We teach children how to stay safe online, but what about staying legal? Absolutely Education speaks to the social media law and ethics expert Dr Holly Powell-Jones

Keeping our children safe online is a big concern, but while we worry about cyber-bullies and predators, there is another real and present danger – breaking the law. This is where Dr Holly Powell-Jones comes in, delivering training to young people to help them understand both the legalities and the ethics of their digital and online lives.

It’s important stuff that tends to get forgotten in the rush to protect young people. We hear stories of adults caught out by online actions or attitudes – that long-buried tweet, ill-judged post or online interaction leading to loss of reputation or job – even a criminal record. But, as Holly Powell-Jones reminds her young audiences at the start of training, in UK law the age of criminal responsibility is just ten.

If this is a jaw-drop moment for young people, then so is some of what follows because Powell-Jones takes them through offences and potential consequences. It’s carefully designed to enlighten, not alarm. She presents a range of different scenarios before asking young people to assess what if any law has been broken. “This is specifically teaching the law, and that means I always try to reference real-life examples,” she says.

Online and legal: why children need digital education
Young people share and interact, but are rarely aware of the multiple laws they could be breaking – from copyright infringement to malicious communications or revenge porn

What is critical to the training is that it is delivered from a legal rather than moral perspective. “It is an opportunity to have a morally neutral conversation, which is very interesting,” she says. For instance, when it comes to sexting, she takes the view there is no point simply preaching abstinence. “I don’t think that’s very helpful, given how prevalent we know image sharing is among teenagers,” she says. “What is useful is to go in in a morally neutral way and just say, ‘this is the law, this is how the law is worded, this is how the law has been interpreted’.”

“A conversation about the law is a really solid foundation upon which you can then discuss all sorts of sensitive subject matter,”

While the training comes in from an impartial perspective, it does inspire deeper conversations. In fact, this is an opening that schools and their pupils welcome and often use as a springboard. “Being able to have a conversation about the law and the legal framework is a really solid foundation upon which you can then discuss all sorts of other sensitive subject matter,” she says. “Wider philosophical discussions around how to behave online, identity and even at what age young people should be allowed to do different things.”

Powell-Jones has a long track record in this area. Originally a broadcast journalist, she began delivering law and ethics workshops to schools in 2013. This received funding from Surrey’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and was delivered in collaboration with Eagle Radio. In the first year alone, she delivered training to some 9,000 Surrey pupils and the project ran until 2017. During this time, she also completed a PhD at City University investigating children’s perceptions of the criminal, legal and social risks of misusing social media.

Online and legal: why children need digital education
Dr Holly Powell-Jones finds discussing things from a legal, rather than moral, perspective encourages young people to open up and consider more sensitive subject matter

What her PhD concluded is not surprising. “There’s no consensus among young people in terms of what is a criminal risk, what is a legal risk. My caveat to that is I don’t think if I did the same research among adults, I would have necessarily got a different result,” says Powell-Jones. “Whenever there’s a panic it gets focused around children and young people, but it’s a symptom of something that’s a wider social problem. And I think that ignorance of the law online and on social media is a wider social problem.”

One common misconception, she says, is that there are not enough laws to cover online crime. “One of my biggest bugbears is people going out there and saying to the public: ‘we don’t have any laws about social media, it’s a wild west’. We don’t need more laws – we need to use the ones we’ve got.” Powell-Jones suggests the Crown Prosecution Service’s ‘CPS Guidelines for Prosecuting Social Media’ is a useful search term to see the reach of the law into online and digital life.

“I’m always delighted and surprised by the ability of young people to have very sophisticated conversations around permissions, consent and ownership”

Schools and parents may start off misunderstanding what her training is about but tend to sit up when they discover just how many laws await the unwary and uninformed. For instance, there’s the risk of breaking the Malicious Communications Act or the Defamation Act or being liable for distributing indecent images or breaking the revenge porn law that was introduced in 2015.

Don’t forget the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act – that’s the one that causes the most shock. “Copyright is always the most controversial area of media law I do in schools. Everyone is outraged,” says Powell-Jones. “I think a lot of young people think that Google image results is just a buffet! I do try and explain it in parallel with offline theft – as in, if I go into a shop and nick a pair of trainers it’s theft even if I tell everyone where I got the trainers from.”

What we say in jest to each other online – under that term ‘banter’ – is the most controversial area for young people. “The area that tends to get the most debate and disagreement is racism online and other forms of offensive material such as grossly offensive jokes. I often get young people saying: ‘I’m not really sure that’s legal but people don’t go to prison for that’.  And then I have to say, ‘well, yes they do – and I have a series of case studies’.”

Adultsshutterstock ( )
Young people have witnessed bad behaviour, and it rarely has consequences, but the risks are there and giving guidance helps to keep them safer

Children and teenagers may not see the potential pitfalls in some legal territory, but they have a strong grasp in other areas. “What I’m always delighted and surprised by is the ability of young people to have very sophisticated conversations around permissions, consent and ownership, exceptions to the law or what they think are reasonable defences or exemptions. I think young people are way more media literate and more sophisticated in terms of their awareness of this than many adults. It is because they have grown up in a media saturated world.”

“Teenagers have a conversation about whether the law is right – they are thinking critically as citizens”

Understanding the law is not the same as sticking to it. “My PhD findings showed a change in perception of risk as children get older,” says Powell-Jones. She believes one factor here is that young people become desensitised because they see so much online material that breaks the law, seemingly with impunity. Which is where well-timed discussions become useful in building understanding and analysis. “What happens then is that teenagers have a conversation about whether the law is right,” she says. “They are thinking critically as citizens about what they would maybe change about social media laws.”

Powell-Jones would like to see way more responsibility among both the media and the tech giants (also some employers) when it comes to mining or investigating young people’s online past. “It’s a case of giving young people more power to delete their history when they choose to,” she says. Maybe one day soon an ethically savvy younger generation will tackle that unpleasant legacy of today’s digital childhoods. But in the meantime, legal awareness gives back some much-needed agency. “Embedding social media law into young people’s education is going to empower them – and it is also going to mean that they are safer.”

Dr Holly Powell-Jones onlinemedialawuk.com

Further reading: Young gamblers – what parents need to know