Why Smart Means Safe for Children Online


April 15, 2020


Janice Richardson has focused her entire career on empowering children through education. Since 2019, Janice’s company, Insight, has been partnering on Huawei’s SmartBus programme in schools in Belgium and the Netherlands under Huawei’s TECH4ALL initiative. One in three of today’s 4.4 billion Internet users worldwide is a child, but it’s not always a safe experience. The SmartBus aims to help 11-15 year olds learn how to be smart online.

We spoke to Janice about cyber bullying, the threats facing children online, and the approaches that are needed to keep children safe online. Read more about Janice’s work at the end of this post.

Huawei Blog: What was your goal for creating Safer Internet Day and do you have plans to expand it in the future?

Janice Richardson: Way back in 2003 not many parents were aware of the challenges their children were facing online. Those who were concerned were unsure what to do about it. Safer Internet Day was a good way to raise the awareness the general public to the opportunities and challenges, and an effective way of getting schools, industry and governments onboard. The idea worked and Safer Internet Day, 17 years later, is officially celebrated in 150 countries. I’ve been working with countries in Africa over the past couple of years, using Safer Internet Day as a platform for them to share experiences and strategies.

Huawei Blog: While children and young people face many threats online, which ones are the most acute at present?

Richardson: The biggest threats are mainly related to online behavior and self-generated content. Young people are often eager to be seen and get ‘likes’, sharing too much information about themselves. They respond to personal queries and share personal information, doing things they wouldn’t dream of doing in a face-to-face situation. Poorly adapted online behavior and information-sharing can trigger bullying, sextortion, public embarrassment, fraud… It is a key factor in opening the door to grooming, which can rapidly escalate to outcomes like sexual exploitation or radicalisation.

Profile hacking is another quite serious issue for young people, often brought about because they use weak passwords, or the same for several accounts, and forget that passwords shouldn’t be shared with anyone. Phishing is a widespread problem, for children too. Malware, bots etc. are, of course, a huge issue when online tools are not sufficiently protected. Data can be extracted and web cams switched on without the user being aware of it. Web cams and cameras should be systematically covered when not in use.

Huawei Blog: Is enough attention being given to children’s online safety? If not, what barriers exist?

Richardson: A lot of attention is given to children’s online safety, but unfortunately it’s not embedded in actual practice with digital tools. Young people I meet can usually recite online safety rules by heart, but forget them when they’re online because they’re not learning them in situ. Children learn by doing, and from how they see their parents and teachers behave.

If more schools used social media and similar platforms in class, I think we’d see a big improvement. Also, we need to take stock of what children really are doing online and what they want to know about; this will motivate them and give them an active role in their learning.

We often blame technology for Issues such as self-harm, suicide incitement and excessive use, often called addiction, but the online world is a huge open space where children need a lot of guidance before they become progressively independent. Children are not born digital natives, even though they seem to master digital tools almost intuitively. Online safety is only a little about technology and a lot about behavior, and parents have a big role to play in helping children by sharing, strategically, their life experience.

Huawei Blog: What unique characteristics does cyberbullying have (including impact) compared with schoolyard bullying?

Richardson: Cyberbullying can be much more hurtful than schoolyard bullying, firstly because the child doing the bullying cannot see the ‘victim’, and doesn’t know when to stop. A joke or playful comment can rapidly turn toxic because of this. Cyberbullying follows the child being bullied into the most private spaces of his or her life, and can go on 24/7 contrary to schoolyard bullying. Another issue is that most schools don’t want to intervene in online problems or those that occur beyond the school gates.

Children can, and too often do, hide cyberbullying, ignoring the age-old advice to tell a trusted adult. The added visibility of schoolyard bullying makes timely intervention easier. Interestingly, we’ve met almost 5,000 children aged 11 to 15 in the Huawei SmartBus and, responding (very privately) on a mobile phone, 69% say they’ve never been cyberbullied. However, it’s disconcerting to see that 6% have often been cyberbullied, and another 9% have been once or twice.

Huawei Blog: What are the best approaches for young people to develop social skills, empathy, and EQ so they can communicate safely and responsibly online?

Richardson: Developing empathy begins from the earliest moments of a child’s life, through visual contact and positive interaction with parents and loved ones. There have been many experiments to try to build empathy at a later stage, mostly unsuccessful, which leads me to question the current vogue of putting mobile phones or tablets in the hands of very young children during mealtimes.

The European Digilitey project has come up with interesting insights into digital practices in early childhood, showing how difficult it is to make up for developmental phases skipped in early years. Beyond that, the best approach is to ensure that children grow up with good role models and a positive environment in which they can express themselves easily. It’s especially important in our multi-cultural society of today to make sure that differences are accepted and celebrated.

As long as schools retain the old ‘performance model’ where children are consistently sorted by age and graded and compared on their academic capacity, the focus cannot be on developing social skills and EQ. Families and the community environment have to learn how to compensate for this.

