Safety net for surfers

15th December 2000 at 00:00
A proficiency test could provide the protection children need from the dangers of the Internet, says Damian Tambini

THE Government this week unveiled its blueprint for the next decade of communications regulation. One thing is clear from the proposals: Government cannot regulate the Internet and does not want to.

Educators are beginning to realise that what is urgently needed is a strategy to promote more awareness and responsibility online. They are caught between two stools: excited about the educational potential of the Internet, which offers access to a wealth of knowledge resources, and at the same time aware that the Net exposes children to dangers that they would not otherwise have to face. The answer is to educate children to look after themselves. As in the cycling proficiency test, we should give them freedom only when they can demonstrate they deserve it.

A surfing proficiency test would give parents the confidence to allow children the freedom of the Net, by showing them how to take responsibility for their own safety. The cycling proficiency test provides a model. The test would kick start the e-skills programme which the economy so desperately needs.

Until your child is around 11 years old, it is advisable not to let him or her have unfiltered, unobserved access to the Internet, where stranger danger lurks and there are forms of information and imagery that you would prefer them not see. But after the age of 11 the educational benefits of free Net access will far outweigh the potential costs. Your child should be able to search the online museums of the world, to follow their natural inquisitiveness, access a wealth of education and information, and learn the grammar and literacy of the new economy.

But if we cannot ensure that children are safe, we will never be able to give them the freedom of the Net. The Government could take a decisive stance in developing a surfing proficiency test in all schools, which makes clear the dangers, while encouraging use. It will enable an entire generation of children to use the Net and reach a standardised level of proficiency.

The Government will shortly announce a set of proposals on broadcasting and communications regulation with a White Paper this autumn. At the heart of these measures will surely be the acceptance that the regulator can no longer vet every piece of video which is delivered into your home. New digital technologies amount to a paradigm shift in our communications regulation, and the Government must send a clear signal about Internet safety. One simple way of promoting responsibility would be to open every school fr a week in the summer to run a course in Net use and safety.

Children already receive instruction on Net use. According to the national curriculum, during key stage 1 pupils explore ICT and learn to use it confidently and with purpose to achieve specific outcomes. They start to use ICT to develop their ideas and record their creative work. They become familiar with hardware and software. But they do not receive sufficient Net safety instruction. As a consequence, computers in schools are generally bound by a tangle of filter software that tends not only to fail to block all harmful material, but over-block, making the Internet experience frustrating and discouraging. Children spend their time reading access-denied messages, even when they search for innocent, educational material. It would be far better to teach children - and their parents - to be aware of the dangers and show them how to be responsible.

The test should advise children about what to trust on the Net, how to respond to strangers, and how to get to the most useful information. It could give children the basics on how to run their websites and how to use the medium as a form of self-expression.

A host of organisations is waiting to be asked to take on a project of this type, which could be delivered by a combination of sponsorship and public money. The Internet Watch Foundation and the Independent Television Commission have researched the field, and other UK organisations have been negotiating with the European Commission about the best way to combine Net education with a campaign about safety. By carrying out the courses in secondary schools during the school break, children would be given access to computers that they have to queue to use during term. And if children have a computer each, a great deal can be done in a week-long course.

The sceptics will argue that children will be no more interested in online museums than they are in real ones, and that left to themselves they will search for the very things we do not want them to search for. But when young people are shown what the Internet can do for them they will remember it, and they will use it. In the future, Net literacy will find a central place in the new citizenship education curriculum. In the meantime the new test could kickstart the process, and help welcome a generation of children into the new economy. Which education authorities will get it started by next summer?

Damian Tambini is a Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, researching digital media technologies in education. He is also a government adviser on communications policy

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