When nine-year-old Martha Payne started a blog about her school lunches earlier this year, she could not have foreseen the uproar that would ensue. Highlighting the measly portions and questionable nutritional value of the meals, the blog, NeverSeconds, quickly gained global attention. It wasn't long before Argyll and Bute Council banned her from taking photos of her food. A storm of online protest ensued, which saw everyone from Jamie Oliver to Scottish Education Secretary Mike Russell join in, and the council was forced to backtrack. Her blog, which links to a JustGiving site, has now raised over £100,000 for Mary's Meals, a charity that runs school feeding projects in communities around the world.
It is just one of many great examples of children using blogs as a force for good. Eleven–year-old Dylan Ward has raised thousands of pounds for charity through Dylan's Wonders, which sells home-made charms and cards, with 50 per cent of the proceeds going to charity. Tavi Gevinson famously started her fashion blog, Style Rookie, when she was just 13 years old. She now runs Rookie, a feminist website for teenagers.
The discussion about children's activity online so often centres on fears for their safety, it can be easy to forget the opportunities that the internet presents to young people. "Blogging is a very creative thing to do and it gets children interested in writing again so it's wonderful," says John Carr, an international internet consultant on child safety. "It should be encouraged, not feared. But obviously it's important to have a discussion about it."
Data from Ofcom and EU Kids Online show that a fifth of parents don't discuss staying safe online with their children, but with 15 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds now blogging, what advice is there for parents?
"The most important thing of all is to talk about it with your children," says John Grounds, director of the NSPCC's Child Protection Consultancy. "In the end there is nothing better for keeping children safe than being informed and aware." The UK Council for Child Internet Safety provides guidance and Vodafone even has a magazine called Digital Parenting, which Grounds recommends. A lot of it is mere common sense: insist they don't share personal information; and encourage them to only upload content they would happily show a teacher.
And what about protecting your child from online bullying or trolling? "That's a feature of the internet in general, including the blogosphere," says Carr. "Unfortunately there's nothing you can do really. It's a sad feature but all you can do is counsel your child about it. The key thing is to encourage them not to do it and to teach them that not only can it be very hurtful, but it can be potentially criminal. Also, if they are being victimised themselves then encourage them to come and tell you and talk to you."
Although many blogging platforms, such as Wordpress, insist that users are at least 13-years-old, this is rarely adhered to. "It's unenforced, it's a complete joke," says Carr. "It's to try to give themselves a bit of wriggle room in case anything goes wrong. I think if anything did go wrong, the fact they make no effort at all to verify the age of their bloggers would mean they had little defence."
Blogging remains a great way for children to engage with the internet, not only teaching them valuable skills and encouraging them to write but, increasingly, putting good causes into action. "It is overwhelmingly a wonderful thing," says Grounds. "The opportunities are there for children to learn, to make contact with people and ideas from all over the world, which is something that we've never had before."