Author: Sophie Smit (European Schoolnet)
On Tuesday, 8 February 2022, we celebrate Safer Internet Day. On this day all stakeholders will be called upon to work together to create a better internet, especially for children and young people. The Safer Internet Day (SID) raises awareness for online issues and concerns, such as cyberbullying. These awareness raising activities and educational campaigns are organized by the Insafe network, a European network that consists of national Safer Internet Centers (SICs) on behalf of the European Commission (EC). But the reach of the SID goes beyond Europe as well, the Safer Internet Day Committees (introduced in 2009) promote the SID in countries all over the world. Every year countless events are organized in the theme of the day by international organizations, governments, children and young people, the industry, and schools.
The theme of this year is once again: ‘Together for a better internet’. Previous SIDs have already proven to make a genuine impact on improving the internet for children and youth. In 2009 the Safer Internet Day already focused on the issue of cyberbullying and increasing safety for young people on social networking sites. Throughout the years more people and organizations participated in the Safer Internet Days.
It is of great importance to involve different stakeholders to protect children online. Research shows that collaboration is needed between all actors to combat cyberbullying, such as young people themselves, schools, parents, communities, and the whole society (Li, 2006; Stanbrook, 2014; Zhu, Huang, Evans & Zhang, 2021). The scope of cyberbullying will be less significant if all stakeholders would step up and act responsibly (Cohen-Almagor, 2018). Some researchers claim that there is a lack of honoring the voices of youth and their perspective on the problem of cyberbullying in research (Baas, De Jong & Drossaert, 2013; O’Higgins, 2020).
The Safer Internet Day answers to the call to involve all actors, by providing platforms and information for all stakeholders involved. It is crucial to involve youth themselves in the debate to improve online safety. UNICEF identified this need for adults to maximize youth participation in projects and organizations that concerned them in the publication of Hart’s ‘Ladder of Participation’ model (Hart, 1992 as in Cross, Lester, Barnes, Cardoso & Hadwen, 2015). In order to make online environments for children and youth a better place it is essential to listen to young people to understand better where improvements should be made and develop more efficient prevention and intervention programs (Cross et al. 2015; Campbell, Slee, Spears, Butler & Kift, 2013). Especially young people who are growing up in the digital age can share their wisdom that comes from firsthand experience in their use of technology. Adults should therefore always strive to listen to their voices, if they want to develop interventions to make the internet a safer space (Spears, Slee, Campbell & Cross, 2011; O’Higgins, 2020; Cross et al. 2015).
Specifically, in the case of cyberbullying, researchers have mentioned that adults did not experience cyberbullying while growing up, in contrast to teenagers nowadays (Spears et al. 2011). Adults should take what they learn from listening to youth and give it meaning by supporting youth in the challenges and positive experiences they have online. Next to the importance of sharing experience through youth participation, it is important for young people to exercise their rights as citizens (as in Checkoway, 2011, p. 340) and youth participation recognises the fact that young people have agency (O’Higgins, 2020).
There has been a rise in the attention given to youth participation since the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (Checkoway, 2011; Baas, De Jong & Drossaert, 2013). In this valuable agreement between countries the right of youth participation is protected:
Children have the right to give their opinions freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Article 12 ‘ Respects children’s views’
To honor the right to be heard, a rights-based approach needs to be adopted to children’s’ participation in decisions that affect them (Child Rights International Network). It thus follows from this right that organisations, governments, and others working for children’s rights should always ensure that children’s views are taken into consideration in their work.
The European Union acknowledges the importance of the right to be heard by including this right in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 24):
Children (…) may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – Article 24
The Charter brings together all the fundamental rights for everyone that lives in the European Union. The placement of youth in the center of the policy making process is recently emphasized by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her announcement to make year 2022 the European Year of Youth:
“The pandemic has robbed young people of many opportunities – to meet and make new friends, to experience and explore new cultures. While we cannot give them that time back, we are proposing today to designate 2022 the European Year of Youth. From climate to social to digital, young people are at the heart of our policymaking and political priorities.”
President Ursula von der Leyen., 15 September 2021, State of the Union, Strasbourg
As Checkoway (2011) mentions: ‘young people are experts on being young people’. Therefore, it is important that events on Safer Internet Day are organized with young people and other stakeholders in striving to make the internet a better place. What academic literature showed before, is that youth participation can occur on a spectrum (see Hart’s ‘Ladder of Participation’ model; Cahill & Dadvand, 2018). It emphasizes the need for a true dialogue between stakeholders and not merely a case of ‘tokenism’ (Cahill & Dadvand, 2018). Tokenism is sometimes called a ‘taboo’ in youth participation since it describes a form of non-participation in decision-making (Hart, 1992 as in Lundy, 2018). An example of tokenism is when adults encourage children to express their views but not give them due weight (Lundy, 2018). Children’s rights, as described in The Charter and the UNCRC, should be honored fully (Lundy, 2018; O’Higgins, 2020). Youth should be integrated in the entire system to be partners in research and part of responses to combat cyberbullying (O’Higgins, 2020).
The Safer Internet Day is one example where the importance of youth participation is emphasized and encouraged. In every country in Europe Safer Internet Centers and Committees support local actors to truly work together towards a better internet for kids and youngsters. Here, youth can ensure that their voices are being heard. Some of the SICs encourage dialogue between parents and children about digital media others facilitate a platform with even a wider group of stakeholders in the promotion of safer and healthier digital environments.
Visit the Safer Internet Day website and make sure to keep an eye on the social media accounts of the Safer Internet Day: