Teach them to sail, you won’t to keep them in the harbour anyway
We have chosen to explain why it is important that the SAILS consortium has decided to implement a risk mitigation approach to online safety in the first entry to our project blog. In the view of Parents International, the author of this article, the answer is twofold. On the one hand it is a major child rights issue, on the other hand they will meet risk and harm, but if you have a risk prevention approach you may not know about it.
Let’s start with the child rights challenge. There is no question about a certain hierarchy of child rights: we need to do everything we can to prevent any risk to life. Still, accidents and incidents happen, and children – sadly – die. However, you teach children certain skills for example to prevent them being hit by a car and allow them leave the house every day. Media is full of stories about children being harmed, mostly mentally by online activities. The answer for many is to prevent children from going online or using certain online tools, such as social media. But is it the right approach? Our answer is a definite no. Similarly to navigating the roads, we need to teach our children how to recognise online risk and harm – and thus starting to provide for another basic right, the right to education. We also need to ensure a family and school environment where children feel safe to seek adult (primarily parental) advice if they feel uncomfortable, sad or at risk – thus providing for the basic right to be brought up in a loving and caring environment.
Research has confirmed that for the children of today online and offline presence means a continuum, not two separate fields of life. Online tools, and especially social media provide the platform for getting together, for organising social life, for expressing views and debating them, for widening their horizon and learning about the world around them. Therefore, child rights organisations have highlighted the importance of online access – thus providing for a number of basic child rights such as the right to the freedom of speech, the right to peaceful assembly, and again the right to education. When legislation, family, or school attempts to prevent access, they violate all these rights while their actions are definitely not justifiable by the prevention from harm as a proportionate element. It is important to mention that adult access to mailboxes, social media handles and other personal online spaces as well as most so-called parental control tools are also violating the basic right to privacy.
The basic principle of child rights is that it is closely linked to the evolving capacities of the child. The last 20-30 years has been a period when children in Europe – largely as a result of American influence – have been considered less and less capable of exercising their rights. Let me go back to the road crossing example. At the end of the 19th century, car had been considered so dangerous that in cities the driver was obliged to hire a runner to run in front of the car with a flag indicating danger (and by that also to drive ridiculously slowly). Cars have become much faster and much more numerous, and still people have decided not to lock their children in the house but teach them how to cross the road safely. First you cross together, holding hands and being a role model for your child. Then you ask the child to tell you when you can cross the street after they looked around or checked the traffic lights. And at the age of 6 or 7 (yes, that is the right age, not later, children are capable), you let them go on their own knowing that you have taught them all. Similarly, the first online experiences should be joint ones and important adults (both parents and teachers) need to be role models for their children. At the same time, it is important to create an environment and practices that enables the child to share anything, even being naughty, cheeky or outright bad, without having to be afraid of punishment. Free discussions around the table at dinner has proven to be the best. That way, you will know if something bad is happening to them online or offline, and build trust rather than violate their rights.
Most people are afraid of their children being bullied online, but they don’t consider two things. Online bullying is (nearly) always an extension of offline bullying behaviour, and often a sign of the bully being bullied. And sadly, we also need to understand that child-to-child bullying is not the most prevalent. Children are most often bullied by teachers with trusted adults from the family and circle of friends being the second. Another major concern is about pornographic content, but that has been on the table for decades, probably centuries. Children always found ways to access such content, without adult presence, if forbidden. A third area of concern is being exposed to violence. In this field research is not conclusive, but the balance is dipped towards research results showing that violent content is rarely a trigger for violent behaviour. At the same time, violent games often play the role of a punchbag.
These are some of the considerations that have led us to establish SAILS together with our partners, and in the course of the project these child rights principles will be diligently followed, especially by supporting the adults around the child, primarily their parents and teachers, to exercise their duties and responsibilities in ensuring rights.