Online safety is a subject that feels like it should get more attention than it does, particularly at a schooling level.

At least that was what we thought until this morning when we met an organisation called Web Rangers at a roundtable held at Google’s offices in Johannesburg this morning.

The event was held to coincide with National Child Protection Week which was first held in 1997.

Web Rangers is best described as an initiative that teaches children and teenagers how to use the internet responsibly. The Web Rangers – as members of the program are known – are encouraged to pass their learnings on to their peers.

At present that are 24 schools in four provinces that are actively running the program.

The three main goals of the program – as described by a member – are:

  • To be a youth-led initiative
  • Encourage children to be responsible digital citizens
  • Use the positive power of the internet to affect change.
Web Rangers tell media, educators and others about what the program does.

To accomplish this goal, Web Rangers is working with Google, Media Monitoring Africa, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Facebook, the Film and Publications Board, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, MTN and Diana Schwarz Attorneys.

Addressing media, school learners, principals and educators, director of Media Monitoring Africa, William Bird highlighted the importance of involving children in discussions about online safety.

“We must move to a society that puts our children first. The world today is radically different from when we were growing up,” Bird said speaking to the older folk in the audience.

The director goes on to speak about having to need to know a guy who knew a guy, who had a cousin that had a father who owned a Scope magazine (ask your parents if that name is unfamiliar) in order to access porn back in the old days.

“These days all you need is a mobile device,” says Bird. “We’ve moved from a scarcity to an abundance of information and young people need to be given the skills to self regulate their behaviour online.”

Bird says that a rights based approach to online safety should be taken and that the constitution should act as a guiding light when developing policies around online safety.

“Introduce policies that allow for boundaries to be set so that young people, and us, know what to do when things go wrong,” says Bird.

But does it work?

Of course, adults talking and making plans is one thing, how well does the Web Rangers program work?

Principal at McAuley House Catholic School, Ross Davis says that not only has Web Rangers helped learners but being involved in the program is a point of pride among learners.

“Web Rangers talks the language of the youth and it has led to the success of the program. Nowadays it’s cool to be a Web Ranger and its something that the youth strive for,” Davis said.

Curiously, while one would think that Web Rangers was forced on learners, Davis says that not only have learners championed the program but taken it out of the classroom as well.

“We’ve had our girls interviewed on radio, they’ve appeared on Morning Live. They’ve chosen to embrace and improve they way they pass on what they have learned. It’s youth driven but not just aimed at schools,” says the principal.

Davis highlights the importance of schools embracing online safety rather than trying to restrict learners.

The principal says that all schools should build online safety into their code of conduct and turn this document into a living one that is constantly being adapted, improved and built on.

“The social media policy has to be driven by youngsters and online safety should be a daily event,” the principal added.

To find out more about the Web Rangers program and have your school join the program (which we highly recommend) head over to the official website.