The Commissioner opened a conference on online safety for children and young people on 19 May 2014

Good morning everyone. 

I want to thank Jim for the opportunity to open the conference and welcome you all today. It is very positive and I think sends out a strong message to see so many front line professionals and practitioners gathered here together.

As the conference flyer states the aim of today is a ‘briefing and skills development event’, and today’s speakers certainly have the range and depth of knowledge to deliver this.  We are fortunate to have such a strong panel of speakers, from some of the leaders in the online industry. In particular CEOP an organisation that is spearheading the drive to protect and safeguard our children and young people when they are online. And dare I say it is good to see the Northern Ireland connection is again alive and well at CEOP! 

Today we are here to talk about making children and young people safer when they are online. No-one disagrees with this aim.
 
But the reality is that children and young people are not some passive group, sitting back absorbing the flow of information and data that is flying though cyberspace at ever increasing speeds.
 
Young people are active online, sharing information with friends, posting updates, exchanging photos, listening to music, Tweeting, Facebooking, checking email, browsing, creating videos – in short ‘online’ is where many young people ‘live’ for a significant amount of time.

A couple of years ago we at NICCY asked members of our Youth Panel how much time they spent online – either via their smart phones or on a computer – it ranged from half an hour through to seven hours a day. The average, from an admittedly small sample was three hours, each and every day. My guess is if we asked that same question today of the current panel, the average would be even higher!

But think about that for a minute - we worry about our children playing on the streets and make them wear cycle helmets, but for around three hours a day they sit in front of a portal to the world wide web, with all its opportunities and risks.
 
The internet is accessible almost everywhere. Potentially harmful content is available online 24/7, rather than during defined time periods, as is the case with television, for example. This means traditional regulatory mechanisms such as broadcast ‘watersheds’, do not work on the internet. The challenge is therefore to find new methods that are based on the nature of online communication, and methods that are effective but also appropriate and targeted to the end user. 

Before I move on, I’d like to explain my job, and why this is an area of interest and relevance for me.
 
When the Northern Ireland Assembly created the Commissioner for Children and Young People they specifically said the Commissioner’s job was to:
 
Safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland.
 
Firstly you’ll notice that the word ‘safeguard’ is in there. Given the title of today’s event I’m sure you can understand why I am particularly keen to be involved, and hear what action others are taking in this area, and to see how we can all work better together, to safeguard our children and young people.
 
Secondly in my work I must by law have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
 
One of those rights – which is close to my heart and crucial in my work – is to make sure that children and young people ‘have a say’ in the decisions that affect their lives.
 
I will deal with some of the areas around how I believe we can improve safeguarding shortly, but I want to outline how I believe young people ‘having a say’ is vital.
 
It is no secret that they are quickly becoming the real experts. The Industry is creating tools, and young people are taking these tools, adapting them, using them in ways that were never anticipated.
 
Young people are designing new levels of games for their consoles, they’re filming videos and posting them on Youtube, and they’re sharing a huge range of information and creating content.
 
If we as adults do not tap into this resource - this group of experts that are on hand - then we are missing the proverbial trick!
 
All of us in the room, as we develop safeguards, we must make sure that young people participate in the process.
 
The young people we spoke to in NICCY said they were concerned that too few young people knew about the privacy settings on Facebook. In fact one or two sheepishly admitted that they had not set their profile for viewing by friends only! So the fact that they can engage in such a discussion, with an insight into habits and risks, surely shows us all that they have developed an understanding of what having a digital online footprint implies.
 
However unfortunately not all children and young people do.
 
Most of us are very familiar with Google. I’m sure we all use it daily, if not more. A few years ago Eric Schmidt from Google warned that in the future we may have to change our names!
 
Young people, he said, too often did not understand the consequences of having too much personal information online.
 
While I will touch on this in terms of safeguarding in a moment I was particularly taken by one piece of advice I heard:
 
Never post anything online that you would be embarrassed to show your granny!

We’re all here today to make sure that children and young people are safer as they explore and test the boundaries in the online world.
 
A few years ago the thought that so many young people would have access to the internet in their homes, let alone in their bedrooms would have been quite frankly amazing.
 
I believe that we must address safeguarding on a number of levels. The key way, being through raising awareness and of course through Education.
 

