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Childnet helps young people step up as digital leaders

Children’s charity Childnet wants to empower kids by teaching them how to become digital leaders and advise their peers about online safety

Founded in 1995, a few years after the launch of the internet, Childnet strives to teach children how to be safe on the internet while still encouraging them to use it.

The charity’s approach is to be positive about the use of technologies, rather than focusing solely on the negatives, Childnet’s deputy CEO, Hannah Broadbent, tells Computer Weekly.

“It’s not just about understanding negatives, but actually how to behave positively. Let’s talk about cyber bullying, but let’s talk about how to be a good friend online as well,” she says.

The charity’s education team spends a significant amount of time speaking to children aged from three to 18 about internet safety, as well as helping to shape policy work.

Childnet sits on both Facebook’s safety advisory board and Twitter’s safety council, and Broadbent says the charity tries to organise opportunities for them to hear directly from young people.

“That youth voice has always been an important part of our work, and we try to make sure that they help shape our policy and education work,” she says.

Becoming a digital leader

Wanting another way of drawing further on young people’s voices, the charity launched a Digital Leaders programme in September 2015. The programme brings together young people on an online platform, where they are trained to become digital leaders in their respective schools.

“We kept hearing from young people that they wanted to hear from people their own age about these issues,” says Broadbent.

“Our team does a great job, but young people themselves can relate to their peers in a different way and speak about the issues on the ground.”

“Not only is the Digital Leaders programme for young people who are really interested in technology, but those who want to gain leadership skills as well”
Caroline Hurst, Childnet

The programme quickly acheived success. It now has 230 schools signed up, with more than 1,000 young people undertaking the training.

Caroline Hurst, Childnet’s education and training manager, says it’s about tailoring the work towards issues the young people themselves are facing.

“Not only is it for young people who are really interested in technology, but those who want to gain leadership skills as well. We hope it will help them develop career skills and confidence, and give them an opportunity to make a difference about the issues they really care about,” she says.

Currently offered to secondary schools across the UK, the programme offers an online platform where the children work through a number of online modules to become experts in internet safety.

The children partake in the online training on a regular basis and meet with their teachers to talk about what they’ve learned and what they can do with that information, and how to use it to teach their peers.

Once the children have completed the online training, they receive a certificate and a digital leader badge.

“We hope to inspire them to raise awareness and also educate the wider community through parent sessions and staff training,” says Hurst.

Online platform

“The idea is that the schools recruit eight to 10 digital leaders of varying ages. The aim is for the digital leaders to meet weekly and work through the different modules to help them become experts on internet safety,” says Hurst.

When the children log into the online platform, they can see all the different activities they need to complete. All activities in a module have to be completed before the digital leaders can proceed with the next module. Each activity has a set of interactive features, such as videos and quizzes, “to keep them interested”.

Each module also has an evaluation, but “in a way where they don’t feel like they are being evaluated”, says Broadbent, adding that this means the charity can use the feedback to continue shaping the project going forward.  

Being part of a community

The online platform also has an online community forum where the digital leaders can ask each other questions and share thoughts on different topics.

“They love giving each other advice and inspiration. One of the biggest topics at the moment is how to talk to primary school children,” says Hurst.

Another issue widely discussed is how to engage young people. “They’re finding that the young people aren’t listening as much as they want them to,” says Hurst.

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Childnet, too, finds this is an issue when it visits schools, but Hurst says the young digital leaders are in a good position to get the information across because they constantly mix with their peers and can better relate to them.

The platform also features a national leader board. Children score points for each online activity, and the leader board allows teams to see how many points other participating schools have.

“The community is a great way of them feeling part of something bigger, and that it is a national programme,” says Broadbent. “The leader board also ties into building an ethos of what it means to be a digital leader, and it motivates them. They love the leader board.”

Digital leaders in primary schools

Although still in its first year, the programme is a huge success. So much so, in fact, that it’s currently being trialled in primary schools.

“We’re now designing the platform for primary school children,” says Broadbent. “We’ve invited 27 primary schools to pilot this with us, and have already begun with the first schools joining us.”

While the idea of the platform has stayed the same, in primary schools the teachers will be more involved. Whereas secondary school children can complete their online modules independently at home, the primary school children will only be able to log in through the teacher.

The platform itself is divided into smaller chunks and more badges, with the content and language tailored to younger children.

If all goes to plan, Childnet hopes to launch the primary school programme nationally for the next academic year.

The programme is being evaluated in partnership with the University of Central Lancashire, where 12 schools are signed up as research partners.

Digital potential

The Digital Leaders programme has also attracted attention from other European countries. “Hopefully we can inspire a lot of other countries to get involved with this,” says Broadbent.

“There is also a lot of potential in terms of how we can use it to consult young people on our policy work. There is huge potential for us to use it to help amplify young people’s voices on the issues we’re hearing.”

Childnet is a finalist in the Digital Leaders 100 Awards under the category of Charity Digital Leader of the Year. You can see the full list of finalists and categories and submit your vote on the DL100 Awards website.                                                                                                   

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Great idea. Unless we invest in the next generation, unless we start teaching kids while we still have their attention, we'll lose one of our best assets. It takes funding and it takes a concerted effort to get right, but it's a far better choice than our shortsighted penchant for gutting companies through outsourcing.
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