What kind of online safety messaging resonates with young people? What tools and strategies are most effective for improving digital literacy? In this post, Jeremy Blackman describes the digital driver’s licence.  Created by the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, an Australian online education resource, this resource focuses on exploring the nuance of online engagement alongside ethical and moral maxims. Jeremy is Senior Advisor, Cyber Safety at the Foundation. [Header image credit: T. Wilson, CC BY 2.0]

Australian primary school students earn their ‘pen licence’ when teachers recognise that their handwriting is fluent enough to graduate from using a pencil. This has been the cause of much pride in young children over the years, myself included. To be trusted with indelible ink! It really makes you feel as if you have made your first step towards the adult world.

This concept is one that resonates with parents and teachers in Australia in the digital age, bringing young people’s online world into a realm familiar to most adults. The digital licence (DL) has been incredibly popular, with approximately 22% of all schools in Australia registering since its launch. It has also been adopted by international schools in Singapore and Hong Kong, and a tailored version was introduced into New Zealand in 2017.

The DL is the latest extension of the eSmart suite of programs, a comprehensive curriculum for online safety comprising eight core quiz modules with supporting teaching resources, designed by experts at the Foundation in consultation with teachers, psychologists, technologists, law enforcement officers and, of course, young people.

In creating and implementing the DL, we have learned what messages resonate and have educational value with young people, and how teachers and parents see their role in online safety education in Australia.

What do young people respond to?

The most common form of online safety education is a series of ‘things not to do’, often framed as a list of ‘Top Ten Tips’, which always include commandments such as:

  • Never share your password
  • Lock down your privacy settings
  • Block and report when harassed/cyber-bullied.

This format is often limited, however, given the complex nature of young people’s online lives.

We found that humour was a powerful tool for engagement, even for such a serious topic. So, mixed in with serious messages are moments of irreverence and the downright absurd, enjoyed by children and adults alike. These two popular examples are in the glossary, sitting alongside definitions for ‘scam’ and ‘website cookie’:

Cookies (choc chip): A type of cookie containing bits of solid chocolate and, often, nuts.

Tea cosy: A cover for a teapot, not for a phone. The best ones are wool and knitted by grandmothers.

Children who are regularly subjected to simplistic, moralistic messaging are good at spouting the attitudes and opinions adults expect them to have, but because these are not formed through any kind of independent exploration and truly ‘owned’, they are often abandoned or merely forgotten when it matters most. Shaping values and attitudes is a process that happens over time.

Children don’t respond well to being positioned as hapless ‘victims’ needing to turn to an adult ‘saviour’ at the first opportunity. So we positioned the child as ‘family hero’, empowered to act and use knowledge and common sense to protect older family members, such as in this scenario from the ‘Protecting privacy’ module:

Your dad has asked you to help ‘clean up’ his social media profile. He is applying for a new job and is worried his employers will do a search of his online activities…

This approach also helped us cover social media issues for an ‘under-13’ audience.

What about real life (online)?

The DL focuses on exploring the nuance of online engagement alongside ethical and moral maxims. But online scenarios are rarely black and white, requiring a single, best action. There are many different ways to intervene, emotionally support or report – these are skills and understanding that can be developed through social/emotional approaches to learning. Most of the scenarios in the DL have multiple answer options, and challenge children to ponder many issues, including:

  • What are the social ramifications?
  • Does it put them at risk?
  • Does it put their friends or others at risk?
  • Can they, alone, solve the dilemma?
  • Should help be sought from a friend or trusted adult?

Common messaging around youth cyberbullying (and bullying) is to intervene – to be a ‘positive bystander’, an ‘upstander’ – but if that message remains too simple, it can have devastating consequences for both the bystander and the original target, especially if it leads to physical and/or emotional danger.

Real life is not straightforward!

The DL has eight discrete modules, from ‘Protecting privacy’ to ‘Respectful relationships online’, which often merge because of the complexity of navigating online engagement. For example, young people share their passwords for various reasons, and these mainly revolve around social factors, to demonstrate trust, make friends and defy adult ‘meddling’ or control.

The DL has so-called ‘privacy’ scenarios embedded within ‘respectful relationship’ scenarios and vice versa. This applies to a wide range of topics, including gaming situations, cyberbullying and using online credits and money.

Connecting with children

Each of the scenario feedback slides explains what factors were at play and why some choices might have been better than others. Teachers and parents take this further – the DL is rich and nuanced, but it needs engaged teachers and parents working together.

Digital avatars, image credit: the author

The real-life scenarios give parents the opportunity to start conversations about online experiences. This is especially helpful for delicate topics like so-called ‘sexting’. This example is from the 13 years+ module ‘Relationships and reputation’:

Your last boy/girlfriend sent you a few revealing images. There’s a lot of pressure from your friends to share them. What are the best things to do? (Select all that apply)

Answer options: Delay until they lose interest; Say you deleted them by mistake; Send them via private messenger; Edit his/her face out and post online.

Part of the feedback for this scenario recognises the grey areas, but throws out a personal challenge to ‘own it’:

Relationships are complicated. Sometimes the right thing to do requires strength of character.

What’s next for DL?

The expansion into New Zealand enabled us to create two products aimed at different ages: under-13 and 13+. Respectively, the ‘sweet spots’ for these two products are children aged 10–12 and 13–15.

With more emphasis on the risks to younger and younger children online, we’re looking to develop a version of the DL for early primary years. We are collecting a range of user feedback to improve the product by iteration. Initial foci are accessibility of the website, user experience and user engagement. Try a sample quiz from the digital licence that features 10 scenarios.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.