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Project to examine attempts to help young people stay safe online

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) are leading a new national project exploring how pre-teens understand the risks of using the internet.

The work will also evaluate the various strategies and toolkits that have been developed for parents, teachers and other professionals to help children become more resilient online, while benefiting from the opportunities the internet offers.

Digital resilience is cited by policy makers and those working with young people as key to helping individuals recognise and manage the risks they come across when they socialise, explore or work online. It is achieved primarily through experience, rather than learning, and fostered by providing opportunities to confide in others and reflect upon online challenges.

However the evidence underpinning digital resilience strategies is limited, leaving practitioners struggling to improve content and delivery methods due to the lack of a robust way to evaluate them.

This new work has been commissioned by The Nurture Network (eNurture), a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded Mental Health Network that fosters new collaborations to promote children and young people’s mental health in a digital world.

The project will review what is currently known and being done in the area of digital resilience and explore understanding of how nine to 12-year-olds recognise and talk about the risk of online harm and recovery from exposure to harm. The aim is to create and pilot a digital resilience scale, the first psychometric scale in this area, in order to evaluate what works well for this age group.

The work will be led by Dr Simon P Hammond and Dr Kimberley Bartholomew, of UEA’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning, and Dr Richard Graham, a consultant psychiatrist and co-chair of the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) Digital Resilience Work Group. Last month UKCIS produced its Digital Resilience Framework, a tool for organisations, policymakers, schools and companies to use to embed digital resilience thinking into products, education and services.

Dr Hammond said: “Navigating, recovering and learning from online harms is an increasingly important and ongoing process for all users of digital technology. However, when working to support children and young people the automatic reaction is to think and talk like we can completely protect them from risks. Importantly, risk is not harm.

“We should be supporting children and young people to develop their skills, abilities to recover from mistakes and literacies around their online behaviours. Equipping those in contact with children and young people, be they teachers, parents or social workers, with the best available knowledge is therefore vital.

“Various resources aiming to improve digital resilience, and thereby promoting positive mental health and relationships within and beyond digital spaces, currently exist,” added Dr Hammond. “However, which are most effective, for whom, in what context and for how long remains unknown.

“This is problematic, meaning parents, families and children's workforce professionals are unable to refine and tailor resources and/or their implementation optimally as evaluations are unable to offer clear insights based on robust psychometric tools.

“Young people can feel can underprepared in the face of increasingly digital environments, hence there is scope for growing their involvement in this area. By the end of this project we hope to be able to highlight the things they say are important. For example, who they turn to when things go wrong, have they got someone to talk to?”

The project will work with 16 to 18-year-old co-researchers to help interview and conduct focus groups with pre-teens. It will also work with organisations such as Parent Zone and the Carnegie UK Trust

Commenting on the launch of the Digital Resilience Framework Dr Graham said: “We kept hearing from young people that they didn’t just want to cope with the stresses of the online world, but wanted to learn how to explore it, and learn new skills. So we created a digital resilience framework to support that.

“Now we need to go a step further, and explore how we can work out how ready someone is to take next steps, such as engaging in social media or multiplayer games. It is important not to put a young person at risk, but also not to bore them with activities below their abilities.”

The research team is looking to recruit schools to the project and hope it will lead to a larger study to develop a scale across a wider age range.

One of the schools already signed up is Wainwright Primary Academy, in Nottinghamshire. Senior Principal Lucy Spacey said: “At Diverse Academies we realise that digital technologies are important in our pupils learning and likely to play an important role in their everyday lives. We are also aware that these technologies can impact, positively or negatively, upon the mental health and well-being of our pupils.

“We are keen to be involved in research which will help play a role in ensuring we can work with children, their families and other organisations to help keep children as safe as possible when engaging with digital technology. We are delighted to be involved in this pioneering project.”

Prof Gordon Harold, of the University of Sussex and director of eNurture said: “This is an innovative and important project and aligns very well with the core objective of eNurture, to equip parents, practitioners, policy makers, educators and young people with new knowledge as to how the digital environment affects children’s mental health and development.”

Any schools interested in taking part in this UK-wide project should contact Dr Simon P Hammond at s.hammond@uea.ac.uk

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