Safer Social Networking for Children

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 @ 1:11PM

Earlier this week, I spoke on a debate on making social networking safer for children. Regular readers will know that I have a longstanding interest in tackling cyber-bullying and have visited schools in Edinburgh to discuss the problem – I have kept a diary about my activities and written about the problem previously, as posted here. You can read the full Scottish Parliament debate here.
 
Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab): Like colleagues, I start by congratulating Alex Johnstone on securing the debate and Jamie Tosh on his work in the north-east of Scotland.

I have taken an interest in the topic as an avid user of social media myself. To try to understand the size of the challenge, I carried out some research of my own in Edinburgh around this time last year. I visited Craigmount high school in the west of Edinburgh, where I met a class of secondary 1 pupils. Every one of those S1 pupils had a 3G mobile phone in their pocket, the majority of them had their own laptop and 40 per cent had their own iPad. That happens at 12 years old. All the pupils had Facebook profiles. Despite the fact that the age restriction on Facebook applies until someone is 15 years old, many of those pupils had had a Facebook profile since they were 10.

Craigmount high school has an excellent information technology department, which really is at the cutting edge of integrating technology into the educational experience. Mobile smart phones are used in the classroom and are integrated into homework programmes. That reminds us all of the educational value of technology, which we should not lose sight of.

The school is about to wi-fi enable its whole campus, which brings huge educational possibilities. When I spoke to the school about that, I was told not to worry about kids being able to get on Facebook on the school campus, because that is not possible with the City of Edinburgh Council’s IT system. However, the blunt reality is that that is irrelevant when every kid in the class has their own 3G phone in their pocket. They are not protected by council bullying policies. The danger is far greater than that.

I do not know about you, Presiding Officer, but I am not sure how many of my Facebook friends I could count on in a crisis or how many of my Twitter followers actually agree with my views. As Alex Johnstone said, the definition of friendships and relationships is remarkably distorted online. We need to do more to support children and young people to cope with the increasing online cataloguing of their lives and growing pains—things such as spots, haircuts, fashion faux pas, likes and dislikes, academic results, who their parents are, what their parents do and, as Dennis Robertson mentioned, body image and what they look like.

Much of our societal debate about children’s online safety is focused on the warning signs of predatory relationships and grooming, but far less public attention is paid to online peer-led bullying. Many parents safeguard their family computers, have the talk with the kids about online strangers and think that they are safe, only to let them go online and suffer silently at the hands of their classmates and acquaintances. Such bullying can be blatant and playground-like, but it can also be subversive and darkly psychological. Malice can spread like wildfire through a young person’s cyber-world in minutes and can cause a lifetime’s worth of damage to their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

If members think that I am exaggerating, they should take a second to look at the website www.littlegossip.com, which is dedicated to actively encouraging young people to leave anonymous comments about their classmates and teachers on a school-by-school basis. That is a truly frightening experience.

Mark McDonald: I am sure that the member will also be aware of the existence of groups on sites such as Facebook and Bebo that are devoted entirely to criticising and bullying individuals, which happens frequently.

Kezia Dugdale: Absolutely. Like the member, I completely condemn that. We need a strategy to take that on and we should not just rely on people to report it, because that does not always happen.

I will say a word about the bullies, because we cannot forget them or the reasons why they find themselves having to bully other young people. I am aware of two kids in Craigmillar who have been excluded from school because they were involved in cyber-bullying. We all know what happens to the educational outcomes and life chances of young people who are excluded from school, so we need to keep sight of their hopes and ambitions for the future.

I want to say a word about some good work. Catriona Laing, who I believe is the only e-safety schools officer in Scotland and who is currently employed by Perth and Kinross Council, has developed a peer-led model that aims to give kids the capacity to support one another when they are bullied online. I will be pleased to welcome her to next Thursday’s meeting of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on children and young people. I encourage other members to attend that meeting, which will focus on cyber-bullying.

I am afraid that I have one word of criticism. On 10 May last year in the chamber, I raised the issue with Kenny MacAskill in the context of how cyber-bullying crimes are reported. He was helpful, and I asked whether he would be willing to meet me, but he said that it would be more appropriate for me to meet one of the education ministers. On 16 May, I informally approached Aileen Campbell, who said that, if I wrote to her, she would agree to a meeting. I did that but, on 22 June, I got a letter back from Alasdair Allan saying that there was no reason to meet me to discuss the problems with cyber-bullying. I felt that I had a lot to offer the debate and a lot of first-hand information, so I was really disappointed with that. My message to the minister is that I hope that, if he has not been willing to listen in the past, he might be willing to act today.

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