Social networking software such as Facebook and Twitter are providing opportunities for personal expression, the creation of communities, collaboration and sharing. Other examples include blogs (personal web-based journals), moblogs (blogs sent from a mobile phone), wikis (modifiable collaborative web pages), and podcasting (subscription-based broadcast over the web) supported by technologies such as RSS (really simple syndication – an XML format designed for sharing news across the web). They enhance or gain value from social interactions and behaviour. They can also provide opportunities for collective intelligence and thus add value to data. Digital video, photography and music technologies have democratised the process of content creation and distribution. Recent studies of children and young people’s online behavior indicate that there are a wide range of activities undertaken, from using the internet for homework and research to a wide range of entertainment and edutainment activities. The benefits for children are well documented, but so too are a number of risks of which young people must be made aware.
Initial concern for children was largely centred on their use of social networking sites and the possibility that young people could be ‘groomed’ by those with a malicious intent. This is made possible by the amount of personal information that children can disclose online allowing predators to manipulate children by becoming their online friend, often hiding their true age and identity and developing close friendships by pretending to share common interests in music, personalities, sport or other activities for which children have expressed a specific liking. The huge publicity surrounding chat rooms and the decision by some leading commercial companies to close their chat rooms to children led to the focus switching to social networking applications. In some respects these are more of a problem than chat rooms, as young people share ‘friend lists’ and pass on contacts one to another. As instant messaging programmes allow private one-to-one correspondence with or without the use of webcams, they also can give even greater privacy to predators developing relationships with children online. It is important to understand that social networking sites are public spaces where adults can also interact with children, which obviously has an implication on child safety. Whilst encouraging young people to be creative users of the internet who publish content rather than being passive consumers, there is a balance to be weighed in terms of the personal element of what is being published. The concerns are shifting from what children are ‘downloading’ in terms of content to what they are ‘uploading’ to the net. In some cases very detailed accounts of their personal lives, contact information, daily routines, photographs and videos are acting as an online shopping catalogue for those who would seek children to exploit, either sexually or for identity fraud purposes. These sites are very popular with young people as not only can they express themselves with an online personality, but they can use all the applications the site has to offer to chat and share multimedia content with others – music, photos and video clips. Unfortunately, these sites can also be the ideal platform for facilitating bullying, slander and humiliation of others. The better sites are now taking this issue seriously and ensuring that they have safety guidelines and codes of practice in place. In drafting an AUP, students, where appropriate additional consideration should be given to boarding pupils. For example, additional privileges may be given after school with access to allow less restrictive filtering but keeping in line with the overall ethos of providing a safe environment. The management of mobile devices and laptop dongles that allow unrestricted access in dormitories should also be carefully managed with a view that such usage should be viewed on its merits and with due consideration to the in loco parentis nature of boarding supervision.
Clearly banning activity of any sort merely heightens the desire of young people to explore and push the boundaries. We have a responsibility to understand what children are doing by talking to them about their online activity and educating them to the possible downsides – encouraging safe use and enjoying the benefits whilst minimising the risks. It is recommended that schools and academies use CEOP materials to educate children about risks and benefits, look at recommending social networking sites that safely enhance education experiences. Schools and academies should also look to provide timely and accurate information for parents and teachers, provide safety tips and good advice and stay up to date on developments.