Huawei Blog: How have advocates/organizations been empowered to strengthen the fight against victimization, bullying, and other social problems affecting young people? What are some best practices?

Fighting against victimization, bullying, and other social problems affecting young people is unfortunately still not taken sufficiently seriously by the world of education. Much more research is necessary, current research that keeps pace with the rapidly evolving tools and the AI that surrounds us. At present, teachers are neither trained nor are they given clear objectives or evaluation criteria to understand the efficacy of their approaches. Secondly, a multi-stakeholder approach is required, and this is not really happening yet as education is not always eager to open its doors to industry and NGOs.

Social media platforms have made big advances with their innovative measures to remove hurtful content and get users to think twice about sending harmful messages, but this is highly challenging because language evolves too. The European Commission-funded ENABLE project is a good example of what can be done. The five countries involved worked with families as well as the school environment, and focused on peer-learning for children and teachers. The outcomes highlighted the impact a collaborative, friendly learning environment in the classroom and home has on the social interactions between children [1]. Ministries of Education in other countries are integrating key elements from ENABLE into their education systems, and in the Seychelles it has become part of a comprehensive anti-bullying/social behaviour charter to see if consistency in expectations and consequences in a country-wide approach can help foster positive social behavior.

[1] Richardson et al (2017). Bullying: Perspectives, Practice and Insights. Council of Europe.

Huawei Blog: How can technology help create a more tolerant, safer society for children?

Richardson: Creating a safer society for children is a multi-stakeholder challenge, though technology definitely has a big role to play. We hear a lot about safety- and privacy-by-design, but safety and privacy are more about the users than the tools. For this reason, more thorough pilot testing would help. Content moderation and curation efforts by platform providers need to continue, with artificial intelligence used positively to protect users, for example, by improving detection of predators.

Children need more openness about algorithms and less profiling because that is impacting the diversity of what they see and hear, and influencing who they are. Everyone needs a better understanding of how digital technology and artificial intelligence is shaping society. Rather than the current educational focus on coding, companies could get together with educators to create learning programmes around these issues, and support teacher training for the implementation.

Huawei Blog: What value does the SmartBus provide and how can it be expanded?

Richardson: In the SmartBus, children are using technology i.e. a smart phone, while they are learning about it – the media is the message! Having a magician deliver a pedagogical programme built around children’s needs makes it a fun, meaningful, and memorable experience for participants. It provides cultural and creative opportunities too, for example, by guiding children virtually through a museum to demonstrate the exciting cultural opportunities the Internet can bring.

The SmartBus is visiting areas and establishments that don’t often get such opportunities due to distance or practical requirements; it easily adapts to physical needs such as wheelchairs and the content is adapted to suit the audience. It also enables children to privately respond to questions about their online practices, then situate themselves in the aggregate response of their classmates that they see on the screen.

However, it needs to be embedded into a full educational programme where teachers have a good understanding of the topics that will be tackled, can prepare children for the visit, and respond confidently to the questions they get from their pupils after the session. Learning is not complete until it has been applied to new situations, and this can be achieved by well-designed post-session activities.

Huawei Blog: Why are initiatives like Education4ALL that wish to empower people through education important?

Huawei Blog: Initiatives like Education4ALL are important because they’re broad-sweeping and inclusive, not chopping learning and society into subject areas and categories that in no way correspond to real life. Working in a multi-stakeholder approach in the way such programmes do ensures that they are pedagogical, psychologically adapted for target publics, but also rooted in technological reality.

About Janice Richardson

Janice first worked as a primary school teacher/teacher trainer in Australia, then as a project innovator and lecturer in Europe researching the impact of digital technology on literacy, children, family, society, and wellbeing. A first book on IT, creativity, and education (prefaced by former EU President Jacques Delors) was followed in 2003 by co-authorship of the Internet Literacy Handbook for the Council of Europe (plus three subsequent editions in 2006, 2009, and 2017).

In 2003, while working for the Luxembourg government under the umbrella of her company, Insight, she was a founder of Safer Internet Day, today celebrated in 150 countries worldwide.

For a decade she led the European Commission’s 31-country Safer Internet Network, working with policy makers and industry to design tools and legislation to counteract the risks and challenges arising in the digital world. During this period she created an eSafety label for schools, the youth-led WebWeWant publications and the ENABLE anti-bullying programme.

Today Janice advises social media companies (Facebook, Twitter), works with international institutions and national governments in Africa, the Middle-East, Europe and Asia, and recently co-authored the Council of Europe’s Digital Citizenship Education Handbook.  Since 2019, Insight has been partnering Huawei’s innovative ‘SmartBus’ programme in schools in Belgium and the Netherlands. Delivered by magicians, it aims to help 11-15 year olds learn how to be ‘smart’ online.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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