The most important test: protecting our children online

By Phil Smith, Head of Product, Smoothwall

In the increasingly digital world we now live in, the younger generation – especially school pupils – will have grown up not knowing a world without the internet. As a result, they are the first generation of true digital natives; often more digitally-savvy than the individuals tasked with protecting them – from parents to teachers. This is a problem and it needs fixing. We must empower teachers, Child Protection Officers and Head teachers to keep children safe online and technology is key to this.

The amount of time 8-11s and 12-15s spend online has more than doubled since 2005 – from 4 hours a week in 2005 to 11 hours in 2015 for 8-11s and from 8 hours to 9 for 12-15s. Similarly, a quarter of 8-11s and seven in ten 12-15s own a smartphone. These are startling figures, but it is the reality of the connected age. As true digital natives they are savvy to, and aware of, technology trends and the online world which now forms a pillar of society. 

The web is at its heart is a forum for worldwide knowledge sharing, and people of all ages benefit from it every day. But with this opportunity comes danger, and it’s this that keeps school staff awake at night. As digital becomes more and more a part of education and its curriculums, schools are under pressure to enable pupils digitally, whilst also protecting them from the darker side of the web such as illegal activity or radicalisation.

Regulation such as the Prevent Duty and the inclusion of IT network administrators in OFSTED inspections paints a picture of a world striving to protect people online. But are we succeeding?

Right now, our digitally-native children are usually one-step-ahead. They often see protection such as web filtering as an irritant and they try to get around it. We need to put schools and their staff ahead of this, ensuring they have the knowledge and tools needed to protect children fully, digitally enabling them without risking their safety.

Regulation such as the Prevent Duty and the inclusion of IT network administrators in OFSTED inspections paints a picture of a world striving to protect people online. But are we succeeding?

There is a definite need to monitor children’s online safety, however, it needs to be done smartly, or it could do the exact reverse of what it should be intended to do. In the case of Kiddle’s recent search term controversy, blocking key words such as menstruation, suicide and gay could potentially harm the development of young people by not allowing them to learn about culture and society topics.  The World Wide Web is a vast font of knowledge, and as the richest source of information possible it should be a fantastic resource that schools should be able to take full advantage of when teaching children.

Instead, what needs to be done to protect children’s online experience is to use technology to work for you, not against you. Using a context aware web filter will allow you to block certain pages based on the content, but still allow access to certain search terms that could aid in a child’s development. For example if a young person is looking for advice to overcome depression, searching for a term like ‘suicide’ could help. We must allow this. Not everything online is damaging. The majority of content is hugely beneficial.

Another instance where the need for context aware monitoring was highlighted was when a 15year old school boy was questioned by police for political extremism after the deputy head teacher reported he had been using a school computer to look at UKIP’s website. It transpired that the student had been researching immigration following a classroom discussion on the subject. Had the teacher been aware of why the student had been researching the topic, the situation could have been avoided. As such, searches should become intent and context-based rather than event-based, which looks at the behaviours of searches together and deciphers whether it has negative connotations and needs to be blocked or not.

Online child protection is of vital importance in this digital age and needs to be taken seriously. But equally, it must be done in a way that does not hinder learning and development. It is the responsibility of teachers, Child Protection Officers, Head teachers, and parents to ensure that they are taking a proactive approach in protecting them, whilst still enabling children to learn and develop freely. Smart, contextual monitoring is the only way to let children search freely, whilst being protected from harmful content.