Keeping children safe online

This week Ofcom was appointed as the “online harms regulator” for the UK. Part of their role will be to make sure websites where users are able to share content (such as videos, comments or in forums) remove illegal content (such as child abuse images) quickly. They will also have powers to ensure that these websites have processes in place to keep their users safe. We welcome this news that Ofcom’s new powers may help to keep children safe online.

Children’s media use is something we are interested in and if you are a regular reader to our blog you’ll remember previous posts on the subject. We’ve written about the debate around sharing personal photographs and videos of children on television and the internet, children’s online digital safety and the rise in children’s data footprints. We’ve also had guest posts by Dr Paula Stone about children lacking conversational skills because their parents are spending excessive amount of times on their mobile phones, and by Harriet Smithers about the moral panic around children’s social media use.

The announcement has also been received positively by charities who support young children, such as Barnardos, who say “Children face growing risks online, including cyber-bullying, sexual grooming, and exposure to self-harm forums… We cannot expect children to protect themselves. Instead we need a regulator to act without delay.” And although we agree with Barnardos that we cannot expect children to protect themselves, we are doing children a disservice if we do not recognise their capabilities to develop media literacy and digital literacy strategies that can help them to keep themselves safe.

The UK charity 5Rights Foundation advocates for changes to the digital world to make sure it meets the needs of children and young people. They argue that children have five rights online, which are:

  1. The right to remove data and content they have created
  2. The right to know who holds their information and what it is being used for
  3. The right to safety and support if children come across inappropriate or upsetting content
  4. The right to informed and conscious use so that children’s attention is not being held unknowingly
  5. The right to digital literacy, so that children “learn to be digital makers as well as intelligent consumers”.

This last right, the right to digital literacy, argues that children need to develop ‘digital capital’ and be “taught the skills to use, create and critique digital technologies, and given the tools to negotiate changing social norms”. In this way, children can be empowered with strategies to help keep themselves safe online. This is not only in terms of lessons in online ‘stranger danger’, which 5Rights say digital literacy is often reduced to, but also in terms of more elusive dangers like how online targeting and personalisation may impact on how they behave and spend their time online.

So, although we do not want to place responsibility on children to keep themselves safe online, and welcome the news that Ofcom will have more powers to do this on their behalf, we do believe that children can be taught skills and strategies to navigate their online worlds more safely. What do you think – where should the responsibility lie? And what more could we be doing to develop children’s digital capital?

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