As Director of the UK Safer Internet Center (UK SIC) and South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), David Wright is one of those unsung heroes that parents and teachers cherish; he’s part of a team who work tirelessly to keep our nation’s young people safe online. It’s easy to assume that such a role is a thankless and unpleasant one, considering the sometimes harmful content that the internet can produce, yet David exudes enthusiasm and positivity: “There’s such a lot of satisfaction in doing truly important work. Those moments when we know we’ve made a difference to a child’s life are just incredible. They make it all worthwhile.”
The UK SIC – a partnership between Childnet, SWGfL and the Internet Watch Foundation – acts as a coordinator for various teams active across the different areas of internet safety. This encompasses everything from helping shape policy and responding to new trends or incidents, to proactively preventing online harm occurring in the first place through outreach and education. Into this last area – outreach and education – and under the ownership of SWGfL, falls ProjectEVOLVE, which Nominet is supporting as part of its Children’s Online Safety programme.
ProjectEVOLVE is a digital tool developed to meet some of the challenges of online safety education. “Young people may be told things in school, but they only really listen to the messages if these are relevant to their lives,” David explains. “They learn better if things are progressive and tailored, like a curriculum that builds each year, rather than being shown a one-off scary video. And we can’t just give them meaningless slogans, such as ‘never meet up with someone you met online’ How does that make sense to young people when one in three couples married today met online? When does it become ok to break the rules?”
The challenges don’t end with the young people themselves; the internet and technology evolve incredibly quickly and education must keep pace. Also, those responsible for providing guidance – parents and teachers – grew up in a vastly different digital landscape so understandably may lack the ‘knowledge’ of what is safe and what isn’t. This is where ProjectEVOLVE can offer a solution, providing an interactive learning tool which consists of different ‘chapters’ and topics depending on age and cognition. The content is regularly reviewed and updated, and progresses as the children age, serving as a dynamic curriculum for teachers to use in a school environment and parents to access at home.
“It’s our responsibility, as adults, to ensure children are kept safe,” stresses David. “‘Some children may not appreciate the concept of risk until they get older so it is our responsibility to support where we can . Parents and teachers, with the help of organisations like us, must always think about risks on behalf of the young and do what we can to support them.”
Importantly, continues David, we mustn’t inhibit the natural creative spark and enthusiasm of young people by banning or restricting them more than necessary. “They use technology in incredible ways, ways it was never conceived for, and we can’t afford to suppress such innovative thinking.” He cites an example that would make any teacher or parent crack a wry smile. In the US, a high frequency noise – chosen because only young ears could hear it – was used to disperse children hanging around in shopping malls. “One boy recorded the sound and turned it into a ring tone so the teachers wouldn’t hear their phones ringing at school! They are amazing; they can turn adversity to their own benefit.”
This area of his work – upskilling young people – is what David enjoys most in the day job, although his remit is broad and fascinating. As director of one of 31 Safer Internet Centres across Europe in the InSafe network, David is in regular contact with his European ‘colleagues’. He also undertakes research work for the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), gaining a global perspective on children’s online safety.
“There are 63 countries in the world who don’t even have a national system for protecting children, digital or otherwise” he says. “I know we still have work to do here in the UK, and we mustn’t get complacent, but we also need to be grateful for how much is already in place to keep young people safe and how much more ‘noise’ there now is around online safety and the risks on the internet; that has really changed in the past ten years.”
David has had a front-row seat on the changes in this area, having worked in technology and education for almost two decades despite joining it somewhat unexpectedly. “I had a degree in Geographical Computing as I’ve always loved Geography,” he says, “but when I graduated in 1993 there were no jobs due to the financial crash of the early 90s. Tech seemed to be where everyone was going at the time so that’s what I did. I’ve no complaints though. I’ve always loved technology.”
He was 12 when he got his first computer at home – this was a time when his school only had a dozen in total – and it was an immediate source of fascination. “I loved understanding more about how it worked and getting it to do something for me,” he recalls. “It seemed like technology just made life more interesting. Its rapid development has unlocked so many benefits for us all – and it will continue to do so.”
It’s this rate of change that has kept him happy in his work – “there are always new challenges and it’s so rewarding to keep meeting them” – and his confidence in the ability of young people to learn and adapt helps maintain his positive attitude. Perhaps it helps that he has three of his own at home; two teenagers and a six-year-old.
“Even the difference in experience between the two oldest, at 14 and 16, and the youngest, when it comes to tech infiltration is huge. The little one doesn’t even know what broadcast TV is – that’s how quickly it’s changing.” Like all parents, David and his wife do their best to find a path between absolute freedom and tyranny. “Parents do need to be involved in their kids’ digital space, but it’s a whole spectrum of involvement and you have to find a way to evolve that as they grow. That’s pretty much what ProjectEVOLVE will achieve, it’s a resource for the adults too.”
This new tool is already being rolled out to schools and being accessed by young people, with hopes to reach yet more with this injection of funds from Nominet. “There may be more awareness of the importance of online safety for young people today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is more funding,” says David. “Resources are always scarce, so this money will really help us and ensure we can keep researching and developing the content on the tool to keep it relevant and useful.” Keeping up with the kids is an endless task, but one that David and his team will relish for many years to come.
Find out more about Nominet’s new Children’s Online Safety programme.