Technology - Internet dangers need more robust response

22nd November 2013 at 00:00
Schools are not keeping pace with threat, police expert tells leaders

Internet safety advice promoted by schools is "static" and "stagnant" and all too often delivered by people who are uninformed, a police officer specialising in cyber crime has claimed.

Kevin McDade of Police Scotland, a detective sergeant who specialises in tackling internet-related crime against children, said that young people were as unsafe and lacking in knowledge about online dangers as they were 10 years ago when he started his job.

The speed of change, including rapidly shifting trends in smartphone apps, was a particular challenge for educators, he said.

The Fife-based officer claimed that he had witnessed school-based talks about internet safety where children were "just sitting and texting and not paying attention" because the speaker was not sufficiently knowledgeable.

He suggested that schools should use senior students to research the latest developments in cyberspace by talking to younger children and feeding information back to staff.

Speaking at the School Leaders Scotland annual conference last week, Det Sgt McDade made a plea to delegates that they should research the problem, understand it and educate their students in order to reduce the risk.

He said: "I have been doing this for 10 years and have seen the huge suffering and harm caused. Children online are so unsafe and so unaware of the dangers, despite the massive resources we plunge into this. We need to ask why.

"I see so many talks to kids about internet safety and they are just sitting and texting and not paying attention because the individual giving the talk is not that well informed.

"Never would you make critical decisions about things you did not quite `get', yet that's what we seem to be doing with this. Find out about mobile and application trends and understand devices."

Irrespective of how schools decided to tackle the problem, Det Sgt McDade told leaders that the message of "Don't talk to strangers" was incomprehensible to someone with 1,000 contacts on BlackBerry Messenger. And there was no point ploughing resources into teaching young people how to keep safe on Facebook, he said.

Det Sgt McDade noted that although 86.7 million mobile phones were currently in use in the UK, safety messages largely referred to "fixed- line internet devices" such as PCs.

The chief executive of children's charity Kidscape, Claude Knights, acknowledged that, with children as young as 5 using internet-enabled devices, there was "nothing to be complacent about". But she added that things were not as gloomy as had been portrayed. "We feel there is more being done than the police officer believes, and that should be celebrated," she said.

"There's a lot of work going on to equip young people. That's not to say they are taking heed of it, but I think schools have taken the importance of this on board, because anything that happens online comes back into school, so there's a lot of vested interest."

A poll released this week by the National Children's Bureau to mark Anti- Bullying Week found that a quarter of young people spent four to six hours a day online, and that more than half were allowed to use the internet without parental supervision.

Mobile devices and the way in which they were used by students made up the "biggest disciplinary issue" faced by schools, one headteacher told the conference. Delegates agreed that problems arose at least weekly, ranging from bullying to naked or semi-naked pictures of students being posted online.

However, one headteacher believed that the problem was more complex than simply understanding apps and devices.

She said: "The device and the apps are only allowing them to do these things, but we also need to understand why they are doing it. What's the need? Why is it good to `go viral'? Why don't they understand the difference between fame and infamy? And why, as a young girl, do I not understand that my power is not about sexual titillation for boys?"

Last month, the Scottish government announced it would be organising a summit on child internet safety after a series of cases in which children and young people had been threatened or blackmailed online.

These incidents include 17-year-old Daniel Perry from Dunfermline, who took his own life in July. According to his mother, blackmailers had demanded thousands of pounds from the boy after tricking him into thinking he was talking to a girl online.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, Iain Ellis, chairman of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that parents needed "clear, consistent and regularly updated information" about internet safety because the risks were "fast-changing".

Why is it good to `go viral'? Why don't they understand the difference between fame and infamy?

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