133.Improving the digital literacy and resilience of children and young people was highlighted across the evidence as an important means of safeguarding them from harm when using social media. This Chapter considers how this might be achieved in practice.
134.Digital literacy can be understood as “the ability of individuals to use skills, knowledge and understanding in order to make full use of the opportunities offered by the new media environment as well as safeguard themselves from associated risks”. The need to improve the digital literacy of young people was a key theme from the written evidence. Sue Jones from Ditch the Label told us that:
real media information literacy within education, from a very young age [is missing]. We have talked about phased approaches to technology, but we also need to teach young people how to navigate the internet critically—all of it, whether it is social media platforms or websites.
135.This insight was also raised by the House of Lords Communication Committee in its 2017 report Growing up with the Internet. It recommended that “digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics, and be resourced and taught accordingly”. Our witnesses were supportive of the idea that digital literacy should be an integral part of the primary and secondary school curriculum. The evidence we received advocated making PSHE education mandatory in schools while also ‘embedding’ digital literacy and eSafety in the PSHE curriculum.
136.According to Dr Griffiths, PSHE education was “probably the best platform and arena” through which to deliver “compulsory” digital literacy in schools. Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, noted that it had been the RCPCH’s “policy for a number of years that [PSHE education] should be compulsory” while Dustin Hutchinson from the National Children’s Bureau emphasised that:
education in social media should be a timetabled part of the curriculum, whether it be in PSHE or in sex and relationships education […] and delivered by educators specifically trained to educate about the risks and the benefits.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, also identified ‘critical times’ when such lessons were invaluable, including the transition from primary to secondary school.
137.Matt Blow from YoungMinds explained that, within digital literacy, there also needed to be a focus on building “digital resilience”:
so that, when they [children] encounter harm, they know how to respond and are able to mitigate it themselves. That needs to be part of the focus of the education.
YMCA England and Wales suggested that building children’s resilience was a means to help ensure that “risk does not become harm” while Virgin Media saw “resilient online users” as people who were “better equipped with the tools to respond to harms when they confront them”.
138.In 2017, however, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, reported that children were “not being equipped with adequate skills to negotiate their lives online” and that they needed help from adults to “develop resilience and the ability to interact critically with the world”. Giving evidence to us a year later, Ms Longfield noted that while “[eSafety] within school has really progressed […] the emotional resilience to be able to deal with [life online] it is not there yet”.
139.Changes to PSHE education are, however, in motion. Section 34 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 required the Education Secretary in England to make Relationships Education mandatory in all primary schools, and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) mandatory in all secondary schools through regulations. Section 35 of the Act also states that the “Secretary of State may by regulations make provision requiring personal, social, health and economic education (beyond that required by virtue of section 34) to be provided”. During our inquiry, the Government held a public consultation, seeking views on its draft regulations, statutory guidance, and regulatory impact assessment relating to Relationships Education, RSE and Health Education.
140.The Government’s proposed guidance for schools does consider online harms and states that “Pupils should be taught rules and principles for keeping safe online [including] how to recognise risks, harmful content and contact, and how and to whom to report issues”. In addition, the guidance states that:
Pupils should know […] the similarities and differences between the online world and the physical world, including: the impact of unhealthy or obsessive comparison with others online through setting unrealistic expectations for body image, […] over-reliance on online relationships (including social media), how advertising and information is targeted at them and how to be a discerning consumer of information online […] how to identify harmful behaviours online (including bullying, abuse or harassment) and how to report, or get support, if they have been affected by those behaviours.
At the time of writing, the Government had not published a Response to its consultation.
141.Though PSHE education may soon be made mandatory across primary and secondary schools, Natasha Devon reflected that, at present, “PSHE is not funded, so you do not have specialist teachers. They do not have resources”. Similarly, Becca, a young person, explained that:
Often the way schools do it [teach PSHE] is just to throw the form teacher into doing that, and a form teacher could be a PE teacher, a chemistry teacher, or whatever: that is their specialism and they have been trained to do that; they haven’t been trained to talk about looking after yourself online. The teachers need to be given the tools to be able to educate the young people on it.
Jack, another young person, also pointed to the “unrealistic” nature of some of the educational videos about online risks:
If you show them to a class of teenagers, they just laugh and no one takes it seriously. Some of the CEOP [child exploitation and online protection] videos do try to convey a serious message, but they are incredibly unrealistic. It is a scenario that would happen one in a million and they need to make it a lot more realistic and less humorous—they are not willingly humorous, obviously—a lot more serious and make it relate to what is happening.
