By Claire Stead, Online Safety Ambassador, Smoothwall
This month, the Government announced new proposals for its Internet Safety Strategy, setting itself the aspiration to make Britain 'the safest place in the world to go online'. This is no easy feat. The online world is advancing at what some might feel is an alarming rate. On a daily basis headlines are taken over with phrases such as 'cyber-attack', 'data breach', 'online bullying' and 'hack', all amounting to the rising fear of the online world. We are relentlessly reminded of how while the online world can be a brilliant place - giving us access to unlimited information - it can also be dark and menacing if not controlled and monitored effectively.
The UK's state of play
Currently, the UK appears to be in a state of denial when it comes to anything cyber threat-related. From a business front, UK organisations have slashed their cyber security budgets by a third, highlighting the worrying truth that some are not taking it as seriously as they should. What is perhaps even more concerning, however, is the attitudes and awareness towards children's cyber safety. Recent research has found that adults in the UK significantly underestimate children's online activity, and the extent of which they are either bullied - or are in fact the bullies - online.
To emphasise parents' online unawareness, the research found that 53% of teenagers have had their picture posted online in order to embarrass them, but only a fifth of parents surveyed believed that their child had been subjected to this experience online. If that wasn't all, almost a fifth reported being threatened online, whilst less than 10% of parents believed this had transpired with their child.
Addressing the problem: The proposals
The new proposals set out the belief that such issues can be confronted. They highlight that if we work together as a nation, we can tackle issues such as online abuse and safety, whilst still embracing the internet for all the good that it brings that benefits everyone, and at the same time address the risks that it poses for its users.
In order to achieve this, the government emphasised three key principles which underpin its plans:
● No exemptions: What is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online
● Feeling safe: That all users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe
● Responsibility: How technology companies have a responsibility to their users
These proposals are a necessary step in the increasing battle we face in keeping safe online. It is inevitable that we are going to need measures in place to ensure wellbeing online is protected, especially of children.
Education in the classroom and beyond
Issues such as online abuse, cyber bullying and exposure to other harmful material such as pornography and racial or radical content are fast becoming some of the most alarming issues of this generation, and it can start to be tackled in schools. Although it is encouraging to see plans about online safety taught alongside issues such as sex education and other 'life lessons', it is part and parcel of children's lives today. Rather than preventing access to the web, we need to ensure a balance of embracing the internet but warning against the potential risks. The internet is now an everyday use in the classroom. As a consequence, teachers and staff have a duty to ensure pupils are protected from the dangers online, and make sure incidents don't go unobserved or unnoticed.
In order to keep children safe online, schools and their staff need to get ahead of the digitally native pupils of today. Often they see protection such as web filtering as an irritant and try to get around it. To do this, schools need to be empowered with the knowledge and tools to protect children fully, digitally enabling them without risking their safety.
To have training teachers on the fundamentals of online abuse simply isn't enough, however. Schools will also need to be smart and proactive in their approach to content filtering and monitoring. While it's not possible to completely eradicate problems such as cyberbullying, sexual abuse and radicalisation, if schools have both the smartest web filtering and monitoring in action, they then have a solid foundation from which they can protect children from all kinds of nasty threats online.
A collaborative approach
We have already seen companies such as Facebook announce proposals to help pupils tackle cyber bullying and ensure every school has a digital safety ambassador, as well as collaborative efforts from internet giants BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media - which are all welcomed first steps.
In order to continue this progress however, we need to see more government intervention so that it is legally binding for schools and the social media companies children are using, to ensure they are taking the essential measures in keeping them safe online. And the responsibility doesn't just sit with the government; security experts from the private sectors should work with schools to advise them on the lasts threats in the industry, so that the knowledge and skills required to keep children safe is being passed down to the pupils and parents at home as well.
Only by having a collaborative effort from the Government, educational establishments, social media and technology companies as well as from those at home, will we be able to accomplish Britain's goal of being the safest place in the world to be online.