“Online safety for our children…”

“Online safety for our children needs to be a prerequisite not an afterthought.”

William, Prince of Wales

In William Boyd’s latest novel he imagines the life of Cashel Greville Ross, a nineteenth century explorer and friend to the poets Shelley and Byron. It is a “whole life” novel in which we meet the central character in childhood and learn of his adventures as they unfold. The novel is based on a conceit, that the author has found a cache of materials left by Cashel Greville Ross and that this account is truth rather than fiction. Boyd has form in this arena for it was he, along with a little help from David Bowie, who convinced the art world that they had missed a genius in Nat Tate, a hoax that caused a few blushes among experts some years ago.

The suitcase of papers that Boyd describes are a chronicle of his hero’s endeavours. Nowadays our lives are recorded not just on paper but so much more extensively in the digital realm. We are tracked and carefully constructed algorithms feed us material to take us into new and potentially harmful areas. This week we learned the desperate conclusion of the Molly Russell case, a tragedy fuelled by the sort of images and ideas that no parent would want their child to see. The materials seen by fourteen-year-old Molly were described in court by her father as “the bleakest of worlds”. Social media platforms deliberately target young people with content that can be extremely damaging. As we plunge perhaps unknowingly into the metaverse, we cannot be certain that we are placing our young people in danger, but the future will not wait until we’ve caught up with it. Micromanagement is not necessarily the answer, there is a role for this technology and our young people need to learn how to engage with it positively and to make the most of all that is out there. There is always something new. Take BeReal, an app that seems to be an antidote to the cult of the perfect life portrayed on Instagram, as yet a site that seems to be little more than a bit of fun but even this seemingly innocent site can prove disruptive to lessons and family dinner times.

I’m rarely up with the latest trends and most certainly I’m not down with the kids, but if I want to find out about the latest internet trend I find that a simple conversation will give good results. The development of that discussion tends to throw up potential areas of concern if they are there. Our digital leaders are also key players in bridging the gap between adults and young people. William Boyd believes that he is in a position to describe history through fiction more accurately than historians can ever do, because he controls and knows the innermost thoughts of his characters in a way we never truly know the thoughts of others. If we are to keep our young people safe then we need to tread carefully and ask the right questions before we believe there is a problem. It is important that we seek to understand their thoughts and treat them seriously. They are unlikely to volunteer their worries and concerns if they fear getting in trouble for looking at the wrong sort of things. We need to provide opportunities for discussions and to discuss any harmful materials they have seen. If there are concerns, then support is available here in school. If you would like to find out more, I’d recommend the Tech Control resources developed by Digital Awareness for HMC to be found at digitalawarenessuk.com as an excellent point of departure.

Nicholas Hammond