Computers in schools: How we can help children to look after themselves

Dr Tanya Byron, author of a Government review of child safety online, tells Amy McLellan why education is key to getting the best out of technology
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The Independent Online

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron is in a good mood as she takes an early morning train to Wigan for a meet and greet at Edge Hill University, where she is the first ever Chancellor of the new university. Even the prospect of wearing heavy robes on a hot day doesn't dim her spirits. She is, she freely admits, a "bottle-half-full type of person".

It's an attitude that informed her approach when the Government commissioned her to undertake an independent review of the risks children face from the internet and video games. Rather than follow the path of least resistance and agree with the increasingly vocal view that video games are turning our children into psychopaths and the internet is awash with sexual predators, Byron, who still runs a weekly clinic, took a firmly independent line, commissioning three academic reviews and listening to what children themselves had to say about the new technology.

"Any new technology, from the waltz to the telephone to television, inspires a moral panic," says Byron, best known as the BBC's childcare guru from shows such as The House Of Tiny Tearaways. "As a psychologist, I wanted to use my skills to navigate through this panic and see what we should really be concerned about."

Her psychological insight helped shed light on how children use and react to the internet at different stages in their development. She also listened to children's online experiences: 350 children, aged from five to 18, responded to her call for evidence. Byron says their input was "the most accurate, helpful and least confused" of all the responses, reflecting their generation's comfort with the technology. This is one of the big themes of The Byron Review: Children and New Technology, which was published in March. Children have grown up with this technology and are using it in increasingly sophisticated ways, socialising and exploring an exciting world that remains a mystery to their parents.

Byron points out that while parents tutor their children in road safety and stranger danger in the real world, their discomfort with the latest technology means they fail to provide similar schooling in the online world. This leaves children vulnerable, because they are unparented in this online world and lack the life skills to handle any potentially exploitative, disturbing or dangerous content or contact, be it offensive spam emails, pro-anorexia websites or cyber-bullying.

"One of the more interesting ironies is that we no longer let our children play outdoors because of worries about their safety, which pushes children into spending more time indoors on the computer where they are actually more vulnerable," says Byron, a mother of two. "Children take risks and socialise, it's a developmental imperative for them, and if they can't do it outside they'll do it in the online world."

Even the most stringent firewalls and parental control software won't keep our children truly safe unless they understand how to behave responsibly and safely online. She uses the analogy of a swimming pool: there may be gates, signs, lifeguards and shallow ends to keep children safe but we still need to teach our children to swim first. "We need to empower children and let them swim in these waters," she says.

Her recommendations are wide-ranging and include a national strategy on e-safety, led by a UK Council For Child Internet Safety to be chaired by the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools & Families (DCSF) and reporting to the Prime Minister. She also advocates a high-profile public information campaign on child internet safety, along the lines of the 1970s "Clunk Click Every Trip" campaign on seatbelt use, to educate parents. The industry doesn't escape, with plans for an independently monitored code of practice for websites, social networking sites and other providers targeting young people, kite-marked parental control software on all home computers and prominent film-style age classifications on all video games. At present, only games showing sex or gross violence require an age rating from the Board of British Film Classification and fewer than 2 per cent of titles carry an 18-certificate. Other games come under a voluntary Europe-wide scheme, meaning that fewer than 3 per cent carry an 18-certificate.

Schools also need to step up their game, with a call for Ofsted to hold schools to account if they fail to take internet safety seriously.

Most industry experts believe schools are already doing a pretty good job. Simon Fuller, a former teacher and MD of Grid Learning, which provides educational content online, says the biggest risk lies at home. "Schools are very good at setting up firewalls and the children work in an open environment with teachers around," says Fuller, who warmly welcomes The Byron Review. "But at home, children are working on their own, often in their bedrooms, and parents don't know what they're doing."

He points out that children are more adventurous than adults like to think. "They are exploring this online world much more readily than adults," says Fuller, whose company developed the Cyber Café website, where children are taught online safety. "Children need to be taught how to use the internet safely in the same way we teach them how to cross the road."

But he says the dangers of the online world are small compared with its benefits, from creating music and art and exploring the world's best art galleries and libraries to old-fashioned fun and games. And, as The Byron Review discovered from the children's call for evidence, it's also a gateway to inclusion for those with learning or physical disabilities, providing a vibrant online social life denied them in the real world and aiding the development of skills, like map reading and literacy.

It is to preserve these benefits and minimise the risks that the Government has, unusually, agreed to all of Byron's recommendations. "That was a surreal moment," recalls Byron. "I was sitting next to Gordon Brown on the GMTV sofa, we were both heavily made up, although it looked better on me, and he said yes to everything. Very surreal."

What's more, she reports that the Government appears to be backing this up with action and funding. "I met with the Secretaries of State [from the DCSF and the Department for Culture Media & Sport] again recently and they are moving ahead," she reports. "It's now known as 'implementing Byron' and the woman running the team is really talented and will see it through."

And with that, Dr Byron is cheerfully on her way, robes and all, to her latest incarnation as Chancellor of Edge Hill University.

'It's no good just blocking sites'

Raj Patel, assistant head teacher at Parliament Hill School in Camden, North London, explains his school's policy for online safety.

On the technology side, we have an LEA contract with an ISP provider, London Grid For Learning, which provides top-level filtering. The school also has its own filtering system, so we can block access to shops and games for example, that we can then unblock if we get a request from a teacher that a class is researching the retail sector or doing an animation project.

We also have a network monitoring system, NetOp, which only allows students access to specific sites relevant to the lesson they are working on. This works very well and saves a lot of time.

But education is the key. It's no good just filtering and blocking sites: students also have to understand the risks and benefits of the technology so they can use it safely.

We're also doing parental level education because there's a real generational divide and parents often don't know what their children are up to on the computer. So many students no longer socialise outside in the public domain, so they do it online instead and we have to educate them how to do this safely. Children are so in tune with this technology and we really need to pick up the pace to keep up with them.