Keeping children happy, healthy and safe in the digital age

By Andreas Schleicher and Andrew Wyckoff

What is childhood like in 2019? By any number of measures, children’s lives have improved over time, thanks to better public safety and support for their physical and mental health. Digital technologies help children to learn, socialise and unwind – and in times of need, help is always just a phone call (or WhatsApp message) away.

Yet there are signs of new stresses as well. Children in the 21st century are reporting more anxiety, as they face increased pressure to excel in an increasingly more competitive educational environment. And the same technologies that help parents stay connected to their kids also make it more difficult to monitor children’s behaviour once they have their own devices.

A new OECD report looks at how education can help children feel happy, healthy and safe to seize the opportunities digital technologies offer, while also minimising the risks that these technologies present. Here are three key takeaways:

  • Education plays a key role in empowering an active and ethical (digital) generation.

Young people today spend much of their lives online: they use digital tools to create content and socialise; to play, communicate and learn; and to work and share. They are also increasingly required to navigate ambiguity, reconcile conflicting viewpoints and identify fake or misleading online content.

Developing and strengthening digital literacy through positive engagement with technologies is a key policy goal for all OECD countries. Digital citizenship is not just about building skills; it’s also about actively and responsibly participating in the online world. Education systems seek to develop this in various ways, such as updating and expanding national curricula, upskilling teachers and working with community partners.

Our report draws attention to several examples. In the Flemish Community of Belgium, the nonprofit Mediawijs collaborates with other groups to train teachers on how to foster digital literacy and citizenship among their students. And in Latvia, the Superheroes on the Internet social initiative – a partnership between State Police and Net-Safe Latvia – campaigns for digital citizenship, media literacy and online child safety. The Australian School Wellbeing Framework, meanwhile, helps schools build inclusive and positive environments (both online and offline)  through promoting visible leadership, family partnerships and positive behaviours, including digital etiquette.

  • Cyber risks can be minimised, but not eliminated.

Despite the many advantages of being online, the reality is that all digitally engaged children will be exposed to cyber risks. These include consumer content-related risks (e.g., online fraud and marketing, harmful content), contact risks (e.g., online predators, cyber bullying and sexting) and privacy-related risks (e.g., privacy breeches and identity theft).

To address risks and protect children, countries have implemented various legal frameworks and policies based on the premise that what is illegal offline should also be illegal online. In 2012, the OECD Council adopted a Recommendation for the Protection of Children Online, which aimed to provide governments with guidance on the policy actions and good practice needed to protect young people online, without undermining fundamental values or the openness of the Internet.  The OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation is currently updating this Recommendation to account for technological and legal developments since its adoption.  

There is no going back. We are more connected than ever before, and many children have access to tablets and smartphones before they learn to walk and talk.

In updating the Recommendation, the OECD is working to strike the right balance between promoting greater use of digital media among children and young adults, while also protecting them from potential risks Striking this balance is particularly important in today’s fragmented but digitally interconnected policy environment, in which governments can risk introducing initiatives without fully appreciating the possible impacts or unintended effects. Privacy and data collection are key challenges, all the more so when personal data is commercialised, underscoring a need for greater transparency. Conduct risks, arising due to children’s own actions online, are a further category of risk that is being tackled in the OECD’s update.

Education Ministries, meanwhile, are using both restrictive and capacity-building strategies to protect children against online risks. Restrictive measures include limiting screen time, banning the use of smartphones in schools and cutting access to harmful content. And they are building capacity by raising children’s awareness of online risks, sharpening their ability to identify security and privacy threats, and strengthening their resilience .

While restrictive strategies are associated with fewer risks, they can come at the cost of digital opportunity and skill development. In contrast, building capacity through encouraging shared digital activities (e.g., those undertaken alongside skilled teachers, parents or peers) can create a safer environment without limiting children’s use of digital technologies  or hindering their agency and learning. This, in turn, helps children to better manage risks and learn when things go wrong.

  • Education can not do it alone.

As educators continue to focus on student well-being in today’s digital world, they are increasingly expected to work in partnership with other actors. Such expectations are especially acute in the field of digital technologies, where the speed of change makes it difficult for educators and academics to keep up. Much recent research, for example, has focused on Facebook, but children and teenagers are now much more likely to be on Snapchat and TikTok.

Key actors in this sphere include not only parents and families, but also health professionals, psychologists and law enforcement. Recently, this group has expanded to include cybersecurity professionals and industry partners such as social media platforms and other web companies. Industry partners are particularly important, as much of the directly measured data on digital use is owned by private companies. It is therefore essential to develop agreements on sharing data and measurements for policy and research purposes. But developing, maintaining and supporting partnerships with such a diverse set of actors – including  some that have divergent aims– is  a difficult challenge.

Yet there is no going back. We are more connected than ever before, and many children have access to tablets and smartphones before they learn to walk and talk. Education systems around the world have their work cut out for them, as they try to stay ahead of (or at least on top of) the curve. This is not an option: it is necessary to keep our children happy and healthy, both on and off line.

Andreas Schleicher is the Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills. Andrew Wyckoff is the Director of the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation.

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