Three fifths of 11- to 12-year-olds are on social media, and a third of all online users are children. Generation Digital have grown up with technology all around them and are often far more familiar using it than their parents will ever be. But treating children like adults is a dangerous road to take. 

Comfort with a smartphone is not the same thing as technical proficiency. Children’s ease with tech fools many into treating them like adults. But this blinds us to the reality that they are still children. Our brains do not fully mature until our early twenties. The wiring is still in progress, which is why our teenage years are more likely to be reckless, irrational and irritable.  

So, despite most children growing up feeling confident using all kinds of technology and online platforms, children often still lack the critical thinking necessary to be as discerning about online content and behaviour as they need to be to stay safe and flourish in a rapidly changing online environment. Children are not naturally awake to the potential risks found online. They are less likely to consider long-term consequences and will rarely be proactively critical about content they see. Keeping children safe online starts with recognising this reality. 

Risk is not the same thing as harm. Online abstinence is no way to build resilience. Moreover, the opportunities the internet creates are near limitless and should not be wasted.  

We think what’s needed is for children, parents, caregivers, teachers, professionals and tech companies to understand and respond to the nature of risks that exist. Tech companies can build a better internet by incorporating safety by design into the products they offer. Meanwhile, professionals should involve children and parents in the design of education programmes to build knowledge and resilience.  

What counts as harm?

Online risks are best understood in three broad categories: Content, Contact, and Conduct. Within these, there are four general types of content and behaviour to be aware of: Aggressive, Sexual, Values, and Commercial. 

  • Content risks are about what children see online. Examples include violence, pornography, hate speech, and advertising. 
  • Contact risks are about who children engage with online. Examples include harassment, grooming, ideological persuasion, and personal data misuse. 
  • Conduct risks are about behaviours children themselves take part in online. Examples include bullying, sexting, trolling, and gambling. 

It’s clear these risks did not originate online, but rather are an extension of dangers that have always been present in our lives. They are exacerbated though by the fact most online services are not designed with children in mind. Children therefore face a heightened level of risk, just as they would do in an equivalent adult space in the offline world. Children find novel ways of using technology, whilst online safety struggles to keep up. Parents are frequently left feeling powerless to provide the same support to their child’s digital life as they would do in all other areas of growing up. 

So what do we do about it?

At NPC, we’ve been working with Nominet and ParentZone to investigate the online safety landscape so charities and funders can proactively drive best practice and influence government policy.

There are shortcomings with the current support landscape. We found many systems designed to help children are one-off lessons preaching restriction, rather than sustained efforts to equip children with the skills and capabilities they need to negotiate their own safe online experience. Resources for adults can be fragmented, poorly signposted, heavily duplicated and out of date.  

We believe helping parents recognise how their existing parental skills can be applied to digital contexts would help alleviate parental anxiety and ensure children enjoy better all-round support. 

We need an evidence based, systems change approach to help parents, teachers and carers create a community of support around children. Building broad principles of resilience must be at the heart, not chasing the details of individual platforms that will rapidly date and drop out of favour.  

Interventions must be co-designed with children, parents and professionals if they are to respond to the risks children worry about, alongside those that professionals know may affect them, but which children may not readily identify. Such interventions should include relevant age appropriate online spaces in which children can learn, analyse their online decisions, build resilience, and form their own mode of operation without generating a footprint in the bigger online landscape. Put simply, an online playground.  

Finally, we need to ensure the online world children enter is as safe as possible. This means responsible corporate citizenship and more thoughtful regulation at government level, driven and challenged by charities campaigning on behalf of those they work with. This is why we’ve argued in our response to the Government’s Online Harms consultation for a much greater role for civil society, through the creation of What Works Network for measuring and evaluating the impact of online safety initiatives. 

We believe charities and funders are well placed to be a leading voice in these efforts. At present, most online safety funding is from tech companies. It is undoubtedly a good thing that tech companies recognise their responsibilities, but they cannot be expected to do everything or to ignore commercial pressures. Foundations and philanthropists need to step up to create a more diverse funding landscape. The online world is only going to grow more prevalent in children’s lives, so we all need to work together to build safer online environments, foster supportive communities, and equip children with the resilience to thrive as discerning and constructive online citizens. 

Our new report, Keeping Children Safe Online, launches this month. Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with all our latest events and research. And if you’re working in digital or with young people and want to get more involved in this area, our consultants are on hand to provide bespoke support to make your initiatives a success.  

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