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BBC Children's & The Byron Review

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Marc Goodchild | 12:31 UK time, Thursday, 27 March 2008

Dr Tanya Byron's Review of the potential dangers children face when they're gaming, surfing the web or networking online was finally made publictoday with some clear recommendations.

Like many organisations delivering interactive content to children via the internet, the BBC was asked to submit evidence to the review. As you'll see if you read the submission (which you can view as a pdf document here), we probably go further than most to ensure that children's safety is paramount at all times.

For the BBC Children's department, where I work, the review is particularly pertinent.

cbbc_logo.pngWe have two digital brands (that mirror our television channel output). CBeebies is aimed at under 6s (and is used primarily with parents at the helm or standing close by). CBBC targets the more internet savvy 6-12s and is more of an adult-free zone (but one that parents can trust).

So first of all, we'd like acknowledge Dr Byron for her considered response about the societal and personal benefits interactive media, and the internet in particular, can deliver to our audience.

cbeebies.pngIf many of the tabloids are to be believed, the internet is an inherently evil medium that should be strictly off limits for underage users. Others amongst the technorati think that democratising nature of the web is its greatest characteristic and it should be up to parents alone, not organisations like the BBC, to vet or restrict what their children can access. [Photo above courtesy of Andrew Stawarz on Flickr]

But like Dr Byron, we probably sit somewhere in between these polarised extremes.

Yes, there is a lot of inappropriate content out there on the millions of unregulated sites across the internet. Not for nothing has it been termed the Wild West where anything goes. But we don't agree that we should therefore "turn off" the internet for anyone yet to reach legal maturity.

For one thing, it's a bit to late to take such draconian action when we know that every week over millions of under-12s already access the web in ICT classes, after-school clubs, at friends houses, at home or in local internet cafés.

And to assume that parents can monitor every click in an always-accessible, on-demand environment that transcends timezones and has no "watershed" simply ignores the reality of how technology has shaped modern behaviour, not just for us but for our kids as well.

At Children's BBC, we believe the solution has to be to offer safe and reliable alternative online destinations that parents can trust and children can explore without fear of being confronted by inappropriate content or being subjected to bullying or unsolicited approaches by strangers (of whatever age).

In fact, it's core to the BBC's public service principles to help develop the citizens of tomorrow.

We should provide compelling interactive content that challenges our younger audiences, encourages them be respectful online, develops their internet confidence, provides an outlet to express themselves creatively and, above all, teaches them to realise and manage the risks of surfing the wider web.

In a recent talk about the review process, Dr Byron mentioned protecting kids against the 3 "C"s: inappropriate content, contact and conduct. It's a good framework and something we take very seriously.

At CBBC we have the 10 "E"s:

1) Engage the kids in the digital world they already inhabit - Don't deny that they're already digital natives and they will look to unregulated sites if we don't offer a public service alternative.

2) Embrace the fact that the virtual landscape is an extension of their playground activities, not a sinister "other life". As most kids geographical footprints diminish, the need to share virtual experiences will grow.

3) Excite them with thrilling, surprising, immersive and informative propositions tailored specifically to them that negates the need to go to more adult unregulated sites.

4) Entertain them with high quality indigenous content that makes them smile and reflects what it means to be a kid growing up in Britain today.

5) Empower them to express or explore their own personalities and creativity through online applications and challenges.

6) Encourage them to develop their social skills communicating and collaborating with other children in safe, anonymous environments.

7) Enable them to improve their digital competencies with media literacy initiatives tutorials and online tools specifically tailored to their abilities and requirements.

8) Ensure that they are sufficiently protected at all times from in inappropriate contact, unwarranted approaches or bullying behaviour.

9) Enlist them as advocates and trust them as users with rewards and privileges, peer recommendations and ratings and trusted user status for sustained "good behaviour".

And finally:

10) Equip them with the skills to evaluate risks and dangers when they do graduate to the more adult sites across the wider unregulated web.

We do believe parents have a role to play in all this, and Dr Byron is absolutely right that the fear many adults express about what their kids are up to online is a reflection of their own poor internet confidence. We therefore welcome any moves to provide better education for the "digital migrants" to support their digitally native children.

This should be about encouraging a dialogue with our children and setting boundaries that build on individual responsibility rather than trying to prevent exposure to anything might possibly be dangerous.

Molly-coddling them on the web is like saying they can never go to the park to meet their friends without a chaperone. Ignoring the fact that they'll probably do it anyway when you're not around, you also deny them skills to navigate the dangerous crossings when they do come of age.

A better approach is to coach them about the dangers and let them take on more responsibility little by little.

For our part, we want to enter into a new contract with parents that says we'll help set your kids on their way in a trusted and safe environment. Such "contracts" aren't new in broadcasting" the "watershed" has been around for decades and is a shorthand way of telling parents that anything before 9pm should be suitable for family viewing.

As technology has enabled more on-demand (or near-on-demand) viewing, broadcasters (and the regulator, Ofcom) have also evolved with the times so that on subscription services movies rated 15 and above now attract an a 10pm watershed and require PIN protection during the day.

Not so easy for the open internet. Even if you can use filters to block out specific content on your home computer - and there is still a big question about how effective these are - that doesn't solve the problem of restricting what the kids can access at the local internet cafe or at their more 'liberal' environment of their friends' houses.

So it has to be about better internet literacy for kids and their parents. And we mustn't underplay how vulnerable parents feel in all this. Practically all our other parenting skills involve a little bit of hand-me-down wisdom and home-made apple pie.

But our parents never had to discipline us on the whys and wherefores of what sites we visited, who we swapped email addresses with whom etc. This is completely new territory for 21st-century parents.

Dr Byron's suggestion of new website and public awareness campaign plans to address that and we'll continue to do our bit too. We're also keen to explore over the next few weeks how we can complement this initiative.

But it's also important that organisations like the BBC don't just hide behind parents as the first line of defence.

For me, the bigger challenge is not how to make involved parents take a more active role in their kids' digital consumption but what we need to do as a society to protect those youngsters who either don't have internet access at home, don't have any adult role models or whose parents are just not interested in what they access.

They'll continue to pick up their web skills down the high street. As a public service broadcaster we have an obligation to them too.

Reaching this audience will be a much harder hurdle and requires anyone providing public internet access to also get involved with the debate.

Over the next few days, we'll be dissecting the other recommendations and offering our expertise to make sure we're not creating an unnecessarily bureaucratic or unworkable framework for the future.

But, in principle, we share Dr Byron's general thesis that the internet is not dangerous per se, but we have to protect kids and educate them and their parents how to use it safely and appropriately.

Few would deny web is probably the most powerful technological advance of the 21st century. But we need to instill in the next generation that "with great power comes great responsibility".

And before you sigh at the cliche or cry plagiarism: yes, I know it's a quote from Spiderman.

But my part of the BBC's remit is to seek out or develop high quality content that can really speak to children everywhere.

If we can develop a message half as successful as the Spiderman franchise, we'll be laughing.

Marc Goodchild is Head of Interactive & On Demand, BBC Childrens

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