The Digital Wildfire project: helping young people stay safe online

Learning lessons when social media is misused 

The growing use of social media can potentially bring about many benefits but also several risks to young people. The Digital Wildfire project is an exciting, interdisciplinary research study which focuses on how provocative content can rapidly spread online and cause serious harm. The project is led by Professor Marina Jirotka of the Department of Computer Science and is a collaboration between Oxford, Warwick, Cardiff and de Montfort universities. Through its exploration of how these negative impacts can emerge and unfold, and the interactions between users, the research team is developing materials to:DW logo

  • assist stakeholders to navigate through current policy and make informed decisions about appropriate behaviours on social media, and
  • promote digital citizenship, risk awareness and responsibility amongst potentially vulnerable social media users, such as children and teenagers

As part of its work with secondary schools, the research team has produced a series of e-safety learning materials and has coordinated competitions to enable students to share their personal perspectives in a creative way. Most recently, entrants were encouraged to respond to the question: ‘How can young people stay safe online?’ To connect the project’s learning materials with a large, online network of teachers, staff from Academic IT Services helped Digital Wildfire colleagues share their content on the University’s pages of the TES Resources online repository. We were also delighted to form part of the judging panel for the competition whereby we reviewed the shortlisted entries and helped select the winners and runners-up.

Social media through the eyes of students who use it

The competition was organised into two groups: 11-13 years and 14-16 years. It attracted an impressive array of submissions, which included striking pieces of artwork, informative posters, engaging videos, compelling short stories and even a prototype for an app. The panel assessed the entries according to their originality, content (i.e. relevance and level of engagement with key issues) and presentation (i.e. personal response and visual appeal to the audience).  

The entries touched upon a range of topical issues directly relevant to young people, including cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, identity crime and threats posed by online predators. Many of the responses were sensitively composed and mature in their handling of such complex issues.

As a judge, I found it both challenging and wonderfully insightful to assess entries which presented social media risks through the eyes of a young person versus those which seemed to adopt a more adult role and translate the information they had been told by teachers, parents, media etc. In several entries, young people were positioned as vulnerable and in some ways exposed by social media, whereas others offered strategies to empower their peers to circumvent, or at least reduce, the risks that such channels present.

Staff from Academic IT Services were delighted to join the team of judges for the Digital Wildfire competition

Staff from Academic IT Services were delighted to join the team of judges for the Digital Wildfire competition

Support at every stage of a young person’s online career

This interesting work provided a valuable lens into young people’s experiences as they venture online. But most notably it confirmed the importance of ensuring young people have access to appropriate support for using social media at every stage of their education. This way they can confidently engage with social media, secure in the knowledge that guidance and help are at hand should things take a wrong turn.

Here at Oxford, the Information Security team has put together a helpful range of online resources to aid students (and indeed staff) to keep their data and devices safe. The material addresses topics such as securing mobile devices and protecting one’s digital identity. Additionally, the team regularly offers free lunchtime sessions as part of the ‘Security and Privacy Online’ series. You can see upcoming courses and book a place via the IT Learning Centre website. Sessions are open to all members of the University.

Lastly, if you would like to find out more about the TES Resources repository, please send an email to academicit@it.ox.ac.uk. Staff in Academic IT Services would be very happy to help you.

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