Training the next generation of digital natives

Cyber safety is a hot-button issue, thanks in large part to the pervasive nature of smart devices. But the dizzying rate of adoption is bringing a number of pitfalls for the most vulnerable members of our society: children.

Cyber safety is a hot-button issue, thanks in large part to the pervasive nature of smart devices. But the dizzying rate of adoption is bringing a number of pitfalls for the most vulnerable members of our society: children.

While the influx of devices into Australian workplaces is changing attitudes and behaviours across boardrooms, classrooms are having to adapt as well. Wooden desks are giving way  to collaborative round tables, and whiteboards are being replaced by Apple-TV-enabled projectors. The changing landscape of connectivity is posing challenges for parents and educators alike.

When children are issued their own tablets as early as grade one, it is almost impossible to insulate children from the dangers on the internet. The good news is that there are tangible benefits for the next generation of internet stakeholders.

The principal of Greythorn Primary School, in Melbourne’s affluent eastern suburbs, Geoff Agnew, says he is astonished by the impact tablets have had on literacy.

“Language development has heightened because they’ve got this wonderful tool they can access different resources with; the language they use in their presentations is more than I would expect from a typical year one child.”

Besides maximising the benefits the device trend brings, the key consideration is that any curriculum must be accompanied by an emphasis on safety and helping children navigate the inevitable threats they will face.

This week in Sweden two schoolgirls were found guilty of defamation after bullying fellow teens on photo sharing app Instagram, illustrating the scenario of when technology is issued without an understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.

The punishment meted out to the Swedish girls may set an example to young people that anonymity is not a refuge for those who wish to behave misanthropically, but it will take more than one cautionary tale to convince children of the need to take responsibility of their online persona.

Social media is banned at Greythorn Primary School, however punitive restrictive measures are unlikely to have a lasting impact. Children are adept at changing their behaviours to suit their surroundings and though they may behave at school, outside the grounds is a different story.

The concept of good ‘digital citizenship’ may sound like a buzz word with little meaning to tech savvy youngsters, but in reality the profile of a good virtual citizen is not dissimilar to its physical counterpart.

Who is responsible?

Mr Agnew says schools have stepped into the domain of parents, teaching children to swim, ride a bike and even responsibly own a pet, and internet safety is the next logical step in that process. Playing their part in helping children engage in society is part of the school’s community responsibility.

But since technology use is not confined to the classroom, the onus is on educators and parents to take a collaborative approach to cultivating this good behaviour at an early age.

The difficulty from the parent’s perspective is that children often under-report negative experiences online. A worldwide survey in 2010 by Norton found that while almost two thirds of children say they have had a negative experience online, the awareness of parents is lagging behind, with less than half knowing about these experiences. With busy parents, no news may be considered good news.

Children’s natural curiosity leaves them exposed to perpetrating or being subjected to misbehaviour, but blinkered parents and unsympathetic schools leave them rudderless.

One program that aspires to provide a structured school-based platform to instil the principles of good ‘digital citizenship’ is the Growing Up Digital program, launched this week in ten schools across Victoria, including Greythorn.

Developed by Common Sense Media in Partnership with Cyber Safe Kids with funding from Symantec and grants from the Victorian government, the program includes modules designed to be weaved into the existing school curriculum, rather than as an add-on.

The pilot runs in term three and will be watched and tweaked carefully through its trial run, with the potential to be rolled out nationally and worldwide.  

Norton’s global internet safety advocate, Marian Merritt says previous programs have failed to have any cut through because a once-off school hall session is not enough, for children or for parents. They have also been impossible to measure in terms of effectiveness.

“Right now, the range of available education resources ends up being overwhelming to schools parents, and young people. With this approach, we can raise awareness to levels needed to change attitudes and behaviour about what it means to live responsibly in a digital world,” she says.

A crucial component in the Growing Up Digital program is Family Media Agreements, which ensure parents are aware of and complicit in the expectations on the child about their cyber-behaviour.

Fundamentally, like the devices that travel everywhere with them - from the classroom to the playground to the living room - the behaviour of the next generation of digital natives needs be consistent, and so too the messages from parents and educators.

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