Online safety has a lot in common with staying safe in other aspects of our lives. When children learn to cross the street for example, they develop the experience and judgement to use their skills to know when it is safe to cross. Learning skills like applying the ‘green cross code’, help children increase their safety. With online safety, it’s the same: learning how to judge risks and being aware of the dangers that are present on the web, makes it easier for children to stay safe and benefit from the opportunities that the internet offers.
With the huge availability of educational information and great opportunities for communication, the internet has a huge potential to help children learn about the world in ways that even twenty or thirty years ago, simply weren’t possible. But just as this spread of information and flow of communication can bring benefits, it does open the door to dangers.
There are countless stories of children becoming victims of online predators, sharing disturbing materials, being bullied online, and not realising the importance of privacy controls or what it is appropriate to post. According to one study in the UK, over a fifth of children aged between 10 and 12 had experienced online bullying, the consequences of which can be tragic: in 2012 a 15-year old girl in Canada took her own life after years of cyberbullying.
Speaking at an event in Northern Ireland, her mother said, “If kids are going through these kind of things, they need to get support from friends, families, teachers and the police.
“We need to have the conversations with kids, to empower them.”
Using technology safely and securely is an essential part of being digitally skilled, and with 90% of jobs in Europe set to demand ICT skills in the near future according to the European Commission, online safety will be one of the key skills that people will need throughout their lives.
Thankfully, just as we can teach children to cross the road safely, we can also teach them skills and knowledge to help them reduce the risks they face online. Helping young people to understand what the different risks are, how they can report online hate, or how they can talk to an adult if they are uncomfortable or unsure about something they have seen, are great starting points. So is encouraging young people to recognise the positive ways that they can use tools like social media, and how they can control their information.
But as much as we can teach young people skills to stay safe online, it is also important that adults who are responsible for children have online safety skills themselves. Teachers and parents need to understand the risks they face, and the risks that children face so that they can give guidance, look out for warning signs that something is wrong, and keep themselves safe from the risks—sometimes different, sometimes the same—that they also face.
Thankfully there are tools already available to help people gain the online safety skills they need. In most countries in Europe, there are extensive resources for teachers and parents to learn about how to keep themselves and their children safe, while around the world, the ECDL IT Security module lets anyone build and certify their skills and abilities on a range of computer safety and security topics, to an internationally recognised level.
The key to staying safe online is knowledge. Children need to know the risks and know how to avoid them. Adults need to know the warning signs that a child might be in danger online. They need to know how to support children in staying safe, and how to reduce their own risks when using ICT. Thankfully the solution exists: it’s a matter of making sure everyone has the skills they need for a digital world.