Professor Tanya Byron kicked off the WISE KIDS - WISP conference in Swansea with a video-taped Keynote address, as she was unable to attend in person.
Tanya Byron is a clinical psychologist and child therapist, who, in 2007, was commissioned by the Prime Minister to conduct an independent review on inappropriate material for children and young people on the internet and video games. The results of her work were published in a document known as "The Byron Review", or Safer Children in a Digital World, in March 2008, which informed the government what steps to take next. All current government policies on internet safety and regulation for children and young people are based on this document.
Her video-recorded interview with WISE KIDS, which was streamed at YPDW2010, set the tone of the conference and is a must-see for all. You can watch it in full below.
If you would like to read the Byron Review, there are a number of PDF versions you can choose from:
What is refreshing about Prof. Byron is that her focus never strays away from the study's main stakeholders – children. Her recommendations are centred on empowering children with the tools they need not to "drown" in the digital world, and not on demonising the internet and removing them from it.
Some of the highlights in her speech were:
Swimming lessons before you surf
Her analogy of the internet as a swimming pool is spot-on. Just as a swimming pool, which children associate with fun, play and enjoyment, as they do the internet, it has an ominous flip side, which is the risk of drowning.
Our obligations, as guardians, parents, carers or educators, she says, is to teach them to swim, without banning them from the pool nor locking them out. Moderators are the virtual equivalent of lifeguards, looking after your child's safety, and rules, filters, safe searches are there to protect them. New swimmers need shallow ends and floats and arm bands to help them float, whereas the deep end for more confident, advance swimmers.
The important thing to remember is that the less we allow them to venture out, the more they will drown in the digital world when they do eventually get out; and they will. Swimming is a life-saving skill, also on the internet.
A culture of captive children
"We live in a risk-averse culture. We are raising our children in captivity," says Prof. Byron. As adults shut out children from the outside world in fear of the dangers that may or may not befall them, they turned to the internet to live their childhood through seeking adventure and finding their identities online.
We suffer from an overblown paranoia and fear of the online world but, in reality, managing risk online requires the same common sense techniques as those used off-line: not speaking to strangers, not giving away personal details to people you don't know, alerting adults if anyone approaches you in an inappropriate way.
If we are not talking about the internet with our children, isn't it because we simply don't get it?
The most vulnerable
When it comes to vulnerability, the more socio-economic deprived children are somehow protected by virtue of their own social status, as those from poorer backgrounds often do not have online access.
In fact they are at risk of being digitally excluded. It is the middle-class aspirational children, who have been pushed by their families into a narrow definition of how they should be as children, and who have rigidly structured daily lives focussed on education, who are most avidly seeking escape. These may be the children who are more vulnerable online.
Remember: playing, socialising, taking risks are an intrinsic part of childhood. They will do it anyway, so why not give them the tools to do it well without putting themselves at risk?
Resilience and good citizenship
Nothing is entirely 100% safe. Barring children from the digital world is not the answer. Heavy-handed regulation is only justified when it relates to illegal material.
There is unbelievable potential for creativity, communication and socialisation on the internet. In fact, the digital world is the future. We must embrace it, acknowledge its benefits and respect the right of children to look after themselves. That is what Prof Byron calls resilience, a key word in her review.
The internet is a huge part of their world and adults can best serve them by helping them grow into great "digital citizens" and empowering them with skills to recognise and manage risks.
For those "who think childhood is toxic and a child shouldn't use computers"? she spares no words: "Go live on another planet!"
You've got to love Tanya Byron.