Safer Internet Day 2016 - staying safe online
By Ross Graham, Consultant.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. These social media sites are likely to be household names for the average British school child. Indeed, it has been reported recently that young people in Britain spend more time online than that cherished national past time of watching television. The tech-savvy nature of many British young people can bemuse those of us who spent our early teenage years happily listening to the soothing tones of a dial up connection, or subsequently battling with a dodgy broadband signal.

Interacting online is not without risk for young people, with the potential for playground bullying to be transported into the digital sphere. However, ComRes research for BBC Newsround has shown that use of social media for young people is a modern-day reality and a positive experience for many. The promotion of positive behaviours surrounding young people’s use of social media could therefore be a more productive route to internet safety, rather than focusing on preventing young people from interacting online.

Today, Tuesday 9th February, the UK Safer Internet Centre holds its annual Safer Internet Day, dedicated to raising awareness of the potential risks facing young Britons online, and encouraging positive behaviour. In 2015, Safer Internet Day reached 1 in 4 UK school children, and was supported by more than 850 organisations. The day is not simply aimed at those of adolescence, but rather the entire spectrum of British school children.

Our research shows the importance of engaging with children and young people on this issue, as many have social media accounts when they are technically below the age requirement. Four in five (90%) 10-18 year olds in the UK report having a social media account of some variety, including 78% of those aged 10-12. Nearly three quarters of 10-18 year olds (72%) say they have a Facebook account. Given that this online giant has a minimum age limit of 13, it is particularly stark that half (49%) of 10-12 year olds have an account on Facebook.

While it is difficult for social media sites to track the entirety of their users, our research uncovered a feeling among young people that more can be done to protect them online. Around half (47%) of 10-18 year olds with a social media account think that social media companies do not take online bullying seriously enough.

Encouragingly, however, positive experiences online outstrip negative experiences. Discussing what they do online, four in five (80%) 10-18 year olds with a social media account say that someone has liked one of their pictures and three quarters (74%) say that someone has been nice about them. This is compared to less than half (43%) who report someone having been rude about them. In addition, 63% describe their experience of using social media as ‘happy’, compared to only 3% who call it ‘sad’. While we so often hear of the negative experiences of children and young people in using social media - which cannot be ignored - these findings show how online networking is actually largely perceived positively across a majority of 10-18 year olds. Safer Internet Day therefore makes an important contribution in promoting the positive contribution that digital technology can make, while also raising awareness of the risks.

And there are risks. Just less than half (44%) of 10-18 year olds report that they have made friends online that they have not met in person, including 37% of 10-12 year olds. In addition, around a fifth (19%) of young people reported having being trolled / bullied online.

Yet this study suggests that shutting young people out of social media for their own protection is a huge task and not necessarily desirable. Rather, encouraging a more positive usage of social media and digital technology could help increase some of the positive experiences that 10-18 year olds report. And this is the message of Safer Internet Day - that parents, teachers and others should engage with young people about their experiences online, promoting openness around online activity and positive behaviours.

More information about Safer Internet Day 2016 and its theme of ‘Play your part for a better internet!’ can be found here.

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