BY KYLE HARRIS
Policing the Digital Playground, hosted by Trinity McQueen as part of Leeds Digital Festival 2018, saw speaker Sunam Ikhlaq, Research Manager at Trinity McQueen, identify the dangers faced by children online, and offered solutions on how parents should operate in an internet environment to which they are not themselves familiar. While in the past parents warned their children of going out after dark, modern parenting requires constant vigilance to protect children from the perils of the dark web, and the event shone some light on the ethical questions frequently raised.
Trinity McQueen, in partnership with Internet Matters, the UK-industry-backed organisation supporting child safety in the online world, have been conducting important qualitative research with parents about their children’s use of online services. They used surveys and online community methods to unearth parental concerns. From the engaging talk, it became clear that parents not only require a more robust education on the issue, but desire one too – with as many as 3 in 4 parents saying that they are willing to find the time to learn more. ‘Educating parents is key in order to provide them with the tools to keep their children safe online’, Ikhlaq concluded.
Parents themselves are also eager to know when to intervene when their children are online, and what to look out for if they’re concerned about their children’s online safety. Ikhlaq broke her response into three Cs: content, contact and conduct. What are they accessing, who are they speaking to, and how are they presenting themselves? According to Trinity McQueen, parents should bear these questions in mind if they are to defend against the pressures and dangers on their children.
But should children be so closely monitored online? Or should web freedom be a natural and exploratory part of childhood? Few parents would forebay their offspring the rite of passage of childhood adventure, such as climbing a tree, lest they fall and hurt themselves. For many, a hands-off approach to safety is considered the most effective way for their child to learn inevitable life-lessons. Many would argue sheltering children is not an effective means of education – allowing them to navigate and explore dangers for themselves is the only way for children to become rounded and socially-aware adults.
But does the same logic apply to online spaces?
As a Politics graduate, I was eager to debate these moral conundrums further, and posed the conflict to Ikhlaq, who assured me that it wasn’t so black-and-white. Depending on the age of their children, based on Trinity McQueen’s research, parents of a younger age group feel compelled to manager and monitor online activity. While parents of older children were more relaxed in their approach, confident navigating the online world will equip them with the tools and knowledge to make conscious and considered decisions for themselves.
She framed the question in regard to fire safety: ‘A similar principle applies when teaching children about other dangers. For example, parents will teach their child about fire safety and to not play with matches. However, parents will remove the danger so that it is out of reach. For older children, parents don’t need to hide the matches. They have provided their child with the information and have to rely on trusting them to do the right thing.’
It seems the answer to close monitoring or freedom to browse is a sensible and safe balance of the two. Children shouldn’t be suppressed, but it would be foolish to allow them to roam freely in playgrounds known to be dangerous before they are mature enough to protect themselves. For parents of young children unaware of potential dangers, parental locks offer a handy solution of “removing the matches”. But for parents of teenagers, allowing them to freely use the internet is important for their personal growth – and while this comes with risks, it’s as safe as it could ever be if a foundational knowledge of internet safety has been provided. The rest is up to the individual.
There is an undeniable lack of knowledge amongst parents, and most want simple direction on how to apply parental controls, what language to adopt when speaking to their children, and a clear destination for online safety information. But there is also a general consensus that responsibility for teaching children to safely navigate the digital world – something that is an increasingly necessary part of daily life – shouldn’t lie only with parents, but form part of the national curriculum within schools. Fortunately, the research and consequent solutions gathered by Trinity McQueen and Internet Matters provides some relief to parents.
Will the government provide a comprehensive curriculum for online safety in schools and parents also? We’ll have to wait and see.
To read more about Trinity McQueen’s research, please visit their website here.