Teachers and school leaders should turn to young people in order to stay abreast of the changing online landscape, a police officer specialising in cybercrime has urged.
Kevin McDade of Police Scotland's cybercrime unit told a conference on e-safety organised last week by outsourcing company Capita that it was impossible for teachers to protect children from the dangers of the internet unless they were better informed about it.
Det Sgt McDade explained that young people born after 1995 were true digital natives with high levels of expertise. He said that 87 per cent of this digitally literate generation had mobile phones, 78 per cent used instant messaging and 70 per cent were involved in social networking sites.
Many young people were finding ways to stay anonymous online, which also brought risks. "Kids are using that, and more importantly, offenders are using that," he said, adding that he had met 12-year-olds who were competent programmers and could access hidden parts of the internet.
The conference - where minister for children and young people Aileen Campbell was keynote speaker - took place amid increasing efforts by the Scottish government to tackle online dangers. A ministerial working group is currently considering recommendations arising from the Public Petitions Committee's January report on child sexual exploitation, and initiatives such as the 360 degree Safe Scotland e-safety review tool have also been recently introduced to schools north of the border.
Det Sgt McDade told delegates that current tactics were not having the desired impact on cybercrime and that it was time to "try something a wee bit different". That meant that those responsible for safeguarding young people needed to "populate the intelligence gap", he said.
"If we don't get it, we are not protecting kids properly. In my experience, [teachers] are so influential on kids' lives, they are going to come to you for advice. So if you don't know this stuff, it is going to be problematic."
With financial constraints on training opportunities, it was time to seek alternative approaches to ensure that teachers and school leaders were well informed, he said. "Who within our environment has got the knowledge and costs you nothing? The kids. Who knows where the problems are? Who understands the applications being used? Kids.
"They could be evangelised as advisers. Pilots are starting with that stuff, kids speaking to the senior executives in schools. It is edgy, maybe everyone isn't for it, but would it work?" he said.
Det Sgt McDade added that when it came to safe internet use, the message was the same as in real life: "Don't talk to strangers, when you cross the road look both ways, when you are trying to do something risky, take precautionary measures, tell your parents where you are going, and tell the truth."
Conference chair Brian Donnelly, director of anti-bullying service respectme, said that to young people, the internet was "a place, not a thing", where they went to interact with their peers. He said it was crucial to stay on top of trends, both local and in the wider world, to be able to protect children online.
Ms Campbell said: "What to us sometimes feels so foreign, for [young people] is natural." But she explained that with advancement came risks, for example as the online world changed "how young people explore relationships and sexuality".
"I believe the best way to help children and young people through this new world is to keep teaching them about relationships," she said.