We need to teach our children about social media safety

Social media training for youngsters is as vital as putting stabilisers on a bike, writes Caroline Delaney 

We don’t usually send children out onto a busy road on their bicycle without some safety gear and training first — but many are released onto the digital superhighway without any groundwork done first.

One Limerick entrepreneur has come up with fun training sessions for kids eager to get involved in social media which he likens to bicycle stabilisers.

CyberSmarties.com is an online social network specifically designed for primary school kids.

CyberSmarties CEO, Diarmuid Hudner, aims to have his system change how children use social media in the future.

Disclaimer: I have three tech-obsessed primary school children and I’ve seen many games and software touted as ‘the safest’, ‘the best’, ‘the most educational’... and I have watched my children do their best to find loopholes and flaws in them all. So I took this approach to CyberSmarties — and decided to ask about all the potential problems I could anticipate.

I opened with a fear that plagues many parents as they let their child interact online. What’s to stop a 57-year-old man pretending to be Kyle, age 9, who loves soccer and pizza?

“Each user is authenticated as a real child through the schools. It is a fully locked-down safe system which means only teachers and children are allowed on the system,” explains Diarmuid.

And if parents of two or three children find it tricky to closely monitor them all the time then surely a teacher with a class of around 30 kids must miss a few mean social media or teasing comments.

“We use behavioural technology, smart content filters and sentiment analysis to educate positive online behaviour — instilling positive behavioural habits which they will use going forward when they use more adult social media networks. The system picks up words, emotions etc in a particular way which moulds positive behaviour. It is like an online version of stabilisers for a bike to get kids used to how they should behave online,” says Diarmuid.

The Cybersmarties.com team, Brendan Woodage, operations manager; Diarmuid Hudner; and Wenqian Xu, head of IT department, system administrator
The Cybersmarties.com team, Brendan Woodage, operations manager; Diarmuid Hudner; and Wenqian Xu, head of IT department, system administrator

Well, many parents will definitely know that kids pick up bad habits in a heartbeat but can watch you unload the dishwasher and sweep the floor every day of the year and still not learn how to tackle those chores.

Nope, real-life trials of CyberSmarties in Irish schools has shown them that “within three days children stop sending messages which contain negative words and insults”.

Basically if a child types a message containing an insult or ‘mean’ word then they get a pop-up screen advising them that their friend will feel bad if they get this message. If they persist in trying to send it then their account is frozen and their teacher alerted.

“It’s about educating rather than punishing though, the teacher can reinstate the child on the program once they know they understand what they were doing wrong,”

CyberSmarties, works across all IOS and analogue devices including iPads and mobiles, allowing children to make friends with other kids across Ireland based not on how they look — children don’t use photo avatars — or what group they belong to but what sports, music and other interests they have in common.

Diarmuid, who has a background in corporate mergers and acquisitions in London, moved home to Limerick and wrote a young adult novel, I’m Happy Now.Com and then worked on practical guides on bullying for primary schools — which were endorsed by the Department of Education. He spoke at cyberbullying conferences organised by MEP Sean Kelly.

Cybersmarties.com were finalists in the Bank of Ireland National Awards for Best Innovative Startup 2016 and shortlisted for the Social Entrepreneur Awards 2016.

Diarmuid, who has two teenage children of his own, has an eye on other benefits for parents too: “Our system also allows teachers to submit homework lists so the kids can log in at home and see what homework they have which gets around the whole forgetting the homework tears every evening!”

Cybersmarties.com runs in tandem with the SPHE (social, personal and health education) curriculum in primary schools and its guidebook has been written by Pat Courtney, former National Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator, SPHE, Dept of Education. And Diarmuid points out that the Education Dept of the University of Limerick are writing an academic paper on the positive results on child behaviour as a result of using Cybersmarties.com.

We need to teach our children about social media safety

Diarmuid is aware of the vicious circle that children with low self-esteem are most vulnerable to cyber-bullying: “Therefore we send each child a positive message or video seven days a week — and we include a wellbeing course which has videos on meditation, nutrition, PE etc.”

“It is a proactive rather than reactive solution to cyber-bullying. Irish kids are falling behind by European standards in digital awareness and CyberSmarties aims to bridge that gap through its creative safe space for kids to make friends, do homework, play games, jokes and create pictures, art and music,” he says.

And he has been working with the department of education in Holland to test the system in 100 primary schools there with a view to rolling it out nationally.

Currently CyberSmarties has three permanent staff and six part-time and contract workers and has an eye on getting the Department of Education here to eventually administer this in every school in the country.

And while the system is up and running some schools now they are still adding new features and refining elements: “We have just included an ‘I’m feeling bad’ button which, when clicked, sends the child positive comments their friends previously made about them — the help them feel better about themselves.”

Getting back to my problem-spotting: parents who have just sent children off to school with hundreds of euro worth of books, bags and uniforms won’t want to pay a fortune for tech lessons now too.Up until recently, it cost €20 per year per child — but it is now free to all Irish schools.

“Social media and problems of people behaving badly on it is something which needs a generational change. We been approaching this all wrong — we need to make children aware of what they’re sending. There is no body language on social media so what you say is open to misinterpretation. Social media has exploded and children are learning from what they see — it’s an empathy thing. We need to teach them the right behaviour now so they have the tools when they are older.”

Diarmuid likens it to the ‘olden days’ when people just got in a car and drove: “My own father who is 83 never sat a driving test. And I believe that, in a lovely romantic gesture, he bought a licence for my mother too. There were hardly any cars on the road then so it was safe enough but nowadays roads are much more dangerous. These days we start children’s safety skills gently — like putting stabilisers on a bicycle.”

Real people try CyberSmarties

When I first heard about Cybersmarties I thought ‘Why didn’t I think of this first? It’s a brilliant idea’. Children don’t automatically know how to behave on social networking sites they need to learn first. The best way to do that is to actually use a restricted site in a controlled and safe environment. This is where CyberSmarties has come in. If I were a school principal I would most certainly want it in my school and I would encourage parents to embrace it too. If I were the Minister for Education I would recommend the subsidising of it for disadvantaged schools and Special Schools.

Yvonne Curran, (ICT Teacher) Scoil Chiaráin Special School

“CyberSmarties is a really innovative exciting product for use in primary school. By initially using the lesson plans provided to introduce this class based social network, you can teach some facts to the children about social media and build up a positive attitude towards it. The children in my class loved the whole experience. They really enjoyed making friends and sending messages to each other. The children also messaged me which created a nice communication between us that we would not have had previously. Overall it was a new exciting positive experience for both children and the teacher!”

Miss O’Shea, St Patrick’s Girls School Limerick

And, a video recommendation from Sheila Cagney, principal of Banogue National School in Limerick.

UPDATE 14/11/16: The company are co-launching Anti Bullying Week UK from the House of Commons on Wednesday with meetings set up the head of child safety for the BBC, head of the Royal Foundation and head of Internet Matters.


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