Apps are even more inventive than governments in teaching kids how to stay safe online

A study released by SafeToNet, an online safety app for kids, has revealed that young British children are engaged in problematic online behaviour and are exposing themselves to harm. The app analysed the texts of over 50,000 kids to reveal girls as young as 10 years were using explicit sexual language.

These shocking results have cast a new light on the effects of smartphone penetration and easy, 24-hour online access amongst minors. Protecting the youth from online harm has therefore already been a priority for many governments across the EU but efforts have predominantly focused on adolescents.

However, the SafeToNet study is only one of several published in recent years that show that protective focus should begin at an earlier age, namely when kids get their first electronic device. For almost 20% of young people, that happens at the age of 8. This early adoption is a global phenomenon: research conducted across 30 countries revealed that a startling 66% of children aged 8-12 have been exposed to cyberbullying, sexual behaviours and other threats, as they devote almost 32 hours per week to the screen.

Heightened awareness

Technology’s increasingly prevalent role in our society requires a re-think of the way children and young adults are introduced into this ever-connected world. Just as a child learns to navigate traffic at an early age, they also need to master what good behaviour means in the cybersphere – and, as SafeToNet’s study highlighted, the earlier the better.

Indeed, several governmental initiatives have sprung up to tackle this issue and to make kids online-proof as soon as possible. Following the suicide of 14-year old Molly Russell last year, the British government tangibly stepped up efforts to increase awareness about online safety experiences. The CyberFirst initiative, for example, targets children from the age of 11­ and is tailored to suit different ages. Through short courses that teach kids the basics of e-safety, such as securing their online accounts and discerning what information to share online and what not to, the government hopes to improve online behavioural patterns early on.

In a similar vein, Germany launched its “klicksafe” campaign, which aims to promote safer use of “internet and mobile technologies among children and young people”. An important character of the campaign is its reach and intended audience. While targeting children and adolescents, it also appeals to teachers, parents as well as youth and social workers to heighten peoples’ awareness concerning online competence.

For Germany, this is an important innovation, given that a political debate has been raging for years about how digital skills should be taught in schools, not only for enabling children to protect their privacy and well-being, but especially given the pressure of a rapidly changing society in which the cybersphere is omnipresent.

Modern problems require modern solutions: Yubo and SafeToNet

But as important as these two governmental initiatives are, their inherently paternalistic, government-imposed approach can only go so far to appeal to the intended audience –therefore limiting its effectiveness. The good news is that a number of start-ups in the tech sector have taken it on themselves to educate their users and draw clear lines, providing a much-welcome second prong in increasing online competence. This hands-on approach between user and app promises to be much more effective, just the way fieldwork teaches people more about a topic than abstract courses and theory.

By incorporating ways to teach kids about safe online behaviour by using these apps, kids learn about online responsibility. At the same time, they can safely harness the power of social media to address growing concerns of loneliness and depression amongst teens through meaningful online interactions.

Case in point is French start-up Yubo, a social media app that has garnered upwards of 25 million young users from across the world. Especially popular in English-speaking countries like the UK but rapidly expanding, Yubo is different from other social media platforms as it seeks to organically instil good digital values amongst its young users.

To that end, Yubo is using a custom-made algorithm, which immediately detects if users violate community standards, for example, by posing nude or in their underwear in livestreams. If users don’t swiftly cease inappropriate behaviour, Yubo shuts down the livestream—yet rather than blocking the user straight away, the app sends an explanatory warning to suspend such behaviour. The result is an app which emphasizes its commitment to teaching its users how to navigate cyberspace, compelling users who’ve violated the community rules to evaluate their actions before they can hop on the app again.

Yubo is not the only app to take a pedagogical approach to help young people pick up good online habits. SafeToNet, the London-based startup whose abovementioned study highlighted the importance of teaching kids how to stay safe online,

However, Yubo is not the only app to take an educational direction. The earlier-mentioned London based start-up SafeToNet is another app that provides real-time guidance to children using social media or any messaging platform. It uses an intelligent keyboard that overlaps with the phone’s and reads every message being typed in real-time.

SafeToNet also analyses messages for indications of bullying, hate-speech, anxiety or sexual content, while also restricting what sort of content smartphone users are able to access. Its unique feature is a system that provides immediate feedback to messages and conversations, and suggests guidance regarding how to navigate the online world.

Early intervention is key

The fourth industrial revolution presents many challenges for both governments and citizens. Digital competence is already a key pillar of employability, so to be able to do act responsibly online will become even more of a priority for the young today. A two-pronged strategy consisting of government initiatives coupled with first-hand experiences through apps like Yubo, SafeToNet and others could be the way forward.

Such a comprehensive plan must include cooperation between all stakeholders like childcare professionals, schools and parents to include digital intelligence in the school curriculum. Just like in other aspects of education, when it comes to online behaviour and skills, no child must be left behind.

Image credit: Graeme Peterson/Flickr

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