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Lessons in real world apply equally to online environment

An opinion piece by Niel McLean for The Times

The Times. Friday 24th February 2012

As another ‘Internet Safety Day’ passes us by, it does raise one question that’s worth asking.  Is it possible to protect our children online without banning their access to the internet? When I was first asked by Nominet Trust to think about safer use of digital technology for young people, I was struck by their desire both to understand what safety looks like and how it can be achieved online.

By using offline or ‘physical’ danger as a framework, we can learn some lessons about how to allow children safer access to the internet.

In the ‘real world’, we tend to distinguish between a hazard and a risk. A hazard is the potential to cause harm, and a risk is the likelihood of it happening.  Removing hazards is one way of reducing risks but this doesn’t always work.  Scissors are useful tools, for example, and while removing them may reduce the risk of cuts, it’s by no means the best solution.  ‘Bad things’ happen due to an interaction between someone’s behaviour and the environment i.e. running down stairs with those scissors.

When we take an environmental approach to physical threats, we do one of three things.  The first is to block access – by using a stairgate on a staircase for example which, while inconvenient, allows a child freedom and safety.  The second is to remove hazards completely – by taking a broken bottle from a children’s play area, rather than shutting the area or telling children to avoid it.  The third is to make the environment easier to navigate safely – signposting a swimming pool to prevent running in slippery areas.

All of these approaches have online equivalents. Filtering products block access to parts of the internet, unpleasant parts are taken down and some sites are labelled. However, our reaction to these equivalents online is less pragmatic than in the real world. We know a determined child could drag a chair next to a stairgate and climb over but believe this is unlikely so still use it. Online, we seem to expect filtering products to withstand any degree of attack from a determined child with an unusually high level of technical skill. The result is filtering products either become too complex for home use or we do nothing because a small number of children may be able to ‘get round’ the filter.

When it comes to influencing behaviour, we need to examine young people’s knowledge and understanding, skills and capabilities and their motivations and incentives. We shouldn’t assume, for example, children have a greater knowledge of online technology than they actually possess.

Alongside technical skill, we need to teach children how to locate and interpret information and judge its provenance and accuracy; to build and maintain trusted relationships at distance; and to identify, minimize and manage risk as part of their ‘digital education’.

However, it is also dangerous to assume that once children and young people properly understand the risks, they will behave differently. This is not necessarily the case. We need to get to the root of what motivates them, much of which is linked to identity – how they are viewed in their community and how they want to be viewed.

We need to help young people with more effective strategies for managing their online identities. This will form part of a more sophisticated attitude to risk – weighing up the pros and cons of different actions, rather than simply avoiding them.  After all, the internet is a rich and diverse source of knowledge and to remove it from young people’s experience altogether would be a backwards step.