Navigating the digital landscape

Today we often hear children being referred to as ‘digital natives’. Many of them were born into a world where a click or a swipe on a tablet or phone, is as common as breakfast, lunch and dinner. And while digital technology may present many opportunities for growth, knowledge and inspiration, it’s also a place that’s been created by digital designers with little to no thought of the safety and wellbeing of much younger users. It is at times an unsafe, uncertain and challenging environment that children are participating in, and often with few supports to help them.

So how do we continue to ensure children are growing up with a healthy dose of online each day? Anjela Webster is the founder of Generation Online, and one of New Zealand’s most experienced leaders on the complexities, challenges and risk in the online space for young people. We recently asked her to share some insights to help young people navigate the online environment.

Most young people are doing okay online but not all the time. However, much younger children are now in places and spaces that older teens and adults inhabit online. So while many are doing okay, there is a critical need for young people to develop capabilities and knowledge to help them safely navigate the digital landscape and to foster positive wellbeing.

It’s paramount for children to develop a healthy relationship with the digital landscape. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet! However the voices of all those people, including teachers, who are around young people, can help to support them to be capable and confident citizens both on and off line.

Whа̄nau are often the ones who are responsible for managing the digital landscape as children increasingly spend more time on screens outside of school than during the school day. However with the increasing use of digital devices in the school environment there’s capacity for teachers to weave conversations into other strands and themes of learning around devices and online environments. We can provide a learning space to unpack how to be safe online with students and take responsibility for different aspects when they use their devices.

The challenges of COVID have seen schools overnight face new challenges and opportunities. Digital learning took on a much broader context, and in many cases was a prevailing force for good. However, it also meant more time on screens, and maybe tucked away in a quiet space with more autonomy and opportunity which for some, meant the darker side of online could prevail.


Understanding what young people are accessing online

To put this into context, a research report from Netsafe across the age group 13 to 17 years shared that:

  • 20% teens were accessing self-harm material
  • 17% explored ‘how to’ guides regarding suicide
  • 15% searched for ways to be very thin.

Although the numbers appear to be small they still present a concern, and it certainly doesn’t make it okay.

While talking to a Year 3-4 group recently, Anjie asked what they liked doing online. Several boys shared they like playing Grand Theft Auto 5, a R18 video game. One girl also shared that she played this, and added, “I like to drive around and when I see a strip club, I just drive past, but sometimes I go in and shoot them up.”

Interestingly, research (Netsafe, 2018) indicates there are gender differences in how boys and girls engage online, some of the challenges they encounter, and ways they experience harm. An example is the way boys are more likely to be found gaming and enjoying the chatrooms that form part of the overall experience, while more girls enjoy the social elements of social media, and may experience bullying behaviours in these spaces.

Pornography continues to be one of the leading concerns and is something Anjie hears about a lot from schools, professionals and whānau. In 2018, the Classification Office shared a report from research undertaken with around 2000 young people in Aotearoa aged 14-17.

One in four indicated that they’d seen porn online by the age of 12. Of these, 71% had seen this content inadvertently. In other words, they’d been shown it, it had popped up, or they’d pressed something unknowingly. Anecdotal reports since suggest this number is only increasing.


Values on and offline can mirror each other

Young people need to develop the resilience, capabilities, and literacies to safely navigate the digital landscape and, foster positive wellbeing. The three distinct areas for developing Digital Fluency in young people intersect with the work of teachers and Life Education Trust’s Educators.

These are:

  • Attitudes + values
  • Knowledge of the online environment
  • Digital skills

The programmes that Life Education Trust develops for rangatahi often discuss values and how they are unique to individual students. This presents an opportunity to discuss values in the online space, and how young people can acknowledge their values when behaving online. This work can be focussed on empowering young people with skills to critically think about challenges and incidents they may encounter online, and actions they can take.

He aroha whakato

He aroha ka puta mai

If kindness is sown, then

Kindness is what you shall receive.


Encourage creativity and play online

Wellbeing online is the same as offline; ‘it’s the same puddle with different experiences’. What happens online can affect us in positive or more negative ways. It may be momentarily, or with more lasting and harmful effects.

Life Education wellbeing programmes have transferrable messages. When you’re looking at the human brain with students there’s an opening to talk about what is taking place inside our heads when we’re gaming, connecting, watching videos, etc. There’s a charge of chemicals that make us feel good, alert, captivated, and the online spaces, apps and sites have been designed to create this influence so we’ll stay on longer. There’s work to be done to encourage young people to participate more in those opportunities that foster their creativity, learning, civil pursuits etc, such as learning a musical instrument, or cooking with YouTube, or taking up some interesting science challenges.


Driving awareness of online safety

Young children have ways of tucking themselves away on devices, and in one click they can be in places that may show themes and images that are adult such as violence, sexual activity, drug use, horror, extremist content, etc. And while the security of devices doesn’t necessarily sit in a teacher’s space, there are conversations that can be had in the classroom about what children should be accessing, and relevant messaging they can share at home.

As teachers we need to give young people the confidence to report stuff that doesn’t make them feel comfortable online.

Some tips to start the conversation:

  • Creating Avatars – use this to show that not everyone is who they are online and how easy it is for someone to pretend to be someone else.
  • Give them skills to set their own settings; talk about the importance of keeping a password private, and how to make a strong password.
  • Understand what oversharing of personal information or inappropriate content looks like in the online space.
  • Unpack with them the differences between banter, jokes, and bullying, a conversation on humour and interpretation will resonate both online and offline.

Digital rights and responsibility

We need our young people to understand their rights and responsibilities online. Importantly children need to know that what they do online can be easily shared with a wider audience than one might have intended. It’s therefore in everyone’s best interest to be their best selves. Research indicates that 34% of young people don’t talk to anyone when challenges arise online.

Teaching children simple things like consent and what this means, is about empowering young people and putting them in a position of control. Helping students to think critically about what’s happening and what they can do. Encouraging them to listen to their heart and head when they’re online and if it doesn’t feel right, look right or sound right, talk to an adult. When talking to whа̄nau ask them to talk to their children about what they need from them, encourage an open dialogue so that children aren’t hiding what they’re looking at and can feel assured and confident they’ll be listened to, and importantly, that the technology will not (necessarily nor immediately) be taken from them, if they do come and share.

View some of the Life Education classroom resources to support learning in this space: