January 18, 2023
Discernment in Digital Life
By Dr Kathy Weston
'Safer Internet Day' will soon be upon us in Britain; a title that always irks me somewhat, mainly because it implies that we can teach children to be safe online in the same way that we might instruct them on matters like road safety. This is an attractive but simplistic analogy, which fails to take into account the expanse and complexity of the online world. It also implies there is a clear cut, evergreen set of rules to follow, and that, once you know them, you’ll be ok. This is far from the case.
When we are teaching our children to cross the road, we know exactly what the dangers are and from which direction they might be coming. We know what we need to tell them and how to gradually build up their confidence when it comes to managing risk. We each hold extensive personal experience when it comes to crossing the road ourselves, so we can empower our children accordingly.
The online world or the ‘World Wild West’ as it has been more suitably referred to by the NSPCC, is an environment that has transformed our understanding of what it is to be human. It has fundamentally shaped learning, culture and virtually every field of knowledge. For all the good it has brought to the world, it has also facilitated the growth of exploitation, crime, harm, tyranny and abuse.
The risk of online harm is compounded by the fact that sexual perpetrators are adaptable. There has been an exponential rise in children being online (facilitated by lockdown) and in their general access to tech. For example, half of the UK’s ten year olds and 91% of 11 year olds own smartphones – access to digital devices is now commonplace. Phones tend to be given to children at the onset, or in the middle, of adolescence – a psychologically vulnerable time. There is a tension between parents’ desire to protect children and their children’s desire to gain independence and cultivate a sense of personal identity.
One hallmark of adolescence, for some teens, is keeping a few things from your parents. Yes, you read it here first. Burner phones are pretty common in this age group and young people are not averse to lying about their age to gain access to particular apps or websites. In late 2022, Ofcom published research which suggested that a third of children between 8 and 17 years have an ‘adult user’ age after signing up with a false date of birth.
There are also plenty of children who don’t need to behave surreptitiously because their parents will happily assist them in establishing social media profiles, despite being below the minimum age of 13. Fear of their children being excluded from social media socialisation, a general underestimation of digital risks and an overestimation of their child’s ability to navigate digital harms can be factors contributing to this approach.
At the other end of the parenting spectrum, there are those that might choose to take a purely authoritarian stance; prohibiting internet usage at home or online gaming altogether. These parents might underestimate the importance of digital engagement with peers (certainly for tweens and teens) and consider restrictive bans optimal for protecting their children. They will likely secure parental controls on every single domestic device and hope that this act alone will keep children away from harm. The problem with this approach is that the efficacy of outright bans eventually expires, as children begin to spend more time out of the house, socialising with others. It is what I would call a ‘stair gate’ approach (you might recall most toddlers will eventually learn to climb over a stair gate designed to keep them within a boundary). For children and adolescents, it is developmentally normal to attempt to circumvent, bend or test any set of rules. We should expect and prepare for it.
Whilst there might be a natural inclination towards independence and secrecy by tweens and teens, there is also a raised threat of harm, as sexual perpetrators attempt to take advantage of the easy ways to now contact young people.
Britain’s National Crime Agency estimates that there are approximately 550,000 to 800,000 people in Britain today who pose various degrees of sexual risk to our children.
A regular reviewer of my own son’s phone use, I recently spotted one user who was intent on moving my 13 year old off a particular game and into a cosier space, where it was just the two of them. This person wrote: “I am really shy with a lot of people. Can it just be you and me?”. My son registered this comment as ‘weird’, took a picture of the interaction and blocked the person in question. The latter is an example of ‘digital resilience’; the ability to understand, assess risk, identify harm and respond appropriately. These interactions occur more often than parents think. Ask your own child if they have ever received a weird comment and how many times they have blocked an interaction. Recently, I met a 15 year old girl who told me she receives pictures of genitalia from unknown males on a weekly basis, via social media. She didn’t seem alarmed telling me this and explained rather casually how she just blocks them. Her nonchalance is clearly a symptom of how normalised these interactions have become.
Another aspect of online life for many teens is witnessing phobic or discriminatory language being used by peers, in games or during social exchanges. I was recently talking to my boys about the platform Discord; a murky world that isn’t too easy for adults to navigate and which is riddled with conversational threads about everything and anything. Show me some threads and tell me how it works, I asked.
Sorry to be graphic, but gaming threads included chat about sex with animals, jokes about masturbation and many young people were exchanging racist and homophobic slurs. Unfortunately, all of this frankly toxic chatter is beyond the scrutiny of millions of parents.
I talked to my sons about how it feels to be a bystander to such inappropriate exchanges? How can we intervene for good? How can we become positive, active bystanders? Able to spot things and take appropriate action to improve a situation. We don’t want to tell our mates or fellow gamers off, nor do we want to stand by whilst they use revolting language. What can we do?
Firstly, we can reiterate our core values as families; “We aren’t the kind of people who stand by and watch someone get treated like that!”. Discuss and reach some sort of consensus regarding what’s acceptable/unacceptable behaviour online. Acknowledge that it can be tough to intervene in ways that feel comfortable and safe. Talk to your child about choice and practise social scripts that they would be comfortable saying. They might directly challenge a comment online by typing, “Bro, that is disgusting! Why would you even say that?”. Perhaps they could name their feelings? “I feel sick when I read that word”.
Challenging someone’s toxic views or behaviour in the online world may run the risk of exclusion, but let’s take the long view. At the end of the day, it is about raising a child who can actively participate in the digital world in ways that feel aligned to their core family values and that will give them a sense of pride moving forward. We are aiming to raise great digital citizens.
Online safety isn’t just about installing parental controls, nor is it the responsibility of schools to sort it. We need to take a roots and branches approach at home first; opening up conversations about the impact of digital technology on our lives and our aspirations for our digital lives. We should all take our heads out of the sand when it comes to digital risks and work hard to give our children both the tools to navigate online spaces, the social confidence to report upsetting experiences and the ability to bounce back from online experiences that feel upsetting.
I recommend parents and carers attune to the advice of Professor Sonia Livingstone at LSE; her voice is always reasonable and her advice borne from the freshest research evidence. She advocates many of the things I have shared above; ‘parenting, rather than policing’ our children’s use of digital technology; being authoritative rather than authoritarian; acknowledging the benefits of engagement with the digital world, whilst cultivating the kind of open culture at home that means we remain realistic about risk. We should allow them to enjoy ‘digital play’, educate them about their ‘digital rights’ and remain curious and interested in their digital engagement. What excites them about the digital world? What do they enjoy doing online? Do they know how to seek support if things go wrong, or if they see something upsetting?
Accept that they will make mistakes and reassure them that they can rely upon our cool constructive approach when they do! Promise them, in the event that they ‘mess up’ online that you won’t stride in and remove all devices in a flash of anger. Promise you will listen. Promise that you value their safety above all else.
Obsess less about time spent on a screen and focus instead on their use of screens; are they testing their French knowledge on Quizlet or watching hours of Andrew Tate clips? Digital diets matter and, as parents, we should take a greater interest in what their brains are consuming and how their values are being shaped by that content.
Children can become immune to messages about online safety delivered in traditional ways, which is why innovative ways are being developed to capture their attention. Schools might be interested in learning that Ofcom’s behavioural insight team has designed a game to lean into children’s enjoyment of gaming, which convey important messages. The Bad News Game (an interactive choice-based game about misinformation) has been shown to improve players’ ability to spot and resist fake news.
There is also merit in schools developing what is called algorithmic literacy and resilience. Insidious algorithms now sit in the background as we all browse the web, monitoring our every move, tracking our actions and using our data to make decisions about what we will see online. No matter how digitally skilled our children are, the ‘Goliath’ within the online world is the algorithm battling to control the narrative. Professor Neil Selwyn from Monash University notes that ‘algorithmic systems are a common feature of young people’s lives, dictating which targeted advertisement appears when a toddler watches a YouTube video, or perhaps whether a school leaver gets accepted to study at their preferred university’. Algorithms can be especially worrisome if children have a pre-existing vulnerability. As one researcher put it, they “act as a distorting mirror, magnifying problematic content and pushing young people with mental health vulnerabilities down a spiral of ever-more overwhelming, upsetting or extreme content that they find hard to break away from.”
As such, algorithmic literacy has now become essential learning. What do our children need to understand? Well, according to Professor Selwyn, they need to be able to recognise when data-driven automated systems are being used and have a basic understanding of how they work. They might also explore both how to work with, and how to work around, algorithmic systems. Recognising when and how to push back against algorithmic bias is important!
For an excellent set of guides and activities designed to get young people (aged 13-25) thinking about these issues, we’d advise checking out the Center for Humane Technology’s Youth Toolkit. To learn more, you can also take a look at The Algorithm and Data Literacy Project’s website, which contains discussion guides, definitions and videos or take a look at this report on life in the age of algorithms.
Once our children learn how algorithms work and how pervasive they are, they can begin to act as digital detectives in spotting them and circumventing their influence.
As a family, by taking an interest in emerging technologies and trying our best to stay up to date, we can continue to engage in dialogue with our children and model positivity about the digital world, as well as encourage a strong sense of discernment.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
At Tooled Up, we’ve long been interested in boosting children and young people’s digital resilience, whilst encouraging them to make the most of the rich opportunities that new technologies offer. That’s why we have a whole section in the library dedicated to digital life. It’s the perfect place to look, whether you need help deciding when your child is ready for their first smartphone, would like some inspiration for starting conversations on internet safety or want advice if you suspect your teen might be sexting. It’s hard to pick our top 10 digital resources, but we’ve created a roundup of our favourites. Check it out in the library now!