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‘Fostering the digital resilience of young people isn’t just sensible, it is critical’

Digital resilience as a term seems to be being used by every Tom, Dick and Harriet in the internet safety field at the moment. But what does it actually mean, and why is it so important? Parent Zone CEO Vicki Shotbolt, co-chair of the UKCCIS Digital Resilience Working Group, explains...

We’ve all been in meetings where a healthy amount of the language is piffle.  We’ve been in and out of boxes, nurtured innovation and had lessons land. Our propensity for coming up with impenetrable language for basic ideas is seemingly limitless.  As we all know, it’s usually a way to repackage a very basic idea to make it sound important. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is management speak for ‘please don’t come up with the same boring old idea you came up with last week’ and ‘landing lessons’ is, ironically enough, trendy marketing speak for ‘did anyone actually understand that?’ 

Sometimes, language is chosen to try to capture a complex idea that isn’t easily explained. It strikes me innovation language falls into that camp.  I’ve been in several ‘innovation kick offs’ and so far all I’ve taken away is an understanding that innovation and table football have an important link. I’m hoping with a few more conferences I might find out what the link is.

Which brings me to the language of the world Parent Zone inhabits.

Parenting language is pretty straightforward, although ‘authoritative parenting’ isn’t a term many mums and dads perk up at.  By comparison, internet safety is awash with silly terms. I caught myself talking about teenagers ‘curating their online profiles’ at a parenting session a couple of weeks ago and was quite rightly challenged on what on earth that means.

Digital resilience is a term that fits neatly into the ‘sounds important but what does it mean’ camp. It’s a term that every man and his eSafety dog is using at the moment. (We do actually have an eSafety dog at Parent Zone incidentally. He’s called DigiDog and he’s an important member of our pre and primary Digital Schools programme). 

The term digital resilience is cropping up in research papers from the Oxford Internet Institute, appearing on Twitter and being tossed into presentations in the way things are when they suddenly fit the zeitgeist.

‘The internet isn’t becoming safer, it is becoming more challenging’

Apparently, resilience becoming the latest thing was to be expected. I’m told it becomes popular at times of uncertainty or national emergency. 

The resilience of women during WWII is frequently cited as an example. Stephanie Butler from the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal has written a fascinating thesis on how English women used personal correspondence during WWII to create peer-support communities which promoted wartime psychological resilience.

I think I might have needed more than a well chosen stationary set to get me through rationing and bombing but I’m probably made of less stern stuff than the women of WWII.

The current interest in digital resilience is no doubt partly a reflection of the fact that despite all the internet safety activity that has been undertaken, young people are still experiencing harms online. The internet isn’t becoming safer, it is becoming more challenging.

Tim Berners-Lee revealed recently that the algorithms of the net encoded at its birth prioritised dissent above fact or truth. I think we probably already knew that. Not because we understand the algorithms of the internet but because we observe the narratives it promotes. The very nature of the internet seems to encourage extremes so is it any surprise that offensive and even abusive content flourishes online?

In a world driven by likes and shares, it isn’t going to be the ‘mildly interesting’ content that wins out. The challenge of making the internet a less hostile place is enormous.

The current focus on getting companies to be more responsible for their content, whilst important, is inevitably limited, as Facebook’s recent announcement that it will be tackling revenge porn highlighted. The announcement came with a caveat that they would be tackling it everywhere apart from WhatsApp. The reason for that, of course, is that WhatsApp is encrypted so they can’t actually see what is being shared on that platform.

So that would be what we generally refer to as a gaping hole in the plan.

Which is not to criticise them for trying, simply to point out the obvious – technology is an enabler of human interactions but it can’t easily control them. If some sad, bitter person decides the way to deal with the breakdown of their relationship is to share intimate photos given to them in the spirit of trust and love, it isn’t really a technological problem. Companies need to try to stop their platforms being used for such purposes, but it’s the human behaviour that is at fault.

Which is why building young people’s resilience to cope in this environment makes perfect sense. Fostering the digital resilience of young people isn’t just sensible, it is critical. But what does it mean?

‘Digital Resilience cannot be an exercise in rebranding online safety’

That’s a question I have been preoccupied with for some time as the co-chair of the UKCCIS Digital Resilience working group. I’ve also been paying closer than usual attention to how the term is being used (and misused) here, there and everywhere.

At Parent Zone, we don’t just want to use the words, we want to make a difference to young people. We’re much more interested in how you go about fostering resilience than using the current trendy language whilst doing the same old stuff.

Digital Resilience cannot be an exercise in rebranding online safety. Not least because, as the Oxford Internet Institute’s Dr Andy Przybylski reminds us, traditional online safety measures are not necessarily effective.

So let’s forget the term and think about what we should be doing to crack on with the work of making sure children are resilient enough to cope with a challenging world online and offline.

‘Leaving internet safety in its own little silo is pointless and doomed to failure’

Well, there’s the first thing. Children’s lives are lived online and offline so we need to move to talking about life skills in general. 

