Independent and Catholic schools guide: raising digital citizens

31 July 2017

By Rathika Suresh – Director of ICT Services at St Catherine’s School, Waverley

The level of responsibility placed on those accountable for the care of children and young people has always been tough, but the challenges parents and guardians face in the digital world cannot be underestimated.

Never mind the generation gap, now an intergeneration gap is looming between siblings in different age groups when it comes to online experiences and behaviours.

With rapid changes in the digital world, age groups are defined by the app or the social media “hang outs” being used. Online activity is different between the teens, the tweens and the twentysomethings.

How do we keep the young and vulnerable safe from the dangers and the inappropriateness that are lurking just a screen or two away? Do we teach good habits and offer safety nets or do we block access and fool ourselves?

We hear a great deal about the benefits, promises and perils of technology, which isn’t surprising given that Wi-Fi and the net have permeated just about every aspect of our lives. Despite the research and predictions, the truth is that no one really knows how technology will impact our careers and way of life in the future.

Creativity and entrepreneurship are now lauded as important skills to develop in young people. To that list, I would add agility and resilience, as well as being ethical and responsible “digital citizens” as skills necessary to prepare them to learn, work and play in the digital world.

Schools use filtering, have policies in place, and have learning programs like digital citizenship as a means of protection and character-building for participation in the digital world.

Numerous good filtering solutions are available for use in homes with some ISPs and mobile phone plans providing low-cost filtering solutions. Installing a filtering software on a single device is obviously not sufficient since many young people have multiple devices with which they connect to the internet.

So a network or a router-based solution in the home is more practical. Filters can automatically block access to certain websites and can also be configured for age-appropriateness, time restrictions, can keep a log of online activity, track social media activity and provide reports on usage.

Even though internet filtering options have matured in recent years, unlike film and video classifications, there are no set standards. As a result, content that is harmless may be blocked by overzealous filters, impacting the browsing and learning experience of students.

On the other hand, some inappropriate and objectionable content can slip through the gap.

However, we cannot be naive and underestimate the digital natives (those born and bred in this digital world) and the power of Google. If a child is so inclined, even the best filters can be outsmarted.

Filters will never be 100 per cent foolproof and are not a substitute for adult supervision, guidance and education. Installing internet filtering in the home or school is just not enough. But it can be a good start.

Given the complexity of the online world, it is important to bring resilience into the mix of skills to prepare children and young people for the future.

Building resilience may also mean some exposure to risk. Different families have different views and levels of risk-taking in their parenting of a child’s online experience – just like television-viewing rules of families differed in the past.

Nevertheless, all children and young people require supervision, guidance and strategies to interact safely online. Simply blocking internet access or restricting reasonable online activity will only lead to secrecy and deny them the opportunity to learn.

Ultimately the best solution is to embrace their digital world and not to fight it. By all means, combine the use of a filtering tool with education and open conversations, but empower young people with choices and strategies to navigate their own digital world.

Trust them a little on their paths to becoming responsible digital citizens.

As published in the Sydney Morning Herald.