The Question that I have been asking is: How do we create a safe environment, online, for children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect to heal, learn and grow?
As I work to try and find some possible solutions for this question, I need to first identify that I do not believe it is entirely possible to keep any child fully “safe” online, and that is because I believe access to the digital world for a child is far too easy, whereas regulating their access 24 hours of every day is far too hard. Luciano Floridi acknowledged in his writings on the Information Revolution that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) “have been changing the world profoundly and irreversibly for more than half a century now, with breathtaking scope and at a neck-breaking pace”. He goes on to reflect that, “ICTs also carry significant risks and generate dilemmas and profound questions about the nature of reality and of our knowledge of it, the development of information-intensive sciences (e-science), the organization of a fair society (consider the digital divide), our responsibilities and obligations to present and future generations, our understanding of a globalized world, and the scope of our potential interactions with the environment. As a result, they have greatly outpaced our understanding of their conceptual nature and implications, while raising problems whose complexity and global dimensions are rapidly expanding, evolving, and becoming increasingly serious”.
What I believe Floridi is stating here is that ICTs are moving and evolving at a far greater pace than what we can keep up with in identifying and preparing for the risks and dangers that come with such advancements so quickly. For a child who has experienced abuse and/or neglect, this means that the dangers associated with the digital world can significantly impact their ability to heal and grow.
A 2018 blog article, titled, Growing Up In A Digital World: Benefits and Risks, acknowledges that there are great benefits with ICTs for children, yet “digital technologies have increased the scale of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Child sex offenders have increased access to children through unprotected social media profiles and online gaming forums. Technological advances have allowed individual offenders and trafficking rings to evade detection through encrypted platforms and the creation of false identities, and have enabled them to pursue multiple victims at the same time”.
A 2014 article, titled, Protecting Children’s Rights in the Digital World: An Ever-growing Challenge, also recognizes the dangers that the digital world brings to the private life of children, especially for children who have experienced or are at-risk of experiencing, abuse and neglect. Examples include children engaging with online content that is illegal or encourages various forms of self-harm. With more than 90% of child abusers having been abused themselves, we can recognize that another danger of ICTs and the digital world for children who are at risk of abuse, is that abused children themselves can become abusers, and cause harm on others through a digital space. Examples include bullying on social media which has significantly impacted the number of child/teen deaths as a result of suicide. This form of danger extends into dangers around trafficking, revenge pornography, and the use of ICTs from predators to contact children under a fake identity with the intention to harm them, and/or traffic them.
So what solutions can we find to help address these dangers and concerns. When we examine the ISTE Standards for Coaches we identify the need to encourage parents and professionals to engage with their community for the betterment of children and families (Standard 7a); and the need to encourage educators, professionals, and families to use in-person and online, interactive support and training programs (Standard 7b). Empowering children will give them the tools they need to protect themselves from the dangers that exist within the digital world and through ICTs, and is arguably the most effective way to protect children online. What I mean by this, is empowering children to take control of what is discoverable online; what they position online; and how they can be found online.
Educational programs, and prevention education curriculums, must be designed for children – of all ages – and must extend to include resources and materials for parents, educators, coaches, clergy – all roles of authority that surround a child’s life. A greater priority among this curriculum needs to be placed on digital literacy and protection, and prevention education in schools need to discuss the dangers of cyber-bullying, while also stipulating that anti-bullying education be included in topics involving online harassment.
A strong example of the impact and effectiveness of online prevention education for students from Prek-12th grade, taught through a School Counselor using an online learning management system – ecologically growing with students as they mature – and bringing in the full surrounding community of each child, is the Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe prevention education curriculum. This is the only evidence-based curriculum designed for students pre-K-12th grade that equip them on all areas of abuse, including online predators, cyberbullying, and trafficking dangers. It can be found online at www.childhelp.org/speakupbesafe