What happens to young people on the web and how can you help prevent online exploitation? Victoria Knight reports from our recent event hosted by University of Manchester and supported by GCHQ and the Marie Collins Foundation which sought to give young people an insight into how to stay safer online
I’m writing this in a state of concern about the increasing amount of time I seem to have spent in front of a screen since lockdown, working online and organising family life. Combining a full-time job with parenting is a dark art at the best of times but throw in full time home schooling along with the upsurge of domestic duties and home catering, it’s gone to a whole new level.
After all, unlike far too many others across the country, my family and I do not lack for a decent home Wi-Fi signal (when all five of us aren’t on live video calls at the same time). We have sufficient screens in our household and my children have adapted brilliantly well to their new routine of remote learning.
So, why this feeling of existential concern? I can’t ignore the fact that lockdown has catalysed an unexpected surge in time spent online and, as I suspect for many other parents, it’s gone beyond worries about the amount of screen time – it’s also the perennial concern of what they are watching and who they think they are interacting with online. Even with parental settings deployed, I can’t escape that feeling of what might be happening – and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Unlike previous generations, children today are now open to cyber exploitation and attack from criminals and adversaries who have a rich tapestry of opportunities to choose from. Don’t believe me? A report just out from the Internet Watch Foundation states that child abuse images online increased by almost 50% during lockdown. In the 11 weeks from 23 March, its hotline logged 44,809 reports of images compared with 29,698 last year.
These developments are exactly why it was so important for me and our team to be involved in a recent event in Manchester geared specifically towards helping young people develop their critical thinking skills to find solutions dealing with issues of online safety.
Organised by the University of Manchester and supported by GCHQ and the Marie Collins Foundation, the Save the World (Wide Web) virtual forum was a unique opportunity for young people and adults to work through simulated scenarios to figure out how to address challenges that can affect us all – from online child sexual exploitation to the disinformation of ‘fake news’.
Attended by both young people aged between 12 and 16 and adults including cyber security professionals like me, as well as security service staff, academics and psychologists, the event centred around two immersive, workshop sessions where participant groups worked through two, fictional case studies to collectively find the right solutions.
Each of the discussions encouraged participants to think critically about the scenarios they were facing, which throughout each session highlighted a variety of paths that could lead to different experiences – some more harmful than others.
It was gratifying to see the kids so incredibly engaged. We were unsure how aware of cyber risk they would be but their enthusiasm was matched only by their tech savvy. But nonetheless we have to ask, where do we go from here?
I believe the solution lies in education. We need to continue to educate not only children but everyone about staying safe online. There isn’t a silver bullet. This means that industry, government and academia have a shared social responsibility to work together to reduce online harm risks. And as individuals, we need to take the time to educate ourselves, and others, about these issues and take considered action as a result.
It’s only through these collective actions that all of us – kids and adults alike – will be able to go online unhindered. Staying safe can be done – but only if all of us work together.
Helping transform the UK’s response to tackling child sexual abuse in the digital age
Technology offers huge new opportunities to the younger generation, but it also leaves them vulnerable to cyber exploitation and attackFind out more
About the author
Victoria Knight is a Strategic Business Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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