Equally however, many risks have intensified and come to the fore in this period, with the media reporting many negatives associated with being online in timed of COVID-19, such as continued cyberbullying, an escalation of misinformation, disinformation and scams, and increased illegal activity in the digital environment, to give some examples. However, both of these scenarios – both the positives and negatives - serve to illustrate that the work carried out under the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) banner is of great importance, and that factors such as education, awareness raising, effective support mechanisms, and policy responses – from a range of stakeholders – is key to creating a safer and better internet for children and young people, and ultimately all citizens. As we head towards the close of what has been a quite remarkable year, we explore some of the current actions and initiatives in progress to continue this important work.
With September being the traditional time for return to school and educational establishments across Europe progressively reopening, the #Back2School with BIK campaign has provided a focal point for education and awareness raising, showcasing resources and activities provided by the European network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) for this season. Its main aim has been to equip teachers, educators, parents and carers to deal with the unprecedented context in which children and young people are going back to school this year, and the online safety and wellbeing issues it presents. Recognising that the uncertainties around the re-opening of schools provide an additional challenge for education professionals preparing for this new school year, SICs have taken this into account when designing their back to school informational and pedagogical resources. Many materials therefore take into account both face-to-face and distance learning scenarios, sometimes even a mix of both through blended learning approaches. Equally, the vast majority of the resources offered by Safer Internet Centres are accessible online.
To give some examples…
On the issue of distance or blended learning, the safety of the various online systems used for these functions became critical almost overnight as a result of the sudden closure of schools earlier in the year. Mindful of the threat of a second spike, and in the light of localised lockdown measures being imposed in many countries in an attempt to control the spread of the virus as we enter the autumn months, this is an issue which many SICs touched upon in their back to school materials. The UK Safer Internet Centre (SIC), for example, has designed a resource for educators on safe blended learning (in English), while in Bulgaria, the SIC is circulating a brochure featuring recommendations for safe remote learning in the digital environment (in Bulgarian). The Slovenian SIC has issued some recommendations for the new school year on safe and responsible distance learning, targeting both parents and teachers (in Slovenian).
As a result of social distancing measures, many online opportunities and risks are being framed in a new way. Individuals now rely more significantly on digital technologies to enable them to sustain their relationships with friends, peers, family members or significant others, which raises a number of concerns, notably regarding cyberbullying among children. The German SIC, taking stock of this new reality, re-launched its cyberbullying first-aid app, providing guidance to young people targeted by such harassment in the form of videos, tutorials, and so on. For back to school, the Dutch SIC is taking part in a national week against bullying, for which it has released dedicated lesson plans.
The sudden surge in the spread of misinformation and disinformation online triggered policy responses which in turn have raised a number of questions regarding freedom of expression. In Estonia, the national SIC is inaugurating the new school year with the launch of a student competition on false information online, and the Hungarian SIC is organising, at the end of September, a Media Conference. For more information on this topic, read the June 2020 BIK bulletin, in which we delve into the dilemma between freedom of expression online and the fight against disinformation.
Speaking of dilemma, the recently released documentary The Social Dilemma looks at another issue which has crystalised attention during the crisis, especially when it comes to contact tracing systems: online privacy and data protection. Educating children and young people to these themes is becoming more important than ever, an element which also features in the back to school resources, such as the Greek SIC's publication of a fairytale book for younger children on the topic, and the Danish SIC's re-launch of its "GDPR-WHAT?" resource for older children.
Supporting the outreach aspects of the network of Safer Internet Centres in Europe as outlined above, it's important to also establish an evidence base of the issues encountered, and Insafe helplines and INHOPE hotlines do just that. For a closer look at the main online issues reported to Insafe helplines between April and June 2020 – in particular a sharp increase in contacts related to privacy and security settings – read about the latest helpline trends. Moreover, the circulation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) has significantly increased during lockdown, as recently reported by Europol. In this edition of the BIK bulletin, INHOPE alerts readers to some basic measures that can be taken to minimise the risks of photos being used for ill intent, and how to report suspected CSAM.
Establishing an evidence base
As a result of the pandemic, the online safety landscape is undergoing unprecedented transformations. Firstly, the impact of digital technologies on children and young people has never been so significant, yet empirical evidence in this field remains scarce. To begin remedying this gap, the European Commission (EC) is funding four Horizon 2020 projects on the topic: CO:RE – Children Online: Research and Evidence, DigiGen (Digital Generation), DIGYMATEX and ySKILLS (Youth Skills). For further information, read our article on how the four projects theoretically frame the impact of digital technologies on children and young people's lives and read about expert interviews carried out in the framework of the ySKILLS project which reveal critical gaps in digital literacy education in Europe.
