The complexity of being a digital citizen
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Whatever generation you are part of, growing up has never been easy, but growing up in 2021 with ubiquitous access to digital technology has added a new dimension to childhood. For this generation, many aspects of their lives have involved some form of technology from an early age – from access to a tablet as a toddler, to a first social media or gaming profile within primary school and even as their main form of education during the pandemic. Easy access to personal devices such as smart phones can result in children and young people having constant access to connection with global communities wherever they are. With this also comes a burden of being completely contactable all of the time.
Young people are growing up in a space where digital technology is omnipresent. This is a time in which a huge proportion of their lives are spent online and where social acceptance is important to them. In recent Ofcom research, “nine in ten 12- to 15-year-olds who used social media, or chat and messaging apps, said they felt pressure to be popular on these sorts of apps or sites.” Some young people often make risky decisions in order to meet with the expectations of others and to conform to social pressure. This digital generation also find it difficult to disengage from their digital identities, with their online presence often more prevalent than their offline selves. They have become a generation where their lives are lived through a lens – if you didn’t post a picture or upload a story, were you even really there?
Taking all of this into consideration, it can be overwhelming for parents and carers to know how to help their children stay safe online. Our In the Know project, in collaboration with the Digital Resilience in Education team, has been designed to help address this gap in knowledge and equip parents and carers with the key information that they need to help young people embark on their digital journeys safely.
The app landscape
New apps are consistently being developed and their popularity changes constantly. According to recent statistics, an average of 2,232 new apps are released on Google Play per day. There are long standing favourites amongst young people such as Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp which manage to weather the popularity storm, whilst other apps such as Honk and Monkey Web have risen to fame during the pandemic. Then there are other apps that grab the attention of users due to their risky design. This ever-changing landscape makes it difficult for parents and carers to navigate and to stay informed.
It is worth noting that all social media and gaming apps have an attributed age restriction or age rating. In the world of gaming, PEGI provides a suggested age classification for video games in 38 European countries. The age rating given to each game confirms it is appropriate for players of that specified age rather than the difficulty of the game.
For other apps, including social media, they are given an age restriction by developers. Apple App Store and Google Play also reference their given age rating. However, a lack of rigorous age verification methods within social media platforms has meant that some younger users are able to gain access. Ofcom found in their recent report that “although most social media platforms set their minimum user age at 13, more than two in five 8- to 11-year-olds used social media apps in 2020.” Parents and carers should be aware of this when they first allow their child access to different apps.
Balancing act - the positives and risks of digital media
The media often portrays digital media in a negative light – focusing on when things go wrong, rather than celebrating the opportunities that a digital world provides us. Whilst it is important to be aware of online risks when using social media apps and games, it is also important to understand the many benefits too.
The ability to connect online was never more important than during the pandemic, where entire cohorts were able to maintain friendships, relationships and access education. Social media has enabled young people to make connections with like-minded individuals and build a global community, whilst simultaneously experiencing different cultures and viewpoints. Hopefully, this will lead to a more tolerant generation, where differences are understood and celebrated rather than marginalised and a target of hate.
Digital technology is always evolving. Today’s young people are learning digital strategies that will continue to change during their lifetime. Early exposure to such technologies helps to prepare them for a career and productive future that we may not even be able to imagine today.
As parents and carers, we should not overlook the importance of digital technology for more vulnerable young people. For children with additional learning needs or disabilities, digital technology has opened-up a world of opportunities that may have otherwise been difficult for them to access. Whether it’s writing an assignment for school, connecting with others over a shared interest or learning a new skill, technology has allowed for a more even playing field for those who would otherwise be excluded.
Whilst there are many benefits to digital media, it is also important to be aware of the potential risks for young people. For both social media and gaming apps, the main digital risks can fall into four distinct categories:
- Content risk – what they see.
- Contact risk – who they connect with.
- Behavioural risk – how users behave on a platform.
- Design risk – how the platform is designed and how their data is used.
For each of these categories, there are some key steps that parents and carers can take to help reduce risk. An outline of strategies to help manage these risks is provided for each of the apps featured within the In the Know project.
Keeping children and young people safer online
There are many ways to help protect children and young people online, but the best initial advice for parents and carers who are beginning a digital journey with their children is to take an active interest. Talk to your children about the apps and games which they use and find out why they like them and how they engage with them. We would also encourage all parents and carers to explore the apps and games their children are using first, to establish whether it’s appropriate for their child’s age and stage of development. It is important to remember that no age rating knows your child better than you – by viewing and interacting with an app’s content and connectivity first, you’ll get a better sense on whether you want your child to access the platform.
Many of the popular apps and games have clear parental controls or safety settings. We recommend that parents and carers explore the different settings to put the necessary protections in place to suit your child. It is also important that parents and carers know how to report and block users who may be behaving inappropriately on the platform, so they can inform younger users who may not know how to do so. For detailed information on how to do this, visit the In the Know page.
Helen King, Director at Praesidio Safeguarding
Prior to setting up Praesidio, Helen was the founding Head of Education and then the Head of Communications at the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) command. In this role, she developed a national strategy for child internet safety and created an international education programme (www.thinkuknow.co.uk). She also led on the Government’s harm reduction response to child sexual abuse online, producing materials and training courses nationwide for professionals and the public, including parents and carers of those at risk. Helen was one of the founding members of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and a lead on the Home Office working group for internet safety. Praesidio continues to work at the heart of Government, industry and within social care and charities on policy, strategies and education programmes to safeguard the most vulnerable.
Praesidio is an independent safeguarding agency which delivers strategic advice, research, training and investigations. Praesidio Safeguarding was set up to help support children and young people, their parents and carers, and the professionals that work with them to manage online harms and we provide a range of training and support to these groups. In addition, Praesidio works strategically to support organisations (including Government and the technology sector) do more to address the broad range of online issues that children and young people face.