Green Cross Code for the Internet is another Government mess

Gordon Brown and Ed Balls are today announcing the Green Cross Code for the Internet. The idea is that it will provide children with a means of staying safe online. The code has been drawn up following the Byron review of Internet safety which resulted in the formation of a talking shop, known as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. But the code is little more than a publicity stunt.

For a start, the whole concept of the “Green Cross Code” is an analogy to a character from the childhood of many parents which was about road safety. The notion that current children will “get it” is a mistake as they haven’t even heard of the “Green Cross Code Man”. The Internet Green Cross Code also demonstrates yet more of a lack of understanding about the Internet from the Government. The tag line is going to be “Zip It, Block It, Flag It”. Apparently the “Zip It” is going to mean that you should keep your passwords safe, as in zipping them away inside your wallet. Of course, all children using the Internet will interpret “Zip It” to mean file compression – the current online meaning of the word “zip”.

Besides which, children already know this; it’s their parents who don’t understand. Children are careful about constructing strange, difficult to interpret passwords. Their parents on the other hand tend to use the word “password” or their own name….derrr…!

I spoke recently to a group of over 100 children and teenagers. When I told them that some people write down their passwords on sticky notes attached to their monitor, they thought I was joking. When I told them that many people use the word “password” they thought I was making it up. And when I told them that vast numbers of people leave their computers while still logged in to some sites, they thought I was just being silly. “Who on Earth does that?” they asked. “Grown ups,” I said.

And there’s the issue. Children are savvy; they understand the Internet landscape much more than their parents. They know what they are doing in terms of the “Green Cross Code for the Internet”. Yet, apparently, this subject is going to be part of the National Curriculum – where adult teachers will be instructing pupils in what to do. It should be the other way round…!

Here’s the simple truth of the matter. When you don’t understand an environment you are fearful of it and don’t assess the risks accurately. Ask those celebrities who went into the Australian jungle recently whether their experience of life under the canopy actually matched up to their expectations. When you do understand an environment, you are able to assess the risks in a more informed way. For example, in some parts of the country it is OK for children to play in the street; parents know that the traffic is light and doesn’t travel fast. But if you leave near a motorway, the risks are somewhat different. Because parents have experienced these different situations they are able to assess the risks for their children.

However, parents often do not have any real experience of using the likes of Facebook or game sharing sites – the places where their children go online. The result is that these parents – many of whom appear to work in the Government machine – make up in their own mind the risks their children are likely to face (in just the same way as those jungle celebrities misunderstood what they were due to experience).  And then these adults over-react. That then means the children rebel; tell your children they must not play in the street outside your house and get quite controlling about it…guess what? They will be even more determined to go and play outside their friend’s house (where you cannot see what they are doing). Try and control their online activities? Guess what? They’ll outwit you.

What parents need to do is not put in place some code for children, but go and learn more and more about the Internet so that they understand the risks involved. Then, they can properly assess what risks their children are exposed to. It is true that children will face problems online – in just the same way as they face issues in your local shopping centre or down the park. But we don’t have Government initiatives for a “Green Cross Code” for using the swings, or going shopping. That’s because the ministers understand the risks due to experience; they clearly do not understand the online risks. Perhaps they are trying to appeal to the Daily Mail generation instead…gosh, is there an election coming up?

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