Raising responsible digital citizens

Why kindergarten children must learn online safety

Australian researchers are conducting a study to teach young children, including three and four-year-olds, about online safety and digital citizenship, writes Emily Campbell.

Led by Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Professor Michael Dezuanni – an investigator with the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child – the aspect involving kindergarten-aged children is part of a larger project to evaluate an existing digital citizenship curriculum and how it might be adapted to suit formal Australian education settings.

Instilling positive habits early

The year-long trial is funded by an online safety grant from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner and will involve preschools, kindergartens and primary schools from remote, regional and metropolitan areas across Australia.

Professor Dezuanni said it was important to instill good habits in children as soon as they have access to technology, so they can learn to become responsible digital citizens.

“The internet in its various ways is just becoming part of childhood and even very young children now use digital devices daily, so it’s crucial we teach children about good digital citizenship from the earlier years of their education,” Professor Dezuanni said.

“Whether it’s parents handing a tablet or mobile phone to their child to watch television or keep them distracted for a few minutes, or a young child interacting with a smart device like Alexa in the home, the internet is becoming increasingly available to very young children.

“Some adults don’t accept that you necessarily need to start this education with children this young, so we want to dispel some of those myths and really illustrate it is important to begin education around these topics at a young age.

“We need to begin to instil some critical reflection in children about their technology use in ways that are engaging and fun,” he said.

Common Sense Media

“For the first component of the study, we’ll be trialling a version of Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum in 15 primary schools with children from Prep to Year 6,” Professor Dezuanni said.

“We also plan to develop and trial a version of that curriculum and create lessons using the principles of play-based learning in several kindergarten settings with three and four-year-olds,” he said.

Professor Dezuanni said the Common Sense Media curriculum was one of the world’s leading digital citizenship curriculums, developed in collaboration with education experts from Harvard University.

“Although there is no research-approved digital curriculum being taught in Australian schools, the Common Sense curriculum is a really fantastic one,” he said.

“It’s been well tested and trialled in the US and we’re really confident it’s a high-quality program but it’s obviously aligned to the US curriculum, so we’re looking to localise it to an Australian context.”

Balance, privacy and critical thinking

There are some vital concepts related to online safety and digital citizenship which Professor Dezuanni said should be taught to young children. These will be a focus of the trial.

“There is a kind of progression you can take children through, so one of the first concepts that’s important for very young children is the notion of balance, having a balance of screen time and other activities,” he said.

“For instance, early childhood education staff can start to have that conversation, asking a child, ‘have you been on the iPad for too long?’ and limiting screen time to reinforce balance in life.”

Professor Dezuanni said adults can have discussions with very young children about truth and accuracy too.

“Obviously, it must be age appropriate, but you can have a conversation with a three or four-year-old about whether something is imaginary or true.

“You’re not going to use terms like fake news and misinformation, but you can start to get children to think about accuracy, reality and imagination as related concepts.

“If an animated television show is set on another planet, you can talk to the child about how that place is an imaginary world and it’s not actually a real world.

“Some research suggests children of that age do find it difficult to distinguish between reality and imagination; nonetheless, you can have the conversation.

“It doesn’t have to be robust discussion, but it’s about starting to orient children to that process of questioning and thinking about media, not just consuming it,” Professor Dezuanni said.

Obviously, it must be age appropriate, but you can have a conversation with a three or four-year-old about whether something is imaginary or true.

Another concept the researchers say is important to introduce children to is online privacy.

“We need younger children to understand the importance of privacy and that you don’t share your information with anyone,” Professor Dezuanni said.

“Again, you can probably only have so much success around that with a three-year-old, but it’s important to begin to help very young children understand that the information they give to other people matters and that they should only be sharing private information with certain people.”

Argument for eSafety education

Professor Dezuanni said given children were taught every day about road safety and safety around swimming pools, it made sense to also teach them about the basic concepts around online safety.

“My colleague, Professor Susan Edwards from Australian Catholic University (ACU), is one of the world’s leading researchers in relation to very young children and online safety. She has done significant work in this area,” he said.

“She would argue the importance of helping children at that age to understand just what the internet is.

“It’s difficult to conceptualise or to make concrete the idea of the internet, therefore some of the challenges of the internet are complex to deal with because it’s difficult for young children to grasp what it is.

“If we talk about road safety, it’s easy enough to point out to a child that a car might run you over; if you’re next to a road and you can see cars driving past, obviously don’t walk in front of the car.

“When discussing the internet, a small child is going to have a hard time visualising that, so Susan has done some wonderful things to communicate abstract concepts so children can understand.”

One activity Professor Edwards developed with the Alannah and Madeline Foundation involves using blocks tied with strings connecting to other blocks and strings, to help children understand and visualise the internet.

“Approaches like this can be a really effective way to capture a concept for children, help them understand the different points of connection and demonstrate that people can be connected at different points by using the string,” he said.

Focus on PD a priority

Upskilling early childhood education staff to deliver quality digital citizenship education to young children is a major focus for the research team.

“There is absolutely a need for greater PD for teachers regarding online safety,” Professor Dezuanni said.

“We’ve heard time and time again that one of the barriers to this occurring, in both the early years and primary school settings, is that even if teachers think it’s important, they haven’t been properly trained to implement this knowledge, so an objective is to deliver professional development.

“In the kindergarten context, it’ll be a very collaborative process, with the research team actually helping co-design the curriculum with teachers.

“It’s as much about co-designing these activities with the teachers so that part of the PD is collaborating with staff and asking ‘what would this look like in your setting and how can we design something together that might be appropriate for your students?’

“When the time comes, we’ll be surveying and interviewing the teachers who implement the curriculum to get their feedback and record direct observations of the students undertaking that learning, which will include collecting data to determine what seems to work with children of that age.

“The goal is to continue to develop and contribute new resources and knowledge about how to engage a play-based curriculum and empower early childhood education staff to teach it,” he said.Existing resources available

Professor Dezuanni emphasised there are already several great resources freely available for early childhood education staff to access to increase their knowledge about online safety.

“The Playing IT Safe resources developed by the Alannah and Madeline Foundation with the Australian Federal Police are excellent, so I’d certainly recommend those,”he said.

“Any teacher, whether they’re part of our trial or not, can visit the Common Sense Education website to download the digital citizenship curriculum lessons to implement in their classrooms.

“There are videos to support the implementation so teachers can do some self-training with those materials.

“Further, the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child produces outstanding media and communication research, which is published on their website,” he said.

For more information