Children’s Voices are Key to Online Safety

How do we support children and young people to safely make the most of the opportunities that technology can provide? Banner image: Shutterstock/NDAB Creativity

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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There has been some great work looking at the impact of the pandemic on children and young people. With the internet providing such a lifeline to their educational, as well as to their social lives, technology has probably never been as important to young people as it has over the past year—just as it has for so many of us. Data supports this, with 77% of children (8-17s) (UKSIC 2021) feeling that being online had helped them through the pandemic and supported them emotionally. But there have been heightened concerns around children’s safety online, with reports of grooming and cyberbullying and contacts to helplines increasing over this period.

So how do we best support children and young people to give them the skills to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities that technology can provide? To connect, create and discover, and at the same time develop their resilience, help them to identify and manage risk, know how to look after themselves and others, and contribute to online communities in a safe and responsible way.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Protecting children in the digital age" by Afrooz Kaviani Johnson, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF

Reach children and their parents early

The mantra is to start this education work at a young age. At Childnet, when we first developed our education programmes supporting children, schools and parents, we targeted the 7-11 age group. This was just over 20 years ago, and back then it was only when children reached this age that they were really starting to use the internet, and the logic was to influence children’s behaviour on the internet at the time this behaviour was still in formation.

Clearly this work must now begin much earlier, as children interact with connected devices from the very start of their lives. At Childnet, our Education Team runs sessions for children of all ages—even as young as three or four—and the messages we share here are simple: if you are unsure or worried about something online, ask someone.

The challenge is to reach out to parents and carers of very young children so they are ready to be the person their child will turn to, while encouraging and enabling them to be proactive in their online parenting, even at this age. We are following the same logic as with children: reaching new parents when their experience and behaviour as parents is in formation.

Don’t not talk about things

Some things are easier to talk about than others. In the United Kingdom, we have seen powerful testimonies from thousands of children talking about their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment in schools. It is a clarion call for all of us.

At Childnet, we have done work looking at online sexual harassment, and it is clear that this is a subject that we must talk to young people about. As one young person recently told us, not talking about it heightens the sense of shame around it, and this makes it even harder to talk about their experiences. We are hearing how there is a very real danger that these behaviours are becoming normalised, being seen as part of parcel of life—which will create a high barrier to young people reporting.

Schools, teachers, parents and carers can look for opportunities to start the conversation about unwanted online behaviours. We know that when this happens, and young people feel that they can talk to us about these issues, they will.

We organise Safer Internet Day in the United Kingdom every year, and schools that celebrate it report to us that it leads to disclosures of potential online safeguarding issues.

Read the OECD report: "Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital Age", examining children as digital citizens, to explore how to take advantage of online opportunities while minimising the risks
Read the full OECD report on Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital Age

Children’s voice is key

Technology is constantly moving, with new apps and services being developed all the time. An 18-year-old I spoke to a couple of years ago described his 14-year-old brother as being “from a different generation” because their use of technology and the services they use are so different. Children are often pioneering amongst this change, using and interacting with this technology before many adults do. This is one of the reasons why the experience and voices of children and young people should play a central part in any education about online issues.

We know that young people do feel passionately about online safety. At an event we ran a few years ago, a 10-year-old had the adult audience captivated by his words (with the advantage of having recently studied the civil rights movement): “I have a dream. I have a dream where myself and my friends can use the internet without the fear of being bullied”.

I am a great believer in the power of the voice of young people, and it is critical for us to listen to them. As we look to problem-solve issues around online safety, we need to bring in a young person’s perspective, experiences and ideas.

Giving young people agency

Young people can make a difference. We run a peer education programme, and we have children from seven to seventeen who are active in their school community promoting online safety. Over 80% of these young people feel that they can make a difference in their school community; ninety-eight percent said they can help parents understand the issues children face online.

When we say that everyone has a role to play in the online safety of children, we need to be open to what children can do and support it. Online safety education is not something we do to young people—it is something that we need to do with them.

Find out more about Childnet's peer education programme engaging pupils in online safety education

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being Digitalisation


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Will Gardner

CEO, Children's Charity, Childnet International

Will Gardner is the CEO of children’s charity Childnet International. Will joined Childnet in 2000 and was appointed CEO in 2009. He is a Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC), a partnership between Childnet, the Internet Watch Foundation and the SWGfL, and as part of the UKSIC organises Safer Internet Day in the UK, which in February 2021 reached 51% of children and 38% of parents. He is also an Executive Board member of the UK Council for Internet Safety and chairs the Early Warning Working Group of helplines, hotlines and law enforcement. Will also sits on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board and Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council.

In his time at Childnet Will has led national and international projects, and has led the development of Childnet’s range of award-winning internet safety programmes and resources aimed at children, parents and carers, and teachers and schools.

Will was awarded an OBE in the 2018 Queen’s New Year’s Honour List for his work in the field of children’s online safety.