Sink or swim — learning to surf the Internet safely!

Surfing online waters can be a dangerous pursuit. Not quite the sharks and rips, shore breaks and leash tangles of real waters, but still for many, as scary as the ocean. How can we best support young people to surf these waters safely?

To take the analogy further, do we suggest they stay out of the ocean altogether, dip their toe in, or dive in head first? What kind of safety devices do we use to protect them against exposure to harmful or age inappropriate material, or ward off unsolicited contact from adults they’re sometimes not equipped to even recognise as predators? How do we avoid the risk of them contacting people around them who are behaving badly? Or do we throw them a lifebuoy and bail them out when things get difficult?

Today is Safer Internet Day. Started in 2004 as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project, Safer Internet Day is now celebrated in approximately 150 countries worldwide, including Australia. Here, the day’s activities are led by the eSafety Commissioner, who this year is encouraging all families to “start the chat” about online safety in support of the worldwide theme of “Together for a better internet”.

The focus of the day is on alerting all online users to the dangers that accessing the Internet inherently brings. It’s an important conversation.

Protection of young people accessing online environments is crucial to ensuring they remain empowered and confident in their use of digital technology.

But like all potentially harmful things in life, it is a balanced and sensible approach to safety that is needed. Digital media is not going to disappear any time soon, and prohibition certainly doesn’t work. We must instead enable children and young people to access age-appropriate information with confidence, and enjoy the many benefits that interaction with digital media offers them. This instils in them that there are risks associated with accessing the Internet, but that adults are here to support them to minimise these risks in a sensible and balanced way.

Children and young people view opportunities to become active online as a positive addition to their lives. From a young age they see everyone around them using digital tools to connect, entertain, transact and influence their own and others’ behaviour. They understand, that like other things in their lives, the Internet is an outlet for self-expression and creativity. It is a good source of information and is used constantly in their education. It provides them with endless opportunities for entertainment and social connectedness. In fact all these positives contribute to their overall health and wellbeing. They are connected and able to interact with people and communities far and near, in positive and interesting ways.

One young person told me that her online friends are much more significant than the adults in her life imagine. Another told me that when he was nine, his online friends gave him a social aspect he was lacking at school. We need to embrace this reality.

When we are focussed only on risk, and only have simple solutions for addressing it, we tend to construct massive communication barriers that drive adults and children to opposing corners of the room. We must meet in the middle; in the place where we have shared concerns.

Children and young people tell me that what concerns them most about the online world is not so much the technology-related issues they face, but rather the human relationship issues that arise when they’re unsure who and what to trust when they’re online. This is where they most need support from the adults in their lives.

Reframing bullying as a health and wellbeing issue — both online and offline — teaches our children and young people about what constitutes a healthy human relationship. We need to understand the differences that online and offline interactions can involve, realising the fundamentals remain the same. Adopting an attitude of respect for others is key to any solution we propose around eliminating bullying from any area of their lives.

If we teach young people that bullying in the real world or in the online world is equally unacceptable, we’re not blaming the technology. We’re addressing the human problem that is the same in both places.

If we focus on the technology as being the cause, then we create a barrier between ourselves and our children that is wholly focussed on the risk of their being harmed by technology. Consistent messages are required in both places. Different strategies for handling the different environments in which bullying occurs comes next.

There is a growing body of research that suggests risk does not necessarily equate with harm. Rather, some level of exposure to risk enables children to develop the skills they need to recognise and address it. This applies to achieving digital literacy — a skill that includes knowledge of ways to minimise the potentially negative impact of online engagement, while unlocking the many more benefits it offers individuals for social connection, education, health and civic engagement and membership of a wider local, national and increasingly more global community.

So in seeking to protect children and young people while they’re online, the focus must be on developing their digital literacy — this includes building their awareness, resilience, and capacity to manage risk, while simultaneously breaking down any communication barriers that might come between adults and young people when they need to reach out for our support when they become unsure of any unchartered waters they might find themselves in.

The eSafety Commissioner’s 2017 State of Play report noted that only 24 per cent of young people who had negative online experiences sought help in a formal way. This highlights the need for us to reframe ‘help-seeking’ as a strength rather than a weakness. It needs to be seen as goal-oriented and meaningful — done for one’s wellbeing, rather than simply in response to a problem that arises. Reframing help-seeking as a strength, would help break down some of the barriers young people face reporting and accessing support — including any feelings of shame and embarrassment, fear of retaliation or of not being believed that may accompany it. This would foster an experience of support that extends from their family and homes through to the government and system they are a part of. Through it they learn that all these people have their best interests at heart — front and centre at all times.

The eSafety Commissioner’s report also highlights that a significant majority (71 per cent) of young people who have had negative online experiences sought help in an informal way, through family and friends. Given this is the case, it is family and friends who need to know what and how to have conversations that will provide the best possible support for those children and young people seeking their assistance to face risky situations online.

This in turn highlights the need for education about online risk to start early, and not be limited to schools only. Active shared family screen time should be encouraged between children and parents, their carer’s and other members of their families. In this way we have the greatest potential to raise a young person’s awareness of the risks associated with Internet use, while actively engaged in one of the many positive and empowering digital opportunities and experiences it brings into our lives too.

To engage and empower young digital citizens and to promote inclusive digital opportunity throughout South Australia, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly has devised her Commissioner’s Digital Challenge. Find out more here including details of her most recent challenge — Space to Dream — designed for children and young people of all ages.

For more information about the work of the CCYP SA visit www.ccyp.com.au

For details of Safer Internet Day activities for Australia visit @esafetyoffice

Helen Connolly is South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for C&YP. Her work ensures their opinions and ideas are being sought and that their voices are heard.

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