Do you know this is a trusted source?

Reflecting on Safer Internet Day 2020, Good Things' Group CEO Helen Milner reflects on why digital literacy is vital to helping people to use the internet securely.

Of course this is a trusted source – it’s my blog! But how did you know that this link was to be trusted? Did it take you to where you expected it to? It takes digital and critical thinking skills to come to that decision, and in the digital age these are essential.

Today is Safer Internet Day 2020, and I’m delighted to join forces with millions of people across the world to promote the safe and positive use of digital technology, together for a better internet.

I’m always raving about the benefits of the internet, and rightly so. From helping you take control of your cash to delivering better health outcomes, there are countless positives to digital. That said, participating in the online world means dealing with new kinds of risks, such as getting scammed, viewing distressing content, and the spread of disinformation.

Research published by Ofcom earlier this month shows that parents are more concerned about their children online, with 55% of the parents of 5-15 year olds believing that the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks compared to 65% in 2015. This is perhaps unsurprising – a startling 79% of 12-15 year olds in the UK claim that they have had at least one potentially harmful experience online in the last year.

Coincidentally, I’m currently on my way down to London to give evidence to the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee in a session exploring one particular source of online harm – disinformation. Alongside other experts, we’ll be discussing the question: ‘Do we have the digital literacy to spot fake news?’

For me, this is a really interesting question, and to answer it we need to be clear about what we mean by digital literacy. The Government’s Essential Digital Skills framework provides five categories for the skills that are essential for everyday life and work: communicating, handling information and content, problem solving, transacting and – finally – being safe online.

So, if a central plank of digital literacy is understanding how to be safe online, and fake news is a source of online harm, then the question of whether we have the digital literacy to spot fake news is really a question about whether we are a digitally literate nation full stop.

And, unfortunately, the answer to that is no – not nearly as much as we should be. There are 11.9 million people who don’t have all of the digital skills they need for life. What makes it all the more frustrating is the overlap between digital and social exclusion. Half of the 4.1 million adults who are completely offline in the UK are from a low-income household, and 71% have no more than a secondary level education. The people who have the most to gain from the digital world are the most likely to be excluded from it.

There are always going to be online dangers just as there will always be dangers offline, and of course, we need to make sure that children and young people have the digital and critical thinking skills to keep themselves safe. Last year, Safer Internet Day reached 46% of young people aged 8-17 and 26% of parents, and this year, we’re hoping to reach millions more.

But supporting adults is just as important, especially since we can’t expect children to be able to recognise these dangers instinctively. Toddlers aren’t hardwired to look left and right before they cross the road – they need to be taught how. And in turn, we can’t expect parents to be able to teach their children how to be safe online if they have never been supported themselves.

Over in Finland, embedding digital literacy and critical thinking education into schools has been a resounding success. The Nordic nation tops the list of European countries in terms of resilience to disinformation, according to the Media Literacy Index compiled by the Open Society Institute. We need a programme like this in the UK, but not just for children. Adults need to be supported as well.

At Good Things Foundation, we know full well the importance of adult learning, and our network of thousands of hyper-local organisations empower adults throughout the country to be safe and able to engage with the online world, helping more than 3,000,000 people since 2010. These are transferable skills which go beyond the ability to access Government services online or make use of internet banking – we’re teaching them to swim in the shallow end of a pool, but we want them to be able to swim in the ocean.

If education is one side of the coin, on the other side are the Government initiatives helping to make the internet a safer place. Australia led the way by establishing the eSafety Commissioner in 2015, a national independent regulator for online safety. It’s no wonder that in a report published today, Australia ranks second in the global Child Online Safety Index.

In the UK, the Online Harms White Paper set out the government’s plan for a package of online safety measures, including the establishment of our own independent regulator. It also calls for companies to take more responsibility for their users’ safety by introducing a ‘statutory duty of care’ and a national Media Literacy Strategy for people of all ages. Our Government – and policymakers around the world – need to supercharge their plans for online safety measures and to deliver on them as soon as possible.

Everyone has a part to play in creating a better and safer internet. If you’re a parent looking for conversation starters and activities to talk to your children about use the web in a safe, responsible and respectful way, take a look here. If you feel like you could use some support being safe online, or if you know an adult who could, go along to an Online Centre for some free digital skills training. You can find your local Online Centre here.

So happy Safer Internet Day, which I will be celebrating by informing the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee about the importance of digital literacy. Keep an eye out for my next blog where I’ll let you know how it goes.

Helen Milner

Helen Milner OBE

Chief Executive

Helen’s job is to keep all of the plates spinning! She’s passionate about helping people to get the most out of the web and all of the opportunities it brings.