How to support young people on their digital journeys
23 February 2022 at 3:48 pm
Deb Tsorbaris reflects on the ways we can empower children, young people and families to use the internet as a force for good.
Back in November, I wrote about the risks of the online world to children and young people, amid concern about the link between internet use and the decline of mental health and wellbeing. This month, I wanted to explore the more optimistic side of the coin – how we can guide children and young people to engage with the online environment in safe and productive ways.
Debate around safe online engagement is as topical as it is needed. In 2020, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation received more than 21,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation. Unsurprisingly yet tragically, children and young people in out-of-home care are among the most vulnerable to online harms, due to the increased exposure to previous traumas that are commonly associated with cognitive challenges. As a result, many carers of children in out-of-home care are concerned that they are ill-equipped to support the children in their care, citing a lack of understanding and information about the difficulties associated with navigating the online world as a main barrier.
Supporting safe online engagement is challenging, partly due to a lack of research examining the long-term effectiveness of programs and approaches to online safety for children. Yet progress is being made to create a suitable digital terrain in which younger generations can thrive, and governments have rightly made a number of positive investments in this space. The eSafety Commissioner, for example, was established to improve digital literacy through the provision of advice and education on online safety, developing mechanisms such as Safety by Design, which focuses on the ways technology companies can preemptively minimise online threats.
Of course, there is more to be done, and it will take a process that is both iterative and inclusive of wide-ranging groups to identify best practice in this new field. One voice that must be heard in the conversation belongs to the most affected group: young people. The federal government’s Online Safety Youth Advisory Council is a welcomed step towards greater inclusion of young people in decision-making and promises to ensure a direct communication route between young people and the government on online safety issues and solutions. Due to the disproportionate vulnerability of those in out-of-home care, any counsel from young people must include young people with an experience of out-of-home care too, so as to create the rounded and nuanced policy response that is required of this complex issue.
Although tempting to opt for a restrictive approach to online safety, research suggests that the focus should be on recognising and respecting children’s agency and advocating for digital literacy that provides all stakeholders with the tools to navigate the online world. In practice, this means treating children as active participants in decisions relating to their use of online technologies, providing them with opportunities not only to voice their concerns, but also to participate in designing their own online safety strategies and on building their capability to self-regulate their social media and internet use in an age-appropriate way. Children can be supported to develop digital resilience through the enhancement of technical skills and critical thinking that creates a barrier to harm.
At a policy level, we need to incorporate the evidence, while taking note of context. With the right policy foundations in place, we can then develop improved training and resources, establish safe and clear pathways for reporting abuse, and implement in-built data collection strategies that monitor and evaluate the short and longer-term outcomes of programs. Social media platforms must also be held accountable to a greater degree, and to be more responsive to emerging minds.
Lastly, more inclusive dialogue and collaboration between families, schools, children and young people is a necessary adhesive to merge policy with practice and ensure that no child is left behind.
It is in all our interests that the internet is harnessed in safe and productive ways. It allows for greater connectivity, ease of study and work, and is a tool for amplifying the voices of children and young people seeking solutions to the problems affecting them and their communities. It also provides young people with a platform for advocacy and engagement unlike any other.
Social media platforms are evolving at an extraordinary pace and we need to find ways to keep up. We need evidence-based policies that protect children and young people, while galvanising them to become digital citizens. And we need to arm ourselves with knowledge to support young people and children on their digital journeys.
The conversation has started and it must continue – to empower children, young people and families to use the internet as a force for good.