07/02/2017 12:24 GMT | Updated 08/02/2018 05:12 GMT

The Internet Is Now A Big Part Of Children's Lives - But We Need To Help Them Use It Responsibly

Growing Up Digital recommends that digital citizenship should be taught from the age of four to fourteen with a voluntary extension for older children, which would show the way to get the best out of the internet.

When many of us were children we didn't have the fantastic opportunities - or have to worry about the risks - that come with today's digital world.

As parents, we all know the Internet provides incredible opportunities for our children to learn, to explore and to engage with others. But we often feel out of our depth or unsure about the impact it is having on their lives.

I'm worried children aren't being equipped with the skills they need. Too often they are left to learn about the Internet on their own while their parents vainly hope that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls.

As Children's Commissioner, I chaired the Growing Up Digital Taskforce, a year-long study by a group of experts with expertise in areas like media law, online bullying, safety and children's digital use. Our report, 'Growing Up Digital', published in January, makes a number of recommendations which would give children the resilience, the information and the power they need to engage creatively and positively with the Internet.

Social media is an increasingly significant part of growing up, but it is clear from our report that young people simply don't understand what they are signing up to under the terms and conditions of many platforms. They are agreeing to things they could never be expected to understand, meaning they are waiving their right to privacy and allowing the content they post to be sold, without realising they are doing so.

As part of our report, we asked some young people whether they understood the terms and conditions of Instagram, a social media platform used by 56% of 12 to 15 year-olds and 43% of 8 to 11 year-olds with a social media account. The younger children were unable to read more than half of the 17 pages of text, and none fully understood what the terms and conditions committed them to. When we asked an expert in privacy law to simplify them so that they were comprehensible to teenagers, many were shocked by what they read.

We also looked into children's experiences of reporting concerns on social media sites and found that many don't know how to report problems. When they do, they are dissatisfied with the action taken.

It's time for the large social media companies to engage meaningfully to give children the information and power they need. So we are calling on them to rewrite their terms and conditions so children understand them and can make informed decisions. We are asking the Government to implement legislation in line with that already planned for most of Europe in 2018 to protect children's privacy and data online, and are calling for an extension of the Children's Commissioners' powers so that there is independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people.

We are also calling for a digital ombudsman, who would mediate between children and social media over the removal of content. It would operate in a similar way to the Financial Ombudsman Service and would be funded by social media companies, but be independent of them.

Growing Up Digital recommends that digital citizenship should be taught from the age of four to fourteen with a voluntary extension for older children, which would show the way to get the best out of the Internet. Parents are not confident about how to prepare children for online life, while Ofsted has found the training of teaching staff to be inconsistent and often inadequate. We need to equip children with the skills to be a responsible citizen online: how to protect their rights online, how to respect others' rights online, and how to both disengage and engage with the online world.

The Internet is an incredible force for good and is here to stay as part of our everyday lives. But it is irresponsible to let children roam in a world for which they're ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations. That's why it is critical that children are educated better and understand what they're agreeing to when they join social media platforms and that their privacy is better protected.

Today's Safer Internet Day is a timely reminder that when it was created 25 years ago, the Internet was not designed with children in mind, but that it has become a huge part of their lives. We have to make sure that the digital world in which our children are living is a rewarding and safe place to be, by empowering them and giving them the skills and resources they need to thrive.

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