though I remain frustrated by the social media companies’ unwillingness at times to be more accountable, responsive and transparent.
In ‘Growing Up Digital’ we called for the creation of a digital citizenship programme, to be compulsory in every school from 4-14 and with a ‘peer-to-peer’ element. Our focus on ‘digital resilience’ rather than ‘online safety’ is becoming a far more common concept than it was, used widely by Ministers, Departments and other organisations. The DCMS ‘Internet Safety Strategy’ Green Paper, published last year, made a commitment to improving children’s digital education, including consulting on a school curricula that would meet some of the challenges the internet and social media brings. The Government is also looking at developing online content and materials on digital citizenship and resources to support children’s digital resilience. There is recognition too that peer-to-peer support should be integrated into teaching around digital citizenship, with a teacher in every school responsible for this area alongside a group of student mentors.
Added to that, DCMS is developing online safety materials to support foster carers and local authorities for looked after children, and the DfE relationships and sex education consultation makes clear that any resulting guidance to schools will incorporate the digital elements of children’s friendships and relationships, including their interactions on social media.
These are all measures we have been calling for and I welcome. However, I want schools to be creative about how they do it and integrate it across the whole day, rather than just having it as a part of PSHE box to be ticked. I hope that the Department for Education will look at making this happen.
Today’s Safer Internet Day encourages children to look after themselves online, recognising how the internet can impact upon them and knowing how to use it safely and sensibly, and over the last year, we have continued to do more to encourage this healthy relationship between children and their devices and social media platforms. Our ‘Digital 5 a Day’ guide sets out five ways in which parents and their children can make sure time spent online is productive. I know many parents and teachers have found it useful and I’m glad that it is referenced as good practice in the DCMS Green Paper and the Government’s recent Green Paper on Mental Health.
My office has also led the way in campaigning for the introduction of simplified terms and conditions for the digital platforms children use most often. ‘Growing Up Digital’ called on the social media companies to take more responsibility for the content on their sites and to be more transparent in the way in which they deal with reports from children. DCMS are now considering how government can work with industry to produce an annual transparency report that highlights how many reports social media companies receive and how they are dealt with. Google have committed to producing the first of these transparency reports this year. This is a step forward.
Under the incoming Data Protection Bill, social media companies and other internet service providers will also have to simplify their privacy policies in a way that users (including children) can understand. In advance of this, we worked with the leading privacy law firm Schillings and tes to produce our own simplified T&Cs as teaching resources for use by primary and secondary school teachers.
At the last election, both main parties included manifesto commitments to do more to hold the internet giants to account. Some of those social media companies have wrongly dismissed constructive criticism as people wanting to ‘shut down the internet’. Nobody wants to do that, and I have always been upbeat about the great benefits the internet and social media can provide to children. I also think there have been positive changes over the last year.
There are though still big challenges ahead – and we all have a role to play. That means parents making sure their children have a healthy digital diet, social media companies taking more responsibility for protecting children from the internet’s negative side and Government continuing to work with schools to teach children the practical and emotional skills they need as they navigate their way through the digital world. I hope that together we can build on the positive progress we have already made and ensure that our children live a healthy digital life.