This line of work is becoming all the more essential considering the fact that, as a consequence of the prevalence of online safety and wellbeing in public debate, some related notions are undergoing fundamental changes in how they are framed – for example, the concerns around so-called excessive screen time have changed significantly. In this evolving context, building a dynamic evidence base therefore enables us to keep track of the new parameters which parents, carers, teachers, educators and wider stakeholders should look out for when it comes to children and young people's safety and wellbeing online.
Strengthening the policy context
Many policy initiatives having an impact on children and young people's safety and wellbeing in the digital environment are coming to fruition. The Insafe and INHOPE networks have been actively involved in many consultations in that regard.
To give some examples, at European level, the European Commission (EC) adopted, in July 2020, the EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse to complement and improve existing initiatives in the field and to address new challenges (such as the unforeseen risks posed by end-to-end encryption). Two other public consultations on pieces of legislation which touch upon online safety and basic digital skills – namely, the new Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) and the Digital Services Act (DSA) – have also been carried out over the summer. Moreover, the EC is working on the EU's first strategy on the rights of the child (2021-2024), which will provide a dedicated framework for EU action to better promote and protect children's rights, especially with regards to the rights of vulnerable children, children's digital rights, the protection from violence and the promotion of child-friendly justice. The public consultation on this strategy is open until Tuesday, 8 December 2020.
At the global level, the United Nations (UN) have made the Draft General Comment on children's rights in relation to the digital environment open for consultation until Sunday, 15 November 2020. This document reaffirms the existence of children's rights in the online world and will require countries to realise and uphold these rights as they would offline. Besides, the UN's Office of the Special Representative for the Secretary General on Violence Against Children has conducted a mapping exercise on child participation in times of COVID-19 to better understand global child participation in order to better amplify children's voices, strengthen the positive role of participation and advocate with governments to integrate child participation in their decision-making processes.
Raising awareness and exchanging good practices
As we head into the traditional campaign and conference season this year, things may look slightly different with all activities being conducted online. Nonetheless, there are still many opportunities to raise awareness of both the opportunities and risks that children and young people face online, and to build our collective capacity for responding to these, through a range of targeted actions.
October kicks off with European Cybersecurity Month (ECSM), the EU's annual campaign aiming to promote cybersecurity among citizens and organisations. This year's edition, with a motto of "Think Before U Click" (#ThinkB4UClick), focuses on two themes: "cyberscams" will share insights into current and potential online risks such as phishing, business email compromise, and online shopping fraud, while the "digital skills" theme aims to disseminate information on online privacy matters such as data protection, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking. Both themes are especially pertinent in current times. During the campaign, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) will be publishing reports, organising trainings, summits, presentations and more. Keep an eye on the ECSM website for further information.
October will also see a Training meeting take place jointly between the Insafe and INHOPE networks, focusing on the grey areas of work that lie within the remits of both networks, such as sexting, sexual harassment, grooming, and so on. Participants in the SIC+ pilot programme, seeking to build online safety capacity in non-European countries, will also be involved in this and other activities in the coming months. Indeed, some SIC+ participants are already reflecting positively on their participation in the pilot programme – see contributions from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Ukraine and Colombia in this edition of the BIK bulletin.
November will see the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) take place online, with a focus on "Internet for human resilience and solidarity". The Insafe network will host two sessions: the pre-event #14 The coronavirus pandemic: a global crisis is showing us how to live online and a workshop titled The revolution won't be televised, but social mediatised? Besides, in the run-up to IGF, two BIK Youth Ambassadors have been involved in the #Youth4DigitalSustainability programme and reflect on their participation in a contribution to the present bulletin.
Towards the end of November comes this year's Safer Internet Forum (SIF), which will look at "Digital (dis)advantage: creating an inclusive world for children and young people online". The main keynote will take place online on the morning of Wednesday, 25 November 2020, with supplementary deep dive sessions continuing into the afternoon and the following day. Additional events throughout the week will place an additional focus on youth participation and the policy concepts for Better Internet for Kids strategy. Register to participate now.
Already looking towards next year, don't forget to save the date for Safer Internet Day (SID) 2021, which will take place on Tuesday, 9 February 2021, when once again we'll join "Together for a better internet". We'll bring you more on that in the next edition of the BIK bulletin.
And finally, the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) platform remains your central source of information and advice all year long for everything related to children and young people's online safety and wellbeing, in Europe and beyond. The platform is currently undergoing major redevelopment work and will unveil a fresh new look in the second half of October, so do keep an eye on www.betterinternetforkids.eu.
For more information, see the full September 2020 edition of the BIK bulletin. Alternatively, read past editions of the BIK bulletin for coverage of a range of topical issues, and visit the BIK portal regularly for the latest news and resources.