Digital Citizenship: Safeguarding Children in the Digital Age

“3-to-4-year-olds now spend 8 hours 18 minutes a week online, and 12-to-15-year-olds spend over 20 hours a week online.”
Ofcom (2016), Children and parents: media use and attitudes report

20 hours a week. That’s a part-time job. Every year, digital devices are becoming smaller, more portable, and more powerful. Long gone are the days of the oversized brick; the smartphone reigns supreme.

Many children have absolute and unrestricted access to this technology, but little to no understanding of how it functions. While Citizenship education is a statutory – if often overlooked – aspect of the National Curriculum, digital citizenship education is, to all extents and purposes, nonexistent. For many schools, attempts at safeguarding and protecting children on the Internet are focused on preventing children from accessing content, rather than curating this content and empowering them to make their own informed decisions.

We’ve cultured a nanny state mindset, gating online content behind filters that bar access to specific strings of words. When the Internet was in its infancy, this worked well. Since then, the digital landscape has shifted dramatically; moving forward, shortsightedness could prove to be dangerous. What happens when children grow up and lose their safety wheels? What if they were to learn to bypass these filters? The Internet is a playground, and children need to learn how to make informed decisions about the content that they will access, especially when you consider the role that the Internet will play in their future lives.

Blocking children from accessing websites because they contain a certain word is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially when you consider how user-generated content can influence these filters. The Internet is a powerful educational tool; restrictive software can bar access to legitimate and enriching content, and the solution isn’t always black and white. Besides, websites don’t need to contain inflammatory words to be inflammatory; in particular, social media sites are rife with bullying and inappropriate content.


Is there a better way?

That’s not to say that age-gated content, website blacklists, and even blocking software are bad tools. They can prove to be invaluable in preventing children from viewing distressing or potentially harmful content. The truth is, children aren’t always given the tools, perspective, and rights that they deserve in a digital world, and there are people who – either willingly or unwittingly – exploit this.

5Rights Framework Planner Page
Our new 5Rights planner page idea

While it’s not immediately obvious, companies whose products exist in the digital world routinely take advantage of young people. Contracts are written in confusing and overly verbose language. Personal and sensitive information is sold and exchanged. Addicting cycles are deliberately built into video games and software. There are entire businesses that have been built up around the exploitation of children in the digital world, and often, there is no way for children to opt out and remove their personal information from these services. This is something that has to stop.

A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner highlights the issue with Terms and Conditions. Children as young as 13 can sign up to and join these sites, but they simply cannot be expected to read and absorb lengthy multi-page contracts. The legalese language used by social media giants is so dense, many adults struggle to unpack it. It’s entirely possible to rewrite these contracts using simple language, which would make them more accessible to people of all ages.

In the real world, children have rights that protect them – and rightly so – but these don’t always transfer well to a digital context. Children’s rights have been hard fought for hundreds of years, but the Internet only recently celebrated its quarter Centenary. It could be argued that there hasn’t yet been enough time for these rights to develop online, but, as we move more and more of our daily lives onto our digital devices, this discussion will only become more important; this is something that needs to be tackled now.

Digital Citizen poster
Free poster; click to download a copy

It’s time to empower children and hand them the tools to use the Internet with confidence. Companies have to do their part to eliminate exploitative practices, but this is ultimately an issue of education. Businesses need to be educated on good practice, and children need to be taught their rights and that their interactions on the Internet hold an intrinsic value: they need to become Digital Citizens. We’ve designed a poster to inspire your students to be responsible digital citizens; you can download it for free here. Get the message out there – hang it loud and proud in your classroom.

We’ve also developed two new digital citizenship packs for our Library of Page Ideas (for Primary and Secondary schools). These include pages that explain how to safely set up digital devices for children, how to effectively use search engines, and the dangers of misleading terms and conditions. The library also includes ideas for responsible Internet use policies and basic computer literacy cheat sheets. All of these ideas are available to use in our fully customised school planners, and can be edited and adapted to suit your school. You can click here to view the new range of page ideas for Primary-aged children, and here to view the new Secondary pages.

We’d love to hear from you, and get some feedback on what pages you think would be beneficial to students and teachers. What page ideas do you want to see?