“I didn’t expect to get so emotional about it, but I was really choked up,” says Danielle Antha, Programme Manager of the Digital Leaders Programme at Childnet, of her first school visit to meet the pupils trained on the charity’s outreach programme. “These students were just so passionate about online safety and about helping their peers to stay safe. They are truly leading the way and it showed me that this generation has such incredible potential. It gives me hope for the future.”
Two years on since that first encounter and Danielle remains ebullient about her work. As Programme Manager, she leads the development of a learning tool that has so far seen over 4,000 primary and secondary school pupils trained as Digital Leaders, able to support their fellow students in online safety behaviours. Those figures are set to rise further this year as a £125k grant as part of Nominet’s Children’s Online Safety programme, which will fund ‘Childnet and Nominet – Digital Leaders Plus’ and allow the activity to reach further than ever before across the UK.
As Danielle explains: “The programme usually costs £500 per school, but this money from Nominet will allow us to offer it at just £50, which is a fantastic opportunity to reach those we never could before and help many children who are in need of online safety skills and support.”
When a school signs up to the programme, they can offer their pupils training in online safety via a digital learning platform which guides them through age-appropriate learning modules. Beyond the obvious benefits of upskilling, training to be a Digital Leader enables the student to become an ambassador and a mentor, fostering a sense of responsibility for peer education and empowerment – and pride. The school itself also gains: Childnet’s most recent Impact Report found that 95% of teachers saw a whole-school impact from running the programme, with 75% saying the ethos of their schools had changed to promote kindness and respect, with this change in ethos evident in young people’s behaviour both online and offline.
“Our Digital Leaders are understanding how to stay safe on the internet,” says Danielle, “but also learning empathy and kindness, skills that will make them great parents, employees, even people managers in the future.”
They are also able to help drive development of the programme to ensure it will continue to deliver the right impact as the digital landscape evolves. “I’m really into youth involvement and we are youth-led as much as possible,” she says. “Every young person who works through the programme gives us feedback after each learning module. We also have Digital Champions who help us review new content and modules. They make suggestions on what topics we might be missing or ways we can make them look and feel more engaging for users.”
The team add ‘bonus’ content to the programme each year, while Nominet funding will also allow ChildNet to review the core modules and develop some new content for the coming year. Danielle has also introduced new activities based on requests from the young people, such as regional events to allow Digital Leaders from different schools to meet up. “We gathered feedback after the first event and the comments were so positive – many said they’d made new friends, which is wonderful to hear,” she says.
That said, much had to change when the pandemic forced schools to close; the events were suspended temporarily. While the secondary-level programme can be done by the students from home, the primary-level version had been designed with teacher support. “As soon as we knew schools were closing, we re-worked it and provided fun, short activities for primary pupils to do at home, whilst continuing to encourage them to be peer mentors, and use their knowledge to educate their families on safe ways to use the internet whilst at home,” explains Danielle. “It kept us pretty busy in those early weeks of lockdown! We also added new resources to the Childnet website to support parents and their children when it comes to staying safe, conscious that they would be spending more time online. It’s crucial that they have the advice they need to use the internet with less risk.”
Danielle brims with enthusiasm for her work, despite it being so far removed from her earliest interests and ambitions. “I’ve never been a very techy person and I’m astonished that I absolutely adore working in the tech sector in this way,” she admits. Her teenage passion was for theatre, which she studied at university before working as a producer. It was the economic crash of the late 2000s that forced her to get a job away from the precarious arts world. A role with Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, a young people’s mental health charity, had initially been “just a job” but the experiences made her realise just how challenging it was to be a young person growing up in the age of technology – and how much she wanted to help.
“I know that each generation faces challenges when growing up, but the internet has widened everything now,” she says. “Tech is a great enabler and provides the young with so many more opportunities, but it also introduces more risk. It’s fortunate in some ways that there has been an increased focus on mental wellbeing in the past few years – I think that has been a great source of support for young people dealing with the complexities of growing up digitally.”
As is the Childnet Digital Leaders Programme, providing young people with key skills and an understanding of the digital landscape, not to mention the confidence to support others and fostering a sense of empathy. It is also building the belief, in the younger generation themselves, that they can lead the way when it comes to online safety and secure adoption of technology on a wider scale. “Young people are so engaged today and so knowledgeable about many things,” says Danielle. “We should have every hope that they are going to make the future a better place.”
Find out more about Nominet’s new Children’s Online Safety Programme which will support Childnet and Nominet – Digital Leaders Plus.