Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The internet in our children’s world

Claire Burgess
Early Years Consultancy Manager

How do we keep children safe online? 

Today is Safer Internet Day and Norland has been working with Corsham Primary School to develop some training for teachers, teaching assistants, parents and children about how to stay safe when online.

This has been a hot topic recently with many organisations, including the NSPCC, developing training and resources about how to keep children ‘safe’ when online; but Norland has taken a slightly different approach to this, looking at it from the child’s perspective and what the internet looks like, and means, to them.

Our Early Years Consultant, who has a wealth of experience with children and in child development, has been looking into what effect exposure to ‘inappropriate’ online content can have on a child. Claire has been looking at their behaviours and how, in a world where children are teaching us how to use technology, we as adults can possibly safeguard children from this exposure.

Children have access to the internet through so many devices now, but what appeal does it have for children?
  • We, as adults, access it, a lot! Adults look at their smartphone, on average, 1,500 times a week and, as children learn through our role modelling, no wonder they have a fascination with the screen as well! It is instant and highly addictive
  • There is the opportunity to talk to and find out about people they don’t know (strangers)
  • There are plenty of opportunities for dares and challenges, fuelling their need for acceptance and verification
What is the threat of children having ‘open access’ to the internet?
Exposure to content they are not capable of processing. Once they have seen something, they cannot un-see it - in normal learning environments there are other people around them who can offer explanations or stop them from seeing things that they might not be able to process.

 In an article written for the Daily Mail on 27 January 2016, Psychologist, Sue Palmer comments that “If the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses aren't developed in early childhood, it's difficult to revive them later. A whole generation could grow up without the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships - all because of endless screen-time”

Younger children can sometimes also find it difficult to distinguish fiction from reality. There have been cases where children have believed that what they have seen on screen has happened to them in real life. This can be distressing for all involved.

Will children who spend their lives communicating via text learn verbal and non-verbal communication skills for use in the real world?
One of our year 5 case study boys commented that he prefers to text:  “I usually text as I don’t feel confident to call - I just feel a bit awkward”. Research suggests that skills that are not used in teenage years are lost, with children as young as 10 feeling anxiety about communicating verbally.  Are we running the risk of a generation who will completely lose the ability to communicate verbally?

Addiction – We as a nation are addicted to the internet, so no wonder our children are! The UK ranks 2nd with reference to the amount of  social network contact in Europe, with 16% of children having more than 300 ‘friends’ on Facebook. How many children know 300 people in the ‘physical world’? We would hazard a guess, not many, leaving the assumption that they are ‘friends’ with and communicating with people they don’t know, bringing threats of trolls, grooming and even radicalization.

Bullying – there have been many high profile stories in the press about children being driven to taking their own lives due to internet trolls and online bullying.  Even without reaching this horrifying extreme, online bullies can have lifelong effects on children’s self-esteem and self-worth which can ultimately affect their ability to achieve.

Futureproof – no one knows what technology will look like in 10 years time and how social media profiles our children create now may affect their digital fingerprint in the future. Will videos of a 10 year old playing ‘What’s in my mouth’ (a common dare game currently trending on YouTube) appear in a search made by their future employers?

How can we restrict internet access for children, and should we?
When speaking to children in year 5 and 6 at Corsham Primary, it was clear that they were very technology ‘savvy’ and already accessing the internet through a range of platforms. When our year 6 group of 16 children were surveyed, 95% of them said they accessed the internet at home. What we need to understand is that children are curious problem solvers and it is getting harder to restrict access to the internet.  One boy in our focus group, aged 10 commented, “Mum says no more internet on the tablet but then I just access it on the TV.” Many parents feel lost when it comes to technology and how to approach this with their children. Some have imposed a technology ban with the aim of protecting their children, but is this ultimately in their best interests? Are children who grow up without access to the internet at home going to be able to handle it when they do have access to the internet?  Will they be at a disadvantage in the modern world?  The internet can play an important role in supporting children’s learning and building their knowledge - the way that it is used in schools shows this.  Will banning it at home make it more of a temptation when at a friend’s house?

There is no way to categorically stop children accessing the internet; if they are intrigued by it, they will eventually find a way. Even with the most heightened security settings it is likely your children will find a way around them if they want to. In December 2015 the National Crime Agency found the average age of hackers was just 17 and launched a campaign aimed at 12-15 year olds!

What should we as adults, parents, teachers and practitioners be doing?
We, at Norland, recognise that technology is here to stay and we need to teach children about its uses, its benefits but also its dangers, just like we do with the many other things we teach them about every day. We need to teach them how to keep safe, what to watch out for and why and how to use it with caution.

Conversations about why they need to have age restrictions on their devices should be open and honest. Parents and adults should teach them about what the threats are and how they can protect themselves.  We all know that children will display a range of different behaviours depending on what is happening in their lives at the time. Where 10 years ago we might have been asking if it was in relation to things such as issues at school, difficulties at home, friendships etc., now we also need to be asking whether their behaviours could be in relation to what they are experiencing within their online world.

It’s good to talk
We need to take an interest in what children are doing online and ask them to show us; both the positive aspects, such what they have learnt from using the internet, to research for a school project or how they have got to the next level on a game, as well as the negative aspects when they might have seen or experienced something that they feel is not appropriate.

Listen out for buzz words they are using and ‘Google’ them to find out what they are discussing - have you, for example heard of ‘MyLOL’ the dating app, similar to ‘Tinder’, for  13-25 year olds? What children see on the internet should be an open conversation that is raised regularly; not just talking about what they have seen but how it makes them feel. We need to ensure that children feel that they can come to us if something does go wrong and they feel vulnerable. By making sure that children feel comfortable talking to us about what they may have seen or encountered online, without fear of reprimand, we can help them to process it in relation to reality and help them to protect themselves.

So, in answer to the original question, how do we keep children safe online? The answer is we can’t 100%, just like we can’t 100% ensure their safety crossing a road – we can just teach and empower them to understand the dangers and advantages of the internet and guide them with open and honest conversations.

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