142.Carolyn Bunting from Internet Matters told us that while teachers are best placed to deliver digital literacy, “what we [Internet Matters] hear is that they need more help. It needs to be integrated into their teacher training, and we need to have changes made to the curriculum”. Another issue for schools and teachers was that, while there is a “wealth of information and advice that is available” on digital literacy, there is, according to the British Psychological Society, “no centralised resource for parents and professionals to turn to for balanced advice”. This, in turn, can make it difficult for teachers to know if the resources that they are finding are “reliable, of high quality and up to date”. As Sue Jones from Ditch the Label put it:
There is such a mix. It is everywhere, across the board. There is not one place. As you probably all know, having media and information literacy go into schools came to a staggering halt in about 2014, so teachers are scurrying around everywhere to try to get it from the best possible places.
143.In the absence of centralised, quality-assured resources, Carolyn Bunting from Internet Matters noted that, in some instances, schools had relied on external organisations to teach digital literacy and e-safety. She questioned whether it was:
necessarily right that we have lots of external organisations that will be difficult to control going into schools and trying to fix this problem. It feels like it is a fundamental piece of the curriculum, in making sure that children are able to deal with the digital world when they leave school.
144.The House of Lords Communication Committee, in its 2017 report Growing up with the Internet, explained that it was “struck by the number and fragmented nature of organisations organised to manage internet harms”. While the Committee commended the work of the voluntary sector and industry in “delivering information and resources about online safety and digital literacy for parents and children”, it emphasised that the landscape was disjointed and “insufficient to meet the needs of all children”.
145.Dr Vicky Goodyear from the University of Birmingham highlighted that there were “a lot of start-up companies offering guidance and tips about social media and digital literacy” and that there was a need “for evidence-based practice and quality assurance” of these resources. Similarly, Barnardo’s emphasised that it was vital to “evaluate the effectiveness of ‘educational’ initiatives’”, like those that are aimed at improving digital literacy, so that resources are directed towards “initiatives that have demonstrably positive effects and reduce the risk of promulgating interventions that, at best, have no effect and at worst, deepen the problem”.
146.The Government, in its Response to its Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, suggested that the current system, with multiple external providers of advice, not only led “to duplication of effort” but it could also mean that “some vulnerable users aren’t adequately supported” and that, in some instances, “users can receive conflicting messages which leads to confusion”. While the Government went on to state that it “strongly believes that there is definite value to be added from the convening power of Government to ensure that resources and funding are maximised across the digital ecosystem”, it concluded that “before we disrupt any existing initiatives, we believe that it is right that we take the time to agree the best approach to realise sustained, significant investment to counter online harms”.
147.In the meantime, Sarah Hannafin from the National Association of Head Teachers identified an opportunity for the Department for Education to:
think about signposting organisations that schools can rely on in producing high-quality, good teaching resources that are regularly reviewed and kept up to date, which for the online world is very important. Rather than expecting the DfE to produce resources, they should take responsibility and identify the organisations and charities that are doing that job very well. That then points schools in the right direction.
148.As children spend an increasing proportion of their life online, there is a pressing need for the education system to catch up and ensure that young people are equipped with the skills that they need to navigate, and critically assess, what they are seeing on social media and beyond. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 presents the Government with a vital opportunity to establish digital literacy and resilience as integral parts of the curriculum for primary and secondary school students, through making ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic’ (PSHE) education mandatory. This chance must not be wasted.
149.We recommend that ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic’ (PSHE) education be made mandatory for primary and secondary school children in the next parliamentary session and that the PSHE curriculum delivers an age-appropriate understanding of, and resilience towards, the harms and benefits of the digital world.
150.The Department for Education should commission research early in 2019 to evaluate existing resources on online safety and digital resilience. This should be undertaken with a view to creating guidance on, and signposting teachers towards, high-quality information and teaching resources that can be used with primary and secondary school-age children.
151.According to some schools and organisations, the ‘missing link’ in delivering digital literacy and resilience may be a lack of parental awareness and, in some instances, engagement. The National Association of Head Teachers was clear that young people’s use of social media cuts through their day-to-day lives, thereby making it crucial to ensure “that their parents and carers are also aware of the dangers of harmful content or excessive use”. Emily Cherry from Barnardo’s, however, emphasised that some parents were “giving children early access to material, websites and technology without an understanding of the risks and the dangers”.
