I've been working in the area of online safety for over ten years and there are days when I feel we have made no progress at all. Children and adults continue to put themselves at risk when they are online and we continue to fire fight incidents rather than instilling in young people the skills, knowledge and confidence to be safe and resilient digital citizens.
Yesterday I received a message from a parent who was alarmed by a BBC news report about children being groomed via the Twitter live video app Periscope.
You can see the report here
If you're not familiar with Periscope then in simple terms, you can stream live video of yourself or your surroundings to anyone, and everyone, across the world. It's very useful when used responsibly. I could use Periscope to stream one of my courses so anyone interested, who couldn't attend in person, could benefit from the event. Similarly you could stream live video of you and your friends skateboarding, playing football, climbing a local landmark, riding on a fair ride.. pretty much anything you think would be of interest to others. However the BBC report focuses on young people and children who live stream themselves, sometimes alone, sometimes in their bedrooms and more or less hanging around, live, online waiting for someone to say something to them.
It really isn't a surprise at all that there are people who will take advantage of this and make inappropriate comments and requests, many will be offences, and many will constitute grooming - and the child is at risk of exploitation and possibly physical harm. But let's pause for a moment and consider where the problem lies. In 2006 I, and other online safety specialists, warned parents about the perils of webcams attached to home computers and there have been thousands of apps since then that allow the opportunity for children to post videos of themselves online - for the world to see. Recently I saw parents warning each other about 'paedophiles' contacting children on Music.aly - an app that is used for singing and dancing and so very appealing to young children who hope for positive feedback and friendly comments from friends and, yes, strangers too.
As parents, carers, and adults who work with young people we would do better to spend less time being 'shocked' and 'alarmed' about specific apps and, instead, focus on consistent messages of support and guidance for our young people so they understand the balance of risks and benefits of live video and social media. We should help young people to understand what kinds of activity will put them at risk. We should give them the skills to recognise when they are at risk and what action to take. This means we need to have consistent positive messages for our young people and to ensure they have trusted adults they can turn to, to know how to report unwanted and inappropriate behavior within the apps, and how to find online support from organisations like Childline when they fear they have nobody they feel they can confide in.
After over a decade of the same familiar challenges, it can't be so unreasonable to hope that parents, and adults who work with young people, can begin to provide consistent and effective support for our young people.