If you are a child today, you live your life almost completely in the public domain. Your baby photographs might be on Facebook before the first nappy change. By the time you start primary school, you will have appeared on at least a dozen local and national Government databases, and various commercial organisations will have been sold your details, targeting your parents for years with invitations to buy you consumer goods and products. Your movements around the local area will be tracked on CCTV.
When you arrive in secondary school, your digital footprint will intensify. You will be uploading materials to the Internet via your mobile phone or your bedroom computer. You will have a number of online profiles, some more secret than others. Homework will be submitted online via third party servers, some of which may be in countries with weak, cloud-based data protection policies. By the time you are 18, your digital footprint will be enormous, and even though there is ‘right to be forgotten’ data protection legislation in place to allow for deletion, for most things out there in the digital world, it’s going to be too late to roll back, even allowing for the introduction of the new European General Data Protection Regulations in 2018. For young people today, there is practically no backstage space in which to experiment and make mistakes. This is in stark contrast to the lives of young people even a generation ago.
It would be easy to panic about this kind of intrusion of the public into the personal, and frequently people do. Schools have periodically tried to ban various activities, for example taking digital photos of children in school performances (much to the chagrin of the Information Commissioner’s Office, who have pointed out repeatedly that this does not breach the Data Protection Act, but that schools taking pictures and using them in promotional materials does in fact constitute a breach). Schools also concern themselves with teaching children about the dangers of posting too much online, sexting, cyberbullying, Internet grooming, and the need for secure passwords, just like parents try to do. Generally speaking, adults spend a great deal of time cautioning children and young people about digital risk, even though they might not be fully aware of what its extent might be. It is also genuinely difficult for people to assess risk accurately in relation to the digital world, so many adults tend to err on the safe side, and who would blame them?
In our book Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood (published March 27 by UCL IOE Press) Andy Phippen and I argue that there is too much panic about the digital world, and not enough education by example. It starts with basic back office functions. If schools are using dated infrastructure for their computer networks, as many do (particularly academies, who no longer benefit from up to date Local Authority support), they are not modelling best practice in the way that needs to happen. This can be compounded by schools using insecure cloud-based networks for day to day operations. We saw an example of this in one of our fieldwork schools where a teacher had asked students to upload copies of their CVs to a US-based cloud server as part of a careers development exercise, breaching the Data Protection Act quite obviously. It hadn’t even occurred to the school that this might be a problem (despite the fact that OFSTED may have taken a very negative view).
In our focus groups on biometrics in schools, where we talked with teenagers in the south west of England about their daily experiences of technology use at school, we learned how pupils were frequently confused for one another because of the school’s poorly calibrated sensitivity settings for fingerprint readers, reducing their trust in the system. Similarly, we heard about long queues to use fingerprint readers, and how lunchtime supervisors frequently licked their fingers and rubbed the platen (glass) to get the system working again. As we say in our book, any system that relies on human beings licking equipment has major usability issues.
The problem with all of this is that children and young people are effectively analogue beings navigating a digital world. Queuing up to get your lunch is a practice that has not changed since school meals became universal after the 1944 Education Act. Sending a digital image to a school mate of a part of your body you haven’t shown to your parents since you were nine is, to some teenagers, just a bit of innocent naughtiness and certainly not something they would associate with criminality – even though some schools are very quick to contact police about illicit digital images being shared by under-16s. Social interactions and transactions online are a complex and nuanced area. It requires adults to operate from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. Otherwise we end up with confused legislation, and technology becomes a burden rather than a convenience. Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood is a manifesto for a new curriculum.
We see such a curriculum as going well beyond the current limited diet of online safety and computer coding, instead embracing topics such as:
- privacy, information and education rights
- management of time and space
- the provision, maintenance and protection of digital infrastructure
- the role of technology within relationships
- digital criminology
- digital citizenship
- digital consumption
- respect, consent and empathy with others
- legislative protections
- the role of media as information source and influencer
- wellbeing and mental health
This curriculum would untangle complex technology issues, and address what it really means to be human in a digital age.