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Column We need a better (not just a safer) internet for kids

Children need to be taught about online safety – but we must also develop internet content specifically for children to give them opportunities to use the internet in creative and innovative ways, writes Simon Grehan.

HOMER SIMPSON FAMOUSLY toasted alcohol as being the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Replace the word ‘alcohol’ with ‘internet’ and you get a nice overview of the public discourse about children and the internet in Ireland.

The Good

On one side, we have the massive potential inherent in the vast cities of information that Google organises and serves up to us. There are no limits nowadays, no topic is so obscure that you can’t find volumes of information about it instantly online. Everyone can follow their interests and become an expert.

Then there are Twitter and Facebook, with their posts and hashtags, solving that long-standing problem of disenfranchised youth. Children can engage in foreign policy debates with Barack Obama, give The Artic Monkeys feedback on their latest album, share ideas with like-minded compadres, and mobilise themselves to protest against injustice without leaving the house. And it’s nearly all free.

That’s not to mention how they can use their phones to make films, their tablets to make albums, and apps to make… other apps. They can create businesses, works of art, and useful services without having to serve long apprenticeships learning how to use the tools of their craft. In fact, their creativity and innovation will, in the long run, provide for our pensions and repay our national debt.

The Bad

But on the other hand, there are paedophiles, pornography, and spying. Companies are tracking everything we do online, profiling us and selling our information – and governments are doing something similar. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are stalking our children. It is easier to find videos of people having sex than it is to find what you need to do your history homework (and, even if you could find what you were looking for , the chances are it wouldn’t be accurate).

What about the constant negativity and cyber-bullies chipping away at the fragile confidence of youth? The way so many of us ignore or uncomfortably laugh along with the trolls, rather than stick our heads above the parapets for fear that we might be their next target?

The Ugly

The problem with any public debate can be that extreme views are exaggerated and, therefore, policy is formed in a panic. Hard facts are few and far between, myths and misinformation abound. Fear can easily be stoked up by vested interests and it usually wins out.

In Ireland, fear has won out so far. According to EU Kids Online research, children in Ireland are what they call ‘low risk low access’. They use the internet less, they engage in a narrower range of less creative activities, and have fewer digital skills than their European counterparts. At the same time they are more likely to have restrictions placed on their internet use by both technical measures and rules at home and at school. Despite them spending less time online and having high level of parental mediation, they are more likely to consider themselves to be addicted to the internet and to be upset when they encounter risk.

Developing content specifically for children

On the 11th February we will celebrate the 11thSafer Internet Day along with 72 countries around the world. The EU Commission’s Safer Internet Programme, which has been behind this initiative and funded helpline and awareness raising initiatives since 2004, comes to an end this year. The new strategy in this area is called Better Internet for Kids”.

This strategy it based on the assumption that the internet wasn’t made for children and we need to do something to make it better for them to use. It outlines the responsibility of industry to developing parental controls and easy-to-use reporting mechanisms. It looks to schools for teaching about online safety. But, significantly and for the first time, it also sets out to develop internet content specifically for children to give them opportunities to use the internet in creative and innovative ways.

After all, taking risks is fundamental to being creative. It stresses that we listen attentively to young people when formulating policy that directly impact on this aspect of their lives. We need not only to listen to them to identify their concerns but also work with them to address the issues that arise.

The theme for Safer Internet Day 2014 is ’creating a better internet together’. In keeping with this theme, the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD will launch the #UP2US awareness campaign that encourages young people to do something positive to help combat online bullying. The interactive poster lets young people create a poster with their own messages and designs. They are also encouraged to share what they create online using social media. They are being given an opportunity to contribute towards a positive anti-bullying culture in schools and also on social networking sites.

In short, it is an opportunity for young people to use this technology in a creative, positive, innovative manner to help combat the downside of the internet. This might not change the world but it probably will, in some small way, make it better.

Simon Grehan is an internet safety expert and Webwise coordinator for Safer Internet Day in Ireland.

Read: Teacher demonstrates to class how pictures spread on the internet, goes viral

Read: EU ‘falling short’ in warning kids about dangers of social networking

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