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11 Oct 2016

Smoothwall: The Battle to Keep Kids Safe Online

According to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics , 97% of children have used, or own a mobile device. This new digital world has facilitated the growth and development of a younger generation more digitally savvy and enabled than ever before.

They are what we call true digital natives, typically more tech savvy than those tasked with protecting them, from parents at home to teachers in school, and this is a problem; schools and the teachers within them need to be empowered to be the superheroes that can keep children safe online and technology is a vital part of achieving this.

Since 2005, time spent online by eight to 11 year olds and 12 to 15 year olds has more than doubled.

As well as this, the study shows that a quarter of eight to 11 year olds and seven in 10 12 to 15 year olds own a smartphone. Yes these figures are startling, but are the reality of the digital world we now reside in.

Great responsibility

The online world now forms a pillar of society, and provides a worldwide database of knowledge sharing, with people of all ages and countries benefiting from it every day.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. With this opportunity for infinite access to knowledge there is also danger.

This is what schools need to be aware of and help fight against.

Every superhero has a villain; digital is only going to become more prominent in education, and we will see pressure on schools increase in order to ensure that students are digitally enabled.

The darker side of the web such as illegal activity or radicalisation is the Green Goblin to the Spiderman of the internet. Currently, our digitally-savvy youngsters are usually one step ahead of the game.

Often seeing web filtering and online protection as an irritant, they try to get around it. We need to give schools and teachers the power to get ahead of this, ensuring they have the skills and tools to protect children fully, digitally enabling them without risking their safety.

There’s no doubt that there’s a need to monitor children’s online safety.

That said, it needs to be done smartly. We don’t want to run the risk of it doing the exact reverse of what should be intended.

Take the case of child search engine, Kiddle’s search term controversy for instance. Kiddle was blocking keywords such as menstruation, suicide, and gay which caused uproar, due to the fact that such filtering could potentially harm the development of young people by not allowing them to learn about culture and society topics.

The internet should be used as the richest resource for information possible, and schools should be able to use it and take full advantage of it when teaching children.

Tools and technologies

When looking to protect children’s online experiences, there are tools and technologies that can work for you and not against.

Having a context aware web filter will empower schools to prevent access to specific pages based on its content, but still permit access to particular search terms that could aid in a child’s development.

For instance, if a student is looking for advice on depression, searching for a term like ‘suicide’ could help. This isn’t a bad thing. Not everything online is damaging.

The majority of content is hugely beneficial and informative. Another incident that highlighted where the need for context aware monitoring was needed was with a 15 year old school boy.

After the deputy head teacher reported he had been using a school computer to look at UKIP’s website, the student was questioned by police for political extremism.

Soon after however, it was made apparent that he had been researching immigration following a classroom discussion on the subject. Had the teacher been aware as to the context of his search, the situation could have been avoided. 

Therefore, searches should become intent and context-based, looking at the behaviours of searches together, deciphering whether it has negative connotations and needs to be blocked or not, rather than raising everything as a red flag without justification.

Nothing is more important than protecting our children, and online protection plays a vital part. Equally however, it needs to be done in a manner that does not hinder a child’s learning and development.

We need a collaborative and cohesive team of head teachers, child protection officers, teachers and parents to work together in the battle for children’s online safety, taking a smart approach that both enables children to learn freely, whilst remaining protected.

Clever and contextual monitoring is the only way to let children search freely, whilst ensuring that they are protected from harmful content. Article as previously seen on the Tech & Learning UK website.  

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