BBC Trust's good news for CBBC
On Friday last week the BBC Trust signed off the BBC Executive plans to a £1m increase in the amount of money we spend on Children's websites at bbc.co.uk. This comes as a fantastic endorsement of the important role the BBC has to play in empowering children as they become more experienced online and supporting them to develop the skills required to operate safely in the digital world.
Take a quick glance at Ofcom's 'interim' research on children's use of internet in the UK (published a couple of weeks ago) and you realise how timely this is. Children are spending more and more of their allotted screen-time online, both supervised and unsupervised. Fortunately CBBC is amongst their most popular children's websites already, but in recent years we've seen massive growth in the 'other' sites they're visiting. And the reality is not all of these are appropriate for younger children.
As usual, it generated a number of newspaper headlines about how young children are being let loose in the wild west of the world wide web but as ever, the knee-jerk reaction seems to be 'ban the internet' altogether.
Apart from being completely impractical, it overlooks the huge positive benefits that children can gain using online resources. And in a society where we adults increasingly rely on being connected in our working and social lives, it's not only hypocritical but also wreckless to deny children access to the support and tools they need to become the "netizens" of tomorrow.
To use a real world analogy, you wouldn't refuse to take your child to the swimming pool until they're 16 and then expect them to sink or swim on their first poolside holiday alone.
At CBBC we believe the solution has to be more practical. Our ambition is to create a safe online environment where children can have fun, laugh out loud, satisfy their curiosity for the world, be creative and at the same time develop all those essential internet skills.
I would argue this is more important now than ever before. In a world where TV viewing is becoming ever-more fragmented, particularly in the Multichannel Kids' TV space, it's inevitable that children are gravitating to the connectivity the web offers to have new types of shared experience with their friends.
As Ofcom research shows, growing numbers of 10s, 11s and 12s are being drawn to social networking sites - which, by their own terms and conditions are often not designed for this younger audience.
Under 13s are increasingly discovering these through their siblings, the almost-daily coverage in the media and probably parents like us who have embraced the new social opportunities these sites have to offer.
Rather than pretend this phenomenon doesn't touch children, we believe they should be offered alternative ways to connect and interact with their friends online that are designed around their needs and don't jeopardise their safety.
Everything we do is built around the 3Cs: Safer content, contact and conduct all built by design rather than leaving it to chance.
Content should be age appropriate, but also reflect the needs of children growing up in Britain today. Nielsen's top 100 sites visited by UK children is dominated by non-children's sites and US "kids'" brands. The CBBC website stands out as a place for British children to hear and see other young people like them and share in our unique British entertainment brands.
Preventing inappropriate contact is also a fundamental principle of our online service. All free text is pre-moderated - personally checked by human beings before it get's posted - so children don't inadvertently reveal personal details that allow them to be identified. We insist they use nick-names in profiles rather than email addresses (as these invariably read first name dot surname). We also pre-check all UGC (user generated content) that goes on our site.
However, these human checks and balances can interrupt real-time activities so we're also looking closely at more immediate methods of non-verbal communication that allow children to interact instantaneously without divulging sensitive personal information.
The last C is for responsible conduct. Whilst adults usually cite predation or strong content as their biggest issue for young internet surfers, children tend to be more concerned by cyber-bullying online or via mobile phones. So at CBBC we also try to encourage respect and a sense of decent civil behaviour on our message boards and other services like Bugbears.
I think it's obvious we strive to be the gold-standard in safety for children. But this can be a double edged sword. The last thing we want is for parents to think their children are safe at CBBC and absolve themselves from paying an active interest in what their little darlings are up to online. They need to engage in how the web is being used at home and provide support, explanation and house rules about what is acceptable.
CBBC is currently one of the most loved online brands amongst 6-12s in the UK. In the months ahead we want to build on that reputation, by maintaining our safe credentials but also working hard to ensure we remain relevant to world in which they inhabit.
The work we've just kicked off at CBBC is all about giving children the opportunity to find and connect with the brands and activities they love and also have fun online. We want to carry through all those great values that children already associate with our CBBC TV programming to provide great online entertainment with a British twist.
And we want to combine that with the best functionality. Great technology works at its best when it makes our lives easier and simpler and CBBC aims to take the pain out of the web for this younger audience who have some very particular needs. Young children who are still coming to terms with the letters in the alphabet can be completely flummoxed by the QWERTY keyboard. Some struggle with scrolling, others are only attracted to bright visual imagery. We need to understand all these needs and build that into our navigation and designs.
We're also working on new ways for them to discover content and navigate around it, and share both our "stuff" and their own in safe ways. We want to help them extend their playground friendships into the virtual spaces so they can have the equivalent of the adult water cooler moment and at the same time inspire them to be more active in the real world.
It's a fallacy that busy online children are automatically more sedentary. What we've discovered is that actively engaged and creatively inspired web users tend to replicate those behaviours offline too. So they deserve environments and services that stimulate and challenge them, provide moments of laughter and opportunities to escape or chill-out, and crucially, destinations that cater to what it means to be a child growing up in Britain today.
In short our ambition in the year ahead is to put the younger audience first and create an online service that most adults would be envious of.
Marc Goodchild is Head of Interactive and On Demand, BBC Childrens.