Child safety in the digital age: How education systems can help

Group of primary school children sitting in the school yard playing on their phones

By Francesca Gottschalk

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

On a number of measures, children are safer today than ever before. Better public safety measures have reduced rates of child accidental death and injury significantly. Bullying has also declined since 2014. And while “stranger danger” can elicit fear in even the most rational of parents, the data suggest child abductions by strangers are exceedingly rare.

However, the 21st century brings new challenges to child safety, especially when we think about the digital environment. Children are avid users of digital technologies. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with national lockdowns and school closures, this use has intensified (as it did for most of us). Despite all the opportunities the digital world provides – such as playing, learning, socialising and participating in civic life – digital engagement comes with risks to children’s safety that can have real-world implications.

Many risks in the digital world mirror those in the physical one. Bullies can reach their victims in the digital sphere, just as they do in the schoolyard. Children can be exposed to hate speech and racism in the virtual games they play, in the videos they watch and through the apps they use to communicate.

But some risks are more unique to the digital environment, such as sexting (i.e. sending or receiving sexually explicit messages on line), or use and misuse of children’s data. Children (and adults) may have a hard time distinguishing pop-ups in apps or sponsored links as digital marketing, highlighting potential consumer risks. Exposure to these risks can affect children’s emotional well-being and academic outcomes, undermine their privacy in the short and long term, and can have financial implications too.

Different risks require different policy responses, and co-ordination across a range of sectors including education. The global nature of the Internet, and rapid changes in technology require a swift and collective effort in tackling these issues. Another challenge here is that we need a better understanding of the risks children are likely to face to develop appropriate policy responses. For example, international data on cyberbullying suggest that rates haven’t actually exploded, as is often suggested in public discourse.

We need a better understanding of the risks children are likely to face to develop appropriate policy responses

Education systems, often in collaboration with other sectors, have implemented a range of measures to protect children in the digital environment. In its most recent report, the OECD’s 21st Century Children project explores some of the policies and practices used to improve child safety in the digital environment, and how education systems are adapting to the rapidly changing risk landscape.

Targeting cyberbullying is high on the policy agenda in many countries across the OECD. Measures that countries have taken include developing national action plans, establishing helplines where children, parents and teachers can receive support or report serious cases of cyberbullying, and disseminating information to help teachers integrate Internet safety into their teaching.

For example, in Australia the Office of the eSafety Commissioner operates a reporting scheme in instances of severe cyberbullying. In Ireland, Webwise provides information and resources for parents, teachers and young people about Internet safety.

Security and privacy of student data is also a priority issue in many countries. Greece, Norway and Switzerland have implemented single sign on or safe login programmes for school children. In the Flemish community in Belgium, Ireland, Latvia and Luxembourg, schools receive guidelines on how to effectively protect student privacy. These are just a few examples of the many ways in which education systems are thinking about and acting to improve students’ digital safety.

Equipping children with the skills to effectively and ethically navigate the digital environment can help them understand the digital risks they face

Education systems also play an important role in promoting digital skills, digital citizenship and media literacy. Equipping children with the skills to effectively and ethically navigate the digital environment can help them understand the digital risks they face. For example, higher media literacy will help children discern between information that could be misleading or fake, sort facts from fiction and seek trustworthy sources of information. Teachers are important players here, and with the right skills themselves can help children realise the risks and potential of the digital world. We should underscore however, that despite the strides made in keeping students safe in the digital environment, there is lots of room for education policy and practice to grow in this agenda. For example, in the product market companies are held accountable for safety compliance of digital tools and platforms, not just issued with non-binding recommendations or guidelines.

As our society becomes more digital, it is more important than ever to gain an understanding of the accompanying risks and opportunities. Only then can we implement policies and practices that will actually protect and support children in this space. Safety doesn’t happen by accident, and we need to work diligently across sectors, across research disciplines, across regions and across countries to enhance child safety in the digital environment.

Read more:

Photo: Shutterstock/Rido