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A new approach to keeping young people safe online

Young people are taking too many risks online. One company, EVERFI EdComs, is working with businesses to help children understand the dangers of the virtual world.

Teachers across the UK are growing increasingly concerned about how their pupils spend their time online.

Julian*, an assistant headteacher at a secondary school, says his students “need constant reminders” to be vigilant about their privacy settings and who they’re following online.

Gillian*, a teacher at a different secondary school, fears that now her pupils spend far more time online than they used to, there are “more opportunities for people to take advantage of them”.

And Samantha*, an assistant principal at a comprehensive, worries that her pupils’ time online “tends to be a bit of a private world”.

The UK Safer Internet Centre has found that since the pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in downloads of ‘adult content’ and in searches for child sexual abuse images.

Meanwhile, children’s charity Unicef has confirmed what was widely thought to be the case - in recent months, young people have spent an unprecedented amount of time in front of screens.

Pre-Covid, experts were already warning that teenagers were taking too many risks online and that too few understood that all isn’t always as it seems in the virtual world.

It’s no surprise then that teachers - and the rest of us - have now reached a turning point in terms of our anxiety over young people’s online safety.

Ellen Helsper, Professor of Digital Inequalities at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues that we are just beginning to realise that children’s technical skills online are “only part of what they need to survive in a digital world”.

“Young people, like adults, need to know how to engage positively online, as well as have a critical understanding of what can and can’t be trusted and how their digital actions influence not only their own, but also others’ opportunities and well-being,” she says. 

Prof Helsper argues that this is particularly important now that many young people browse the internet on their phones and are therefore less supervised online than they used to be.

From this autumn, online safety has been included in the Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) school curriculum in England. But David Wright, Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, says it remains to be seen what difference this will make. 

“The way we are teaching young people to be safe and confident online urgently needs to change,” Wright says. He believes many schools have a “manufacturing approach” to online safety.

“A school year group is shown a video on online safety and often it’s about extreme harm online with the pretext that if we show young people what harm looks like, they will be able to recognise it when they see it,” Wright says. “But when we learn how to drive, we don’t just watch clips of car crashes to learn how to do it. The current approach makes massive assumptions that children are able to contextualise what they see.”

Figures from the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom bear this out. It found three in ten 8 to 15-year-olds think that if a website is listed by a search engine, it can be trusted.

For experts like Wright, much of the messages we tell young people about online safety are both out-of-date and too blunt. 

We tell teenagers not to post personal information online when that’s one of the main reasons social media exists, he says. We warn them not to chat online to anyone they don’t know even though online dating now accounts for one in three marriages.

One company that is taking a different approach to young people’s online safety is EVERFI EdComs

It is offering schools a free online safety course that has been widely acclaimed in the US and Canada and has now been adapted for the UK market.

The course, Ignition, is for 11 to 14-year-olds and has content and tips that apply to the latest technology platforms. It gives young people, among other things, a strong grounding in data privacy and the benefits and perils of online communities, as well as an understanding that not everything they see online should be taken at face value.

Businesses sponsor the courses so that Ignition can be provided free to UK schools. 

“Corporate leaders have an opportunity to be pioneers when it comes to young people’s online safety and provide a much-needed digital literacy programme,” says Jon Chapman, President and Co-founder of EVERFI, EVERFI EdComs’ parent company.

Chapman says equipping young people with the skills to safely and resiliently navigate the virtual world is one of “the most powerful and important ways any business can invest in the future”.

Businesses are becoming more aware that this kind of investment is their responsibility too, says Rachel Barber-Mack, Director of Media Smart, which helps young people navigate the media they consume.

Professor Helsper goes further. “Unless businesses step up to this role,” she says, “they will lose out on talented young people with creative and original ideas.”

*Names have been changed

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