The digital environment penetrates all the spheres of humans’ lives, beginning from early childhood. More so, the studying process became almost inseparable from online systems, as many of its benefits are constantly introduced into regular classes. The still ongoing digital revolution has made the provision of new knowledge easier for educators and the learning process easier for students; it also introduced new teaching methods. Lynch (2017) argues that digital technologies such as online classes and programs, digital educational materials, and “online grading tools and devices” have mobilized, personalized, and diversified the modern approach to education as well (para. 8). One can only imagine what new concepts, methods of learning and teaching, and tools this socio-technological phenomenon will bring to the educational sphere. However, there are inherent dangers that exist in such an environment, which all involved sides must adequately address, and the information regarding them must be thoroughly explained to children.
First of all, it is essential to determine what digital safety is. It can be defined as a set of concepts regarding one’s awareness of the existing online threats to their identity, information, and devices (What is online safety? n.d). While the concept of digital safety is clear, it remains troublesome for adults to define the necessary precautions for children through commonly accepted terms and approaches. There is an apparent necessity to establish the link between one’s online activities and potential dangers and promote mindful interactions with people on the Internet among these generations. Through constructivism theory and semiotic analysis, this paper explores how digital visual educational materials such as posters convey the importance of online safety to children. This study is intended to analyze the tools that are employed by different educational facilities to promote digital safety among younger generations.
A brief introspection helped to identify which reasons were the drivers for writing this research. One of them is a moral one, and the other is of cognitive nature. It is no secret that children are a vulnerable group of Internet users, especially nowadays. Grant (2020) argues that there is “a growing trend of children being groomed through webcams and live streaming by predators…” which resulted in “…a sharp rise in the number of abusive images circulating online since the beginning of the pandemic” (para. 1). Therefore, kids need to be taught self-protection measures before online predators damage their mental and physical health. This work explores which images, symbols, and text messages in online safety posters for kids contribute to the most effective development of children’s understanding of online safety and how to apply it to provide a theoretical basis for enhancing their teaching function.
As noted above, the second research driver is the cognitive one directly related to the educational profession. Currently, the discipline is undergoing qualitative and quantitative changes, requiring its specialists to expand their professional knowledge and improve practical skills. Researching topics directly related to the source of changes in the industry is a good way of professional self-improvement. In addition, this paper can potentially become a theoretical basis for other educational professionals that will help them create new and more efficient online safety posters for kids. It is worth noting that this study also contributes to building and strengthening a safe learning environment, which is the responsibility of any educator. American and Australian posters were chosen to explore the differences and similarities in the approach to the visual representation of digital security by private and public entities of similar cultural and linguistic origins.
How is digital safety represented for kids from Australia and the United States via educational posters?
The active digitalization of education has been going on for more than two decades, but only relatively recently have researchers begun to take an interest in the issue of children’s digital safety. According to Mitra (2020), most researchers are still focusing more on studying malicious online activities and their impact on children’s mentality. She also notes that the current central paradigm in child cyber security is “harm minimization rather than a protection approach” (Mitra, 2020, p. 1). Research and development of multipurpose and multifunctional strategies for online safety practices for kids are in their early stages. This inquiry is another contribution to the general body of knowledge about child cyber safety that provides a unique perspective due to the analytical tools applied here.
Digital safety is a critical point in the era of information, yet it might be troublesome to show its necessity for children correctly. There are many platforms that are used by children, yet they may fail to manage online safety themselves (Mitra, 2020). Therefore, this information needs to be delivered to children directly, and materials must evoke their past experiences and known concepts, such as online activities that can pose potential threats, while taking their age into consideration (You know your kids, n.d). Moreover, there are age-specific connections, such as family ties and other triggers that increase information assimilation, that can be added to increase protection efficiency for children (Mitra, 2020; Wall et al., 2012). Teaching about cyber safety will be viewed as the end goal of the message sent by the posters’ content, as the study will discuss whether these visual materials are suitable for inspiring thoughts or not.
Children take in information through visual mediators in a distinct manner that needs to be accounted for during the creation of such material. Semiotics can be successfully incorporated into teaching young students about digital citizenship and safety via art and photo, as pupils tend to automatically derive direct and indirect meanings from such materials (Turkan, 2013). Posters that promote mindful behavior need to normalize it, which, in the case of digital safety, can be done with the depiction of common activities related to the online environment (Online safety teaching posters, n.d.) To define the suitability of visual material for its intended audience, it will be necessary to assess each piece on the subject of readability, visual appeal for younger generations, and clarity of directions.
Analyzing the suitability of teaching digital safety methods requires knowledge of how children perceive educational messages. Protection is the final goal of these posters, as they aim to prevent harmful content from being accessed and dangerous conversations from occurring. For example, the article by Mitra defines these specifics through the scope of digital safety and calls for the evidence-based development of education strategies (Mitra, 2020). A vital question is needed to be answered during such an analysis: how the information received by a student will be viewed in the context of place, culture, and activities that are taking place? (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2021). Peer-reviewed articles related to children’s education explain the connection between images and target populations and help explain educators’ reliance on the material, such as digital cyber safety posters, in education.
Theoretical Framework of Constructivism
This study poses a question regarding the usage of visual materials in order to elicit a particular response from young students. Constructivism is selected to provide the necessary foundation for this goal. The theory of constructivism claims that people do not merely store the acquired information but automatically assess its objective and subjective worth and potential for application in practice (Constructivism, n.d.). It means that knowledge results from the collision of external or given information with the learner’s perceptions