Digital Learning

You can’t believe your eyes!

Sal McKeown talked to Will Gardner about Safer Internet Day 2021 and young people's concerns about the reliability of the internet
Children and adults from many nations with a baner saying Internet Safety Day 2021
Safer Internet Day brings together people across the globe to for a better internet

Safer Internet Day

‘What could you do if someone shared something online, which you don’t think is true or trustworthy?’

This is one of the key questions for Safer Internet Day 2021. The theme this year is: ‘An internet we trust: exploring reliability in the online world’ and the slogan is: ‘Together for a better internet.’ 

Will Gardner is CEO of Childnet and a Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre. This brings together The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) that runs a hotline for the public to report suspected child abuse imagery or videos, South West Grid for Learning which provides materials and information for professionals working with children and young people, and Childnet which raises awareness about online safety which works with the others to provide training and resources.

The Safer Internet Centre in the UK was set up in 2011 as one of 31 centres of the InSafe Network. They have a has a shared mission of making the UK the safest place in the world to go online. They offer leading education, training and awareness for children, parents and educators demonstrating how to stay safe online while enjoying all the positive benefits the internet has to offer.

The impact of Safer Internet Day

Will has been heading up Safer Internet Day in the UK for ten years now and it is so much more than just a Diary Day. Up until now it has been part-funded by the EU, bringing together people across the globe to collaborate and plan for a better internet in the future. 

He believes it is ‘a huge opportunity to bring together schools, children, young people, families, government and industry to take stock of where we are with technology. It is not just about having conversations about filters and keeping children safe online. It is also about listening to children and young people about their online experience and ideas for making things better, as well as finding ways to work together to keep children safe.’

How has the world changed over the years?

Safeguarding advisors used to tell parents that children should be encouraged to use the internet, in the family living room. These were the days when families lived a more communal life, probably just with one device per household, and television was the predominant entertainment.

While much of this still holds true for some families, many children now have devices in their pockets, faster broadband and 24/7 entertainment of their own choosing on demand. They expect to be able to access the web for homework, social communication and leisure activities.

Ten years ago, children were mostly consumers of content. Now with the explosion of social media, there have been opportunities to comment and create, but with this comes risks and responsibilities.

The technology has taken advantage of young people on social media by creating algorithms to monitor content, not to censor it but to track purchases, opinions and preferences and pass them to companies for marketing purposes.

The issues are complex because on the one hand it offers a voice to young people and the chance to comment on the world around them. On the other hand, it has encouraged bullying, stalking and increasing levels of exploitation.

Why focus on trust?

‘We look for a relevant and current theme to address each year, that affects the whole community and this year we are focusing on reliability in the online world,’ said Will.’ It’s a thread which draws together so many concerns: grooming, radicalisation, fake news, as well as the need for social media literacy ‘

Each year, a theme emerges after consultation with young people. For Safer Internet Day in 2021 Childnet worked with a primary school during the brief spell in the summer term 2020 when schools emerged from lockdown and consulted with secondary schools and members of Childnet’s youth boards. Comments included:

‘I see a lot of Fake News content, a lot of fake celebrity gossip, fake gossip (general)’

‘Adverts on webpages showing celebrities with extreme weight loss transformations and stuff like that.’

‘Adverts and pop ups or even occasionally strangers’ messages and such.’

‘Ppl on tiktok making up news, conspiracy theories…’

Young people discussed online adverts, sponsored activities, clickbait, the safety and reliability of commercial data and an increasing expectation that any image will have been edited and filtered.

Top tips and films

There are top tips for children and young people. You can find specific top tips for age groups, including 3-7s, 7-11s and 11-18s here.

  • Become an internet detective and always double check your sources

Remember, there are lots of resources to gather reliable information online, which can be combined with offline sources such as books. When you’re online, give yourself time to check and compare multiple sources, especially if you’re looking for news or facts on a particular topic. If you see promotional posts from celebrities, influencers and famous people, remember to look for clues that can help you work out its purpose like #AD or ‘Paid promotion with…’

  • Be aware of accepting requests and talking to people you don’t know

The internet is a gigantic place, and billions of people all over the world have access to it. If you get a friend request from someone you don’t recognise on a social media site, or a trading request from someone you don’t know in games like Roblox, do not accept it. Remember that other people online may not be who they appear to be and no matter how long you have been chatting to them, someone you only know online is technically still a stranger. Unless you know the person a request has come from, and exactly what it will do, don’t accept it. Speak to a trusted friend or family member if you are not sure what to do.

  • Report it, reach out and seek help and communicate with friends and family

One of the most important things to do if you are not sure about something is to seek help and advice from a trusted family member, friend or carer. The internet is a resource to enjoy and learn from but be cautious of anything that you are not 100% comfortable with or confident about. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask others for their opinions. There are ways that you can report misleading content and get further advice by visiting organisations such as Childline and The Mix.

The materials include five films: two short films a couple minutes each from experts at Full Facts and BBC Reality Check, plus one for primary, one for secondary and one for parents and carers. There are BSL versions of all five videos.

The primary film What can you trust online features children looking at web pages and clips about meerkats and trying to puzzle out which facts are true. The secondary film sees young people talking about social media posts purporting to be from a best friend and how they can tell they are fake. What is especially valuable is when they talk about the emotional effect: feeling gullible, losing face, losing the trust of friends.

Getting the word out

There are also social media resources for schools and young people to spread the word about the day, complete with sample posts, hashtags  @UK_SIC  #SaferInternetDay and #AnInternetWeTrust, alongside social media friendly graphics.

Will Gardner points out that 2020 was a year when so much happened, not just lockdown. It was when, courtesy of the web, people all around the world saw the killing of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter took to the streets. It was a year when young people needed, more than ever before, to question what they were seeing and reading, to evaluate the veracity of information and make up their own minds.


The UK Safer Internet Centre works to promote the safe and responsible use of technology for children and young people.

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