Jess McBeath says the onus is on adults to help children stay safe online
Technology moves apace. Going online no longer involves the once-familiar beeps and screeches as the modem connects you to the world wide web. According to Ofcom, 70% of adults now use a smartphone to go online. Whilst we publicly debate the pros and cons of screen time, many people would find it difficult even to pinpoint when they are online versus offline.
In its infancy, the internet heralded the dawn of the information society. News and information would be equally accessible to all, cutting across hierarchies, breaking down boundaries and enabling everyone the freedom to access, create and express themselves online.
The tech industry has flourished as we promote the virtue of digital for business growth. We encourage children to gain essential coding skills for the workforce of the future. We teach digital literacy so no-one gets left behind in the digital age. Tech is good. We are in awe.
But the internet is redefining our understanding of the world. Free now means pay with your personal data. News means my version of the truth – and Fake News means facts I don't agree with. Truth is defined by power and repetition rather than fact. Equality becomes inequality as the internet amplifies not only the best but also the worst of our human potential.
Low self-esteem? Social media can plumb those depths. Being bullied at school? Let’s broadcast it to the world. Feeling disenfranchised? There’s an online tribe ready to recruit you. For those with a sexual interest in children, the internet is your new playground. As technology evolves, so do the risks for our children and young people.
We have apps, games, websites and online services that use exploitation and manipulation as their default business model. Online games encourage gambling behaviour; clickbait headlines manipulate emotion; sophisticated analysis of our online habits has been used to assess, predict or modify our emotions; and personal data has been harvested for political influence. Why and how did this happen?
We had the technical skills and profit motive to create new products but we didn’t recognise the importance of shared values in defining success. Being able to create something doesn’t mean we should create it. Could a focus on empathy, integrity, responsibility or respect make a difference?
We teach children to keep personal information secure, say no to strangers, and be nice to each other. We teach them that what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online (and in the meantime, they need to be resilient). As professionals, our work is informed by an understanding of the digital challenges faced by young people. But as citizens, we ignore our own advice. We are the fake news. We are the trolls. Does the internet create negative content, or simply expose it?
We are digital citizens. Our digital lives operate in parallel to, and intersect, our physical lives. What we do and say online has an impact. We need a dialogue at a national level about the values we want to espouse online (and offline) in Scotland, and how we can build these values into our digital lives and landscape. Values drive behaviour. Let’s harness shared values to drive different behaviour.
The internet and advancing technologies undoubtedly offer opportunities, benefits and rewards. To operate effectively as digital citizens we must recognise the importance of skills such as the ability to make sound judgements, to resolve conflicts and to be self-aware. Children develop these skills through sustained conversation, debate and consideration of issues with the influential adults and peers in their lives. Every interaction with a young person is an opportunity to understand, share perspectives, lead and shape their online experience.
We can all be the beacons of online citizenship. Let’s support young people across Scotland not only to stay safe, but to flourish as digital citizens.
Jess McBeath is a consultant and trainer specialising in online safety and digital citizenship in Scotland, and regularly runs events for Children in Scotland. This article is one of the calls made in the charity's 25 Calls campaign.