Safer Internet Day

Yesterday, the 11th of February 2014, was the eleventh annual ‘Safer Internet Day’, a time when the general public, and particularly those who care for children and other vulnerable people, can learn how to stay safe online.

What is Safer Internet Day? 

Coordinated by Chilldnet International, the South West Grid for Learning, and the Internet Watch Foundation, the initiative aims to educate people who may not be aware of the ways in which their details are being shared and the common pitfalls encountered online.

Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, explains further:

“Making the internet safer for children and young people is the child protection challenge of this generation. And Safer Internet Day is a chance for everyone – industry, Government, charities, schools, and families – to talk about online safety and share knowledge about what works.

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A safer internet is built not only by technical endeavour and policies, but by the behaviour of the people that use it. We all need to encourage young people to seek help when they are upset by something or someone online. And service providers and website owners must continue to make it easier for young people to report upsetting content and behaviour, and take swift action to tackle it.”

What are the challenges? 

One of the main challenges faced by companies working in online security is a lack of knowledge on the side of day to day users. The internet is a dynamic area which changes every day – social networking sites update their privacy policies, websites claiming to be reputable are set up for the purpose of defrauding naïve users – and keeping up with all the changes is a full-time job in itself.

Of course, one of the most sensitive yet important areas of discussion is how to keep children safe online in a realistic way. According to a recent study released by the Internet Watch Foundation, only 37% of parents have had conversations with their children about what to do if something upsets them online, and just 20% have told their children how to report behaviour that makes them uncomfortable. This lack of preemptive action can lead to young people being confused when difficult situations arise – often when a child is being bullied, or when someone is making advances that make them feel uncomfortable, they do not want to discuss the details with their parents or carers. This leads to some people attempting to restrict young people’s internet access, but with the proliferation of multi-device usage and computers in schools, it is difficult to make this a realistic solution. Giving a young person a level of control over their own internet usage whilst providing them with a space where they can report unwanted behaviour of any kind goes some way towards solving this problem – so why are so few parents investing time in educating their children about internet safety?

A common response to this question is simply that ‘the internet’ is too large a subject to broach. Websites change and update daily, children often keep their blogs and profiles hidden from their parents, and the latest trends in online life can seem incomprehensible to people who use the internet solely for work, a few personal emails and perhaps some online shopping.

It is unrealistic to expect carers to spend as much time online as the children in their care, and yet this is really the only way to properly understand the social landscape navigated by young people every day.

And even when incidents are reported, investigating them can be a challenge. With internet cafés, libraries and cheap handheld devices widely accessible, proving that a specific person perpetrated a crime – or even a series of crimes – is not as simple as gaining access to their personal computer and analysing its contents. Common public misconceptions such as the CSI effect can give rise to frustration on the part of those who report internet safety breaches: members of the general public often find it difficult to understand why law enforcement agents and digital forensics professionals cannot “just hack in and find out”, leaving victims with a sense of despair at not being taken seriously.

Yet education about the methodologies used and time required in solving cases of internet safety breaches is not something that can be easily delivered to people with little or no prior training in computer science or digital forensics, particularly when fictional depictions of the field are so far-fetched. Reports of child protection cases in the news media do not generally demonstrate the scale of manpower, time and resource that is required to bring perpetrators to justice, instead focusing solely on results and allowing the public eye to skim over the more complex details. And yet if we want to ensure that young people are safe online, they surely need some level of understanding of both how and where to report unwanted behaviour, and the process that is set in motion once a report has been made.

Finding a realistic solution 

Safer Internet Day aims to address these concerns without placing unrealistic expectations on people who are responsible for children. Rather than being asked to inform young people about the specific dangers of each type of site, or the ways in which they might be exploited online – elements which change every day – the Centre encourages parents and carers to provide children with the skills they need to be able to navigate the web securely, and to deal with any potential danger in a productive manner.

Will Gardner, the Safer Internet Centre’s Director, explains:

“Everyone has responsibility to make internet safety a priority. Young people are increasingly becoming digital creators and we must equip them with the skills to continue to create and innovate by working together to make the internet a great and safe place.

This Safer Internet Day is the biggest one yet – the fantastic range of supporters really reflects how widespread and important this issue is, and we are delighted to see such collaborations where schools, civil society, public and private sectors are all championing the same cause.”

And what about educating young people in how investigations are conducted, or about what happens when they submit a report to a law enforcement agency or similar body?

There is a certain level of knowledge which can only be gained from training in digital forensics, however the basic concerns of young people can be addressed by giving them at least a rough understanding of how professionals deal with such reports.

With this in mind, the three bodies who make up the UK Safer Internet Centre have put together a series of online and offline resources around internet safety. On average, two schools are visited by the team per working day, where talks focus not only on how to report incidents, but also what happens once a report has been made. Follow-up advice is given through the Safer Internet Centre’s website, where a series of helplines provide in-depth, personalised information on subjects ranging from indecent images of children to cyberbullying and scams. Over the past twelve months, 3,846 schools have been reached, over 39,000 reports of indecent content featuring children have been reported to the Safer Internet Centre by members of the public, and 9,550 websites featuring such content have been removed. Whilst progress is not always as fast as people would like, it is at least being made.

Everyone, from digital forensics professionals to people who care for children but are not computer literate themselves, can make a difference to the ways in which we deal with online behaviour. In the words of this year’s Safer Internet Day theme, ‘Let’s create a better internet together’.

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