UK government faces call to give kids their own digital tzar

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan January 4, 2017
The first fully social media native generation of kids is passing through school, but without assistance in learning the necessary online skills to keep them informed and safe. Would a digital tzar be the answer?

The UK government has been called upon to create a digital tzar for children in order to create a “supportive digital environment” for the nation’s first fully-native social media generation. 

According to a new report out today from the Growing Up Digital Taskforce, set up by Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, children aged three to four spend an average of 8 hours 18 minutes a week online, increasing to 20 hours for those aged 12 to 15. 

What particularly alarms the Commissioner is the finding from the study on which the report is based, that “impenetrable” terms and conditions of social media sites mean that most young internet users aren’t aware of the implications and consequences of their online behaviour.

For example, the study found that none of the children in the focus group could understand the terms and conditions of Instagram, which run to over 17 pages and over 5,000 words. While Instagram is apparently used by 48% of eight- to 11-year-olds, only half of them could even read the terms and conditions.

The report warns that for children to be “effective agents of their own digital lives”, they need to undertstand that to use many apps, they will waive fundamental privacy rights and that their personal data could be bought and sold. Moreover the terms and conditions can be changed at any time without notice.

One 13 year old is cited in the report as saying:

They must know that no-one reads the terms and conditions. But if they made it more easy, then people would actually read it and think twice about the app. They write it like this so you can’t understand it.

Faced with the status quo of 17 pages of complexity, parents aren’t much help. The report finds that adults don’t feel confident about how to prepare their offspring for life online:

Parents concerns do not always match those of their children, with risks and opportunities viewed very differently. While adults have a tendency to talk about ‘risks’ as if they come from strangers and far away, children see risks - of bullying and violent or sexual content, for example - arising in their everyday chat with people from school and therefore find these much harder to negotiate. This relationship also changes with age, with younger children viewing parental intervention as positive, whereas older children are more ambivalent, inclined to regard parents (or other adults) as invading their privacy.

Life lessons

Teachers also don’t seem to be trusted to have the necessary online safety credentials, with education regulator Ofsted declaring that staff training on such matters falls short.

With that in mind, Longfield’s report also calls for the introduction of mandatory digital citizenship lessons for pupils up to the age of 14, with a voluntary extension for older children who “want to become digital leaders or champions”. 

Such lessons would cover  what it means to be responsible online, how to protect your rights and how to respect those of others as well as how to disengage with the digital world.

The report notes that there are already a number of digital citizenship curricula available or in development, that are:

creative, fun, stimulating and adaptable - everything we would want the internet itself to be. Courses like this, with clear stages for each age group, would not lead to a GCSE or a formal qualification, but to ‘digital citizen’, ‘digital leader’ and ‘digital champion’ credentials.

What is interesting is that the report recommends that these lessons shouldn’t be led by adult teachers:

We…believe that a broader digital citizenship programme should be obligatory in every school, led as far as possible not by teachers, but by older children. Research has shown that children are keen to discuss their online experiences and what they can learn from them, but that they prefer to talk about them with peers.

With Brexit in mind, Longfield also wants the European Union’s controversial Right to be Forgotten to remain in place for children, regardless of the stated opposition of the UK government to the legislation, which was introduced to enable EU citizens to have search results erased from European search engines:

When it was created 25 years ago, the internet was not designed with children in mind. It is vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.

This is not the case today, according to the report, which is particularly problematic when it comes to online bullying. Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that in a study of 1000 young people, 60% of those who said they had been bullied stated that this had occured online, but only 15% had reported a complaint to the social media service provider.

Of those who did, less than half got a satisfactory result. An example is cited of a 14 year old girl who found herself harassed online when her photos were defaced with laughing emojis. She said:

I reported it to two social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, but nothing happened because it didn’t look like I was being bullied. But it definitely felt like bullying.

This is where the digital tzar - or more formally Digital Ombudsman - would come in, acting as intermediary between under-18s and social media companies. This office should operate along the lines of the Financial Ombudsman Service and be funded by the social media firms themselves.

Liam Hackett, CEO of Ditch the Label and a member of the Growing Up Digital Taskforce, argues that it’s a case of platform providers facing up to their obligations:

Social media outlets have a huge responsibility and duty of care to safeguard and protect the young people who are using their platforms. But more frequently than not, young people are having their reports of abuse either ignored or responded to in unsatisfactory ways.

It doesn’t help of course that the providers themselves don’t appear to have a particularly clear picture of the scale of the problem. The Children’s Commissioner asked Facebook and Google about the number and types of requests they receive to remove content.

Neither of them knew…

My take

An important report on an important topic as the first fully social media native generation grows up. There’s a danger of course of accusations of Nanny State syndrome and for the inevitable use of the findings by the tabloid press to beat up their current most hated social media providers. (The rank hypocrisy of the likes of Daily Mail doing just that to Instagram today is staggering from a news outlet whose first response to any tragedy or crisis seems to be to grab some bikini shots from unprotected Facebook accounts!)

The Digital Ombudsman is an interesting idea though and digital citizenship lessons should clearly be right up there with reading, writing and sex education to my mind. Now it’s over to the government to accept the recommendations.