So how can we educate and support parents?

Government has said it is committed to creating a digital world, and increasingly services are being offered online on sites such as NIDirect. But hand-in-hand with this, parents need to be provided with relevant and up to date information, to equip and help them protect their children when they are connected in a world of smart devices, 4G and Wi-Fi.

Part of the difficulty is that the parenting landscape in this digital world is ever changing – for example according to OFCOM’s latest research from January this year:

 “the use of tablets has tripled this year, becoming the device of choice for 8-11s to access audio visual content and games in particular. Over six in ten 12-15s now own a smartphone and it is the most popular device for social networking among that age group.”

It is essential that parents are kept up to date with information, and that this information is in a format that can be easily understood. This will allow them to develop informed strategies based around mediation, supervision and controls, such as using technical tools and other safety measures for the sites their children regularly use.

But Government must also step up to the mark. They must think of the best, most appropriate ways to share up-to-date information on protecting today’s young digital citizens.

So how can we all better protect and educate children and young people?

 Almost all children and young people spend a considerable time in the classroom. Educating them about the risks – and the benefits – of being online must therefore be delivered as a core part of the curriculum.

Education needs be wide ranging, covering areas such as harmful conduct as well as harmful contact, and be topical covering issues such as cyber bulling. Recently for example you may have seen in the media about a young person from Co Down, who visited Facebook Headquarters, to receive a Diana award for his work as an anti-bullying ambassador. This work as we know shows the power of peer education.

We must also make sure that teachers have access to the best and latest information. This may require some thought and research about the understanding and perception of teachers in relation to new technologies.
Events like today play an important part in this, as it allows teachers as well as other professionals and practitioners to hear, firsthand, about current themes, trends and best practice in online safety.

It allows them and all the adults here today, to equip ourselves with a practical understanding and knowledge of both the opportunities and the challenges we face when we visit what are often new ‘online public spaces’.

I think this afternoon’s workshop will be particularly valuable, as it will help to develop a deeper practical understanding of safety settings, profiles, privacy, friendship, and where and when to go for help.

So what part can industry play in this? 

All of the online industry, whether social networking sites, hardware and software manufacturers, search engines and Internet Service Providers, must create the tools and links to protect and safeguard young people.

I welcome the steps that Facebook and Twitter have made in this respect, and the close working relationship they have forged with CEOP. Indeed I am on record welcoming the steps Facebook and CEOP took to work closer together, back in July 2010, and that same year I also joined the other UK Commissioners, in welcoming the enhancement of CEOP’s role and remit.  And today I look forward to hearing and learning more about what these organisations are doing in terms of blocking, reporting and moderating the online environment.

In the current economic climate of scarce resources, budgets are under intense pressure, often with many conflicting demands. So these types of partnerships are even more important. They allow valuable resources to be pooled together and directed towards the safely of all children and young people, including those who are often among the most vulnerable in our society.  I would call and encourage other organisations to take this lead, and to play their part in bringing their collective weight behind this challenge.   

But what about policing the web?

There have been considerable advances in how police throughout Northern Ireland and further afield tackle online crime. Indeed just last week we saw the PSNI launch a new site – get safe online – and an awareness campaign about online safety. But as we all, and especially children and young people, become digital citizens, police forces must receive the backing in terms of training and resources to enable them to find those who are a risk to children and young people and where necessary begin prosecutions. 

But in terms of crossing boundaries, the web has no borders. Therefore we must make sure that safeguarding young people online is addressed in international bodies. I personally have raised this at a European level, and I hope that all of you will consider how we express, through working partnerships and through legislation, that safeguarding must be the priority for every Government.

Again events like today have an important ‘informing role’ in this, and I know CEOP will speak more about some of the work they are involved with, in combating this international dimension to online safety.  
 
Thank you for your time and for listening. I hope you all take something useful from today’s conference.
 
I have a final challenge for you. When you sit in front of your computer screen, or open your iPhone, Blackberry or other smart device later today, think about how you can make yourself safer online? 

And then talk to your children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces about how safe they are online, and about ways they can further protect themselves and make sure their personal information remains private.

We can call on organisations to act, we can urge Government, we can support teachers, we can raise it in Europe, but we as individuals and as part of organisations and communities all have a valuable role to play!

Thank you