152.Written submissions from some schools and teachers made similar points about lack of parental awareness. Longdean School in Hemel Hempstead, for example, stated that:
Parental (and wider social) awareness of these [online] risks is painfully weak. I liken it to allowing a young person to roam the streets of a dangerous area unaccompanied late at night. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness as to a) what is happening and b) what parental responsibility should be.
153.Paul Mogie, who works in a secondary school, explained that he was “increasingly dealing with social media issues” on a “daily basis”, adding that “on the whole, parents seem oblivious to what their child is doing on social media”. According to Bristol Safeguarding Children’s Board, parents were “incredibly difficult to engage when trying to talk about Online Safety”, and that schools were asking “for advice about how to engage parents with Online Safety topics”. The Children’s Commissioner for England, however, in her report Growing up Digital, stressed that parents were telling her that they were “not confident about how to prepare children for life online”. Dr Vicky Goodyear from the University of Birmingham noted that while much had already been said about the need to educate young people, “adult digital literacy” was also crucial “if [adults] are going to be able to help young people”.
154.Exactly how adults should be supported to raise “digitally resilient children, who understand the benefits and challenges of constant connectivity”, was highlighted by Internet Matters as a key hurdle to overcome. Dr Netta Weinstein from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University suggested that, rather than trying to provoke a “fear response” in adults and children, what seemed to be “more effective [was] parents being more closely engaged with their youngsters’ social media use”. Citing Jane Tollin, Co-Executive Director, MediaSmarts (Canada), Dr Bex Lewis from Manchester Metropolitan University maintained that young people “need less surveillance and more mentorship online”, adding that “zero-tolerance policies don’t work. Encouraging trust and open dialogue is the best approach”. In its written evidence, the Government stated that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) would “undertake a review of available online safety information available to parents and identify gaps in resources”.
155.Parental engagement can play a vital role in helping children develop ‘digital resilience’, so that they can confidently identify and judge online risks themselves. Parents, however, need high-quality support to ensure these conversations are as effective as possible.
156.In addition to identifying the gaps in the ‘online safety information available to parents’, the Government should commission the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to produce a toolkit in 2019 for parents and caregivers. The toolkit should enable them to have an effective, open and ongoing dialogue with their children about how to recognise, manage and mitigate online risks in relation to social media. This work should complement the proposed review of existing teaching resources recommended in paragraph 150.
157.According to Ofcom, 44% of 5–15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone in 2018, with tablet ownership across the same age group slightly higher at 47%. When broken down by age, Ofcom’s figures show that 87% of 14 year olds and 93% of 15 year olds own a smartphone. Across the UK, it is currently the responsibility of individual schools to determine whether mobile phones are allowed on school premises. The Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb MP, explained that, under the current rules, schools can:
choose to ban or limit the use of smart phone or tablets on school premises during the school day. Schools should make any policies on smart phones or tablets known to all staff, pupils and parents. These policies should outline any sanctions that will be imposed if pupils break these rules”.
Consequently, policies across the UK schools vary, ranging from outright bans at some schools to the inclusion of phones as part of lessons in others. Sarah Hannafin from the National Association of Head Teachers noted how:
some secondary schools […] do impose a blanket ban on mobile phones, but we see a lot of members that manage the use—so phones may be banned at lesson time, but there may be flexibility at break time and lunch time.
158.The French Government, in contrast, has recently introduced a ban on using mobile phones in the country’s primary, junior and middle schools. Children are allowed to bring their phones to school, but they are not allowed to use them out at any time until they leave, including during breaks.
159.There is some evidence that not allowing mobile phones in lessons has a positive impact on attainment. Research by Dr Richard Murphy at the London School of Economics found that banning mobile phones improved students’ GCSE outcomes to the extent equivalent to an additional hour a week in school or to increasing the school year by five days. In his written evidence, Dr Murphy added that the measure helped those with previously low attainment scores:
Students in the top 40% of the achievement distribution gained nothing from the bans, but those in the bottom 40% gained around 12% on average.
In our survey of over 3,000 children and young people, we asked them what impact social media has on their concentration when completing a task. Over 45% thought it had either a ‘somewhat’ or ‘mostly’ negative impact on their concentration, while 30% thought it had no impact at all.
