by Matt Forde
National Head of Service for NSPCC Scotland
This Tuesday Safer Internet Day will be celebrated world-wide, focusing on how we, as a global community, can “create a better internet together”. Easily said, but how do we do it?The internet is an incredibly powerful tool; offering children and young people a platform for expression, learning and friendship that I simply could not have imagined growing up. But, whilst the World Wide Web has revolutionised our lives and the way in which we communicate, it brings risk and offers opportunities to the unscrupulous.
Internet misuse is endemic; the news is punctuated by stories of underage ‘sexting’, ‘selfie-harm’ images, revenge porn, and teens ‘trolling’ each other and even, astonishingly, themselves. Reports of cyber-bullying and online abuse have increased dramatically, stressing the fundamental need to protect children and young people online and, crucially, to teach them how to protect themselves.
The naiveties and curiosities often associated with youth can blur the boundaries between the virtual world and ‘real life’. Sophisticated technology is omnipresent and many adolescents are almost permanently online; increasing their vulnerability to engaging with inappropriate content, ‘friending’ strangers and taking risks.Exposure to inappropriate content deprived of any real context can warp impressions of relationships, distort body image and create undue pressures. Its ready availability undoubtedly creates a false sense of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour and fuels naive attitudes toward ‘sexting’.
It might be hard to believe that digital ‘relationships’ can become so detached from reality that some young people will put themselves and others at serious emotional or physical risk. Yet this is a reality we must recognise and be prepared to confront.
As a society, it is our collective responsibility to underpin responsible digital citizenship as a way of life. The internet has irrevocably changed the world. Rather than creating a better internet, our mission should be to equip the next generation with the knowledge, vigilance and confidence to embrace the online community, without falling foul of its darker elements.
Reinforcing cyber-safety from an early age should be intuitive; in the same way we instil road safety or ‘stranger danger’. Parents, carers, adults, children, schools, teachers and the internet community all have a role to play in ensuring children and young people can enjoy the internet safely, without fear of mistreatment, bullying or abuse.We need to stress the serious implications of sending photos or comments into the online abyss and emphasise that people may not always be who or what they purport to be, with potentially exploitative motivations. Frank discussions about online pornography or ‘sexting’ can be embarrassing, but we must objectively address and contextualise the content children may encounter; encouraging healthy respectful relationships.
On average, children and young people spend twelve hours online each week, and with access available across everything from mobile phones to gaming, online abuse can happen anywhere, anytime – even in the safety of your own home.
To tackle this issue head on, we must be prepared to confront our own feelings of ignorance and start conversations about who our children’s Facebook friends are, what they say on Twitter, who they Snapchat or what online games they play. I try to take interest in my son’s online social life, but confess I could do more to break down the digital divide between my generation and his. Social media alone is a scary place for me – I’m lost at YOLO – but the prospect of what he could encounter is much more frightening.
Young people might be more au fait with technology, but the dangers come from people – and the dangers are not new. Our strategies and attitudes must mirror the internet’s fluidity if we are to effectively safeguard children and young people online. It’s a World Wide Work-in-progress, but together we can make it a safer space for everyone.