There is no quick fix to online risks - we must work together
In my opinion... Alex Cooney
Technology provides our children with opportunities that we could never have imagined ourselves when growing up. We give our children access to the world when we let them go online.
What many of us don't consider however, is that in doing so, we also give the world access to our kids. The risks are plentiful: from cyberbullying and loss of images to the more terrifying prospect of adults who use the internet to meet and groom children.
It's because of these risks that CyberSafeIreland was launched this week. It is a new charity that is rolling out a programme of education to children in 4th to 6th classes, providing practical advice on how to embrace the opportunities for learning and enjoyment that technology can deliver, while equipping them with the tools to avoid harm. We are targeting the provision of classes in 80 schools this year rising to 375 schools by 2018, and will be prioritising training in DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) designated schools.
While schools are the obvious place for this kind of learning to take place, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to shoulder the entire responsibility.
Technology is changing so fast that it is extremely challenging for even IT savvy teachers to keep up. Kids will move through different apps and games at a rate of knots and the way they use them also changes all the time.
Whereas a couple of years ago, your main concern as a parent might have been whether a game had violent or explicit content, now you also need to worry about who they are playing with online, as everything moves to multiplayer environments.
This is not to say that schools aren't doing what they can to respond to these issues. We've met some fantastically proactive principals along the way. Most schools are covering the national curriculum on internet safety in one way or another. There are some good supports out there for them including specialised teacher training and the national website webwise.ie, which provides lots of information for teachers, parents and children about how to stay safe online.
What can bringing in outside expertise add? Teachers and principals often tell us that kids listen more to an outsider speaking to them, particularly if that person can speak at their level and knows what they're talking about - whether it's the latest messaging app or the games that they play online. The kids may feel more comfortable talking about their experiences with someone that they don't know and may open up more to somebody who is not a figure of authority. It's our job always to be one step ahead and to learn as much from the children as they learn from us.
Expert trainers need to know the technology and have the ability to keep up with this fast-paced environment. Beyond knowing their stuff, it is absolutely critical that they are also able to communicate the right messages in an age appropriate way. Every child in Ireland has the right to effective, consistent and up-to-date education that will transform how they behave online.
Let us not forget the role of parents, which is absolutely key in supporting, protecting and empowering their children. How often is it said that education starts at home?
The reality is that schools have little control over what kids are doing in their own time and what boundaries or supervision are placed on them by their parents. Parents need as much support as their children in grappling with this complex world, which is why CyberSafeIreland also offers training sessions to parents in the schools we visit. There is no quick fix. We all need to work together in a cohesive way: parents, educators, the government and organisations such as ourselves to keep our kids safe online.
Alex Cooney is CEO of CyberSafeIreland. See cybersafeireland.org; @CyberSafeIE