160.Outreach with Welland Park Academy—which has a policy of not allowing mobile phones to be switched on while in school unless authorised by a teacher, as part of a lesson—highlighted how some students found this approach gave them a welcome, “enforced break” from social media. Other students, however, questioned why mobile phones could not be used at breaktimes and noted different policies at neighbouring schools.
161.Some schools have worked to integrate phones into lessons. Sue Jones from Ditch the Label explained how:
Overwhelmingly, we are told by teachers that […] they have given up trying to fight the use of phones in classrooms. They are now trying to integrate them within the lesson. You have the online polls that are happening in lessons. They are trying to bring in technology in that way, because otherwise they spend half the lesson trying to take phones off people.
Will Gardner from the UK Safer Internet Centre also highlighted instances where schools were considering a “bring your own device to school” policy, adding that when there was “amazing technology at home and, perhaps, less amazing technology within school, there may be a way to mobilise that to the benefit of the school”.
162.We received some evidence from teaching staff, however, of smartphones being a barrier to learning. Natasha Porter, a teaching assistant at Crawley College, told us that:
The number one distraction, from every single student, is phone use for, predominantly, Instagram and Snapchat. It has come to a point where we have to put their phones in a box at the beginning of some lessons. When asking for phones to be handed in, we’ve had tears, tantrums and students walk out and not come back.
Another secondary school teacher stated that she had noticed:
a massive shift in teenage attitudes in the last ten years. They find it difficult to concentrate on school work when their ‘real lives’ are continuing in their pockets, driving them wild with frustration and distraction in lessons.
163.Both Will Gardner and Sarah Hannafin suggested that there was more room for centrally-provided, evidence-based guidance on mobile phone use in schools. As Ms Hannafin put it:
On mobile phones, it is always good to share practice between schools, and it is much easier to do it centrally, so that schools can see what other schools are doing[…] [it] is important is that the best practice represents a variety of different policies that schools might have approached. It also addresses the challenges and pitfalls that schools might face when implementing or changing a policy on mobile phones or social media […] Seeing what challenges different schools faced and how they acted to overcome them is really useful.
164.We have heard how children bringing smartphones into schools can be both a help and a hinderance to learning. While it is right that each school should have the freedom to decide its own policy on the use of mobile phones on its premises, it is essential that schools are supported to make that choice with evidence-based guidance.
165.We recommend that the Government’s ‘What Works Centre for Education’ evaluates the different approaches to handling smartphone use in schools so as to provide a basis for making evidence-based guidance available to both primary and secondary schools. This evaluation should be produced by the end of 2019.
224 UK Council for Child Internet Safety, October 2017, p66
225 YMCA England & Wales (); The British Psychological Society ();University of Birmingham (); Barnardo’s ()
227 House of Lords, Growing up with the internet, Second Report of the Select Committee on Communications, Session 2016–17, , para 30
232 ; ; see also
234 YMCA England & Wales ()
235 Virgin Media ()
236 Children’s Commissioner for England, , January 2017
238 Children and Social Work Act 2017,
240 Department for Education, , July 2018, p29
245 ; The British Psychological Society ()
249 House of Lords, Growing up with the internet, Second Report of the Select Committee on Communications, Session 2016–17, , para 320
251 Barnardo’s ()
252 HM Government, , May 2018, p27
254 National Association of Head Teachers ()
256 Longdean School ()
257 Paul Mogie ()
258 Bristol Safeguarding Children’s Board - E-Safety Working Group ()
259 Children’s Commissioner for England, , January 2017, p4
261 Internet Matters ()
263 Dr Bex Lewis, Manchester Metropolitan University ()
264 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ()
265 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes: annex 1 Children’s research annex, January 2019, p29
266 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes: annex 1 Children’s research annex, January 2019, p29
267 [on Schools: Mobile Phones], 4 June 2018. The position is similar in Scotland. While advice published by the Scottish Government in 2013 states that “it is unreasonable and impractical to attempt to impose a ban on mobile devices in schools” it remains up to individual schools to decide on their own policy. See The Scottish Government, , November 2013
269 BBC News Online, , 7 June 2018
270 Richard Murphy and Louis-Philippe Beland, , The Conversation, 12 May 2015
271 Dr Richard Murphy ()
272 See Annex 2
275 Miss Natasha Porter ()
276 Mrs Cat Sabben-Clare, Dr Sonia Kersey and Mrs Sara Keel ()
Published: 31 January 2019