In our Digital Schools curriculum, we provide a whole school approach that recognises it might be an English lesson that gives the best opportunity to talk about online fake news and it could be an economics lesson that offers the best way in to talk about the value of personal data. Leaving internet safety in its own little silo is pointless and ultimately doomed to failure.

Then let’s look at the personal skills that can be nurtured and developed. Kindness, empathy, critical thinking, confidence – those vital characteristics that make relationships positive and give children the personality assets they need. Not all of these can be taught but they can be modelled. 

Empathising with a child’s point of view and being kind to them is arguably a better way to encourage them to develop those traits than a formal lesson will be. Building confidence is much more about responding well when a child comes to you with a question or a concern, than it is teaching them something from a book. Showing them you are happy for them to take a risk because you are confident they can manage it is far more effective than constantly telling them you’re not ready to let them try. 

We seem to forget that there is more to helping children acquire these assets than sitting them in a classroom and teaching them something. We need to change our own behaviour and attitudes.

This is particularly true of sex. I was recently on Women’s Hour with the formidable Dame Jenny Murray and I made the point that we needed to explain porn to children. Dame Jenny looked shocked and I can understand why. Our desire to let children be children and to protect their innocence is entirely reasonable. However, we don’t protect children’s innocence by not sharing information with them. The excellent Pants rule taught by the NSPCC to explain to children why private means private demonstrates that we can talk to children about difficult things in age-appropriate ways.

A parent at a recent Parent Zone focus group explained why she always uses the correct anatomical language for body parts with her son. She said ‘if he knows the correct word I will know exactly what he is talking about if anything ever happens that he is uncomfortable about’. It’s great advice. We need to stop being shy and calling vaginas ‘lady bits’, and start being brave enough to talk about sex openly and honestly. Healthy relationships are something resilient children need to recognise and understand and that work has to start at home.

‘Children know that Instagram pictures are manipulated but they still want to look like the people in the pictures’

There’s been a lot talked about nurturing critical thinking in young people recently and that is certainly an important part of digital resilience.

Helping children make sense of what they see online, to challenge it and question it, is one of the skills that needs to be encouraged and taught. The difficulty is that knowing something is an advert or promoting a specific agenda doesn’t necessarily lesson its impact. Children know that Instagram pictures are filtered, manipulated and generally tweaked to make the people in them appear thin and ‘beautiful’, but they still want to look like the people in the pictures. So whilst critical thinking is important and forms part of Parent Zone’s digital resilience curriculum, we cannot afford for it to become an easy fix to a complicated problem. 

The final pillar of Parent Zone’s resilience curriculum is creating safe spaces. How can we ensure that children have safe online spaces to occupy and how do we make sure their offline spaces feel safe enough to talk about their online problems?

‘We can’t change the internet but we can start to demand a better version of it’

Any discussion about this usually takes us to the inevitable filtering and blocking debate. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have recently written a report on how effective they were and said ‘Contrary to expectations, we found equivocal to strong evidence that caregivers’ use of Internet filtering technology did not reduce the chance of adolescents having recent aversive online experiences’. So, not very, it would seem.

This follows previous research that highlighted the fact that not only did filtering not promote resilience, it was actually negatively correlated to it. In other words, it made things worse.

Which does not mean that we throw away our filters. I would suggest there were very legitimate reasons for wanting to be able to filter some of the content that circulates the net. The point is not to do it in the expectation that it will keep your children safe or build their resilience.

Creating safe spaces means all of us making use of blocking and reporting tools. All of us choosing services that don’t tolerate hateful content and complaining when they do.

‘Somewhere we lost sight of ‘good enough’ and started to want ‘exceptional’ all the time’

We can’t change the internet but we can start to demand a better version of it. And we can do something else that is perhaps the most crucial thing of all when it comes to building resilience.

We can remember to let our children fail.

Messing up is part of growing up. Failing a maths test or not getting into the best football team isn’t just OK, it’s important. As parents, we have to challenge ourselves to know the difference between encouraging them to be their best selves and pushing them to be our version of perfect. In the end, most parents just want their children to be happy but somewhere we lost sight of ‘good enough’ and started to want ‘exceptional’ all the time.

We don’t need perfect, and if we can’t find a way back to realistic expectations for children we are never going to build their resilience.

We’re going to see mental health problems continue to climb and the selfie generation damaged whilst we’re looking in the wrong direction.

No-one is suggesting this is easy. It’s culture change as well as systemic change.

I’ve been challenged by people who say that focusing on resilience is simply letting industry off the hook. It’s not. 

Building our young people’s resilience is going to require families, schools, policy makers and industry to change, not just what they do but the way they do it.

Digital resilience is not a strapline and it’s not just internet safety by any other name. It’s a public health priority every bit as urgent as feeding the nation was in the war.

It’s time to stop playing Whack-a-mole with internet safety and start delivering a support structure that includes families, educators, health professionals, industry and policy makers.


Image: Alan Levene, CC BY 2.0