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6 January 2017
By Rebecca Avery

"Growing up Digital" - New report from the Children’s Commissioner

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England has published the results of a year-long study, the Growing Up Digital report. The report explores how well children are prepared to engage with the internet and states that today's children are left to learn about the internet on their own with parents vainly hoping that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls. Growing Up Digital looked at how to equip children with the knowledge they need to engage creatively and positively with the internet, and not be overwhelmed by it.

Key findings

  • The time children spend online is continuing to increase – 3-4 year olds’ online use increased from 6 hours 48 minutes to 8 hours 18 minutes a week over the last year and 12-15 year olds spend over 20 hours a week online.
  • Impenetrable terms and conditions give social media giants control over children’s data without any accountability.
    • Growing Up Digital found that when children use social media they sign up to terms and conditions that they could never be expected to understand. These harbour hidden clauses which waive their right to privacy and allow the content they post to be sold.
    • The terms and conditions of Instagram (which according to the report is used by 56% of 12-15 year olds and 43% of 8-11 year olds) were tested with a group of teenagers. Younger ones were unable to read more than half of the 17-pages of text, which run to 5,000 words, and none understood fully what the terms and conditions committed them to.
    • Privacy law expert Jenny Afia, a partner at Schllings, rewrote the terms so they could be more easily understood by children, including advice that “[Instagram] is allowed to use any pictures you post and let others use them as well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that”. Instagram can share with other companies any personal information about users, “such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages. “We can force you to give up your username for any reason,” the re-written terms and conditions say.
    • Children found the new terms far easier to understand, with many shocked at the extent of the app’s rights. Several said they would delete or reconsider using the app.
  • Although some of the behaviour children complain about online – bullying, sexting, harassment – may be illegal, children often do not know how to report concerns and when they do, are dissatisfied with any action taken.
    • One study identified in the report found that almost a third of 15 year olds admit to having sent a naked photo of themselves at least once, and over a third of 12-15 year olds have seen hateful content directed at a particular group of people in the last year. The number of children counselled by Childline about online bullying has doubled over the last 5 years.

Key  recommendations

  • Growing Up Digital calls for a digital ombudsman to mediate for children  and give them more powers to tackle social media companies over removal of content and encourage more transparent corporate behaviour.
  • A broader digital citizenship programme should be obligatory in every school for children aged 4-14
    • Growing Up Digital recommends that every child in the country studies digital citizenship to build online resilience, learn about their rights and responsibilities online and prepare them for their digital lives.
  • Growing Up Digital recommends that social media companies rewrite their terms and conditions so that children understand and can make informed decisions about them. And it asks the Government to implement legislation similar to that being introduced by the EU to protect children’s privacy and data online.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, 5Rights Founder and a member of the Growing Up Digital steering group said: "The Children’s Commissioner has made an important intervention on a subject that is a central concern of parents, carers, teachers and young people themselves.  She has identified the lack of support in services that children routinely use, a yawning gap in their digital education and an unsustainable situation where the long-established rights of children are not applied online. The relationship between digital services and children will be an evolving one which will be constantly addressed and updated - but her recommendations are immediate and practical and usefully lay emphasis on those who provide services, the education of children who use them and the responsibilities of the UK government and the UN to update their provisions. I was happy to be part of her enquiry and welcome her recommendations."

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Children spend half their leisure time online. The internet is an incredible force for good but it is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations. It is critical that children are educated better so that they can enjoy the opportunities provided by the internet whilst minimising the well-known risks. It is also vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to. I urge the Government to extend the powers of the Children’s Commissioner so that there is independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people and I can recommend further action where required.  When it was created 25 years ago, the internet was not designed with children in mind. No one could have predicted its phenomenal growth, nor that it would become ingrained in every aspect of everyday life. We need to rethink the way we prepare children for the digital world.

Anne Longfield spoke to the BBC about the report here You can access the full report here

Using the report in school

The Growing Up Digital  report could be a helpful tool to enable teachers  to facilitate conversions with children and young people and indeed adults about the current approach towards digital citizenship and possible steps forward. BBC Newsround has produced a useful video about the report aimed at children  which could be used to generate discussions in the classroom.

Questions for pupils to consider could include:

  • What are their views on the findings from the report?
  • What do they think are their rights and responsibilities online?
    • Consider the 5rights campaign:
      • The Right to Remove: Every child and young person should have the right to easily edit or delete all content they have created.
      • The Right to Know. Children and young people have the right to know who is holding or profiting from their information, what their information is being used for and whether it is being copied, sold or traded.
      • The Right to Safety and Support. Children and young people should be confident that they will be protected from illegal practices and supported if confronted by troubling or upsetting scenarios online.
      • The Right to Informed and Conscious Use. Children and young people should be empowered to reach into creative places online, but at the same time have the capacity and support to easily disengage.
      • The Right to Digital Literacy. Children and young people need to be taught the skills to use, create and critique digital technologies, and given the tools to negotiate changing social norms.
  • Do they know how to report a range of possible online safety concerns, both online and in person?
    • Do they know what to do if they aren't happy with the help or response they receive?
  • Did they read and understand the terms and conditions of the apps, games and websites they use?
    • How could we help them understand these better?
  • What information or advice would be helpful to have to help them understand how to keep themselves safe online?

Questions that schools and staff groups could consider may include:

  • How does our current curriculum currently enable pupils, aged 4 and above, to develop digital literacy skills (including being a responsible citizen and protecting their rights)?
    • How do we develop key critical thinking skills to enable pupils to online evaluate content?
    • How do we explore pupils awareness and understanding about their rights and responsibilities online?
  • How do we know that all of our pupils know how to seek support for a range of online concerns?
    • How do we support pupils who don't feel the action taken (if at all) has helped them?
  • How do we role model digital literacy skills for children?
    • Do we as adults fully read and understand the terms and conditions of the sites we use?
  • How do we effectively support parents/carers?
    • How do we support vulnerable families to engage with core messages and access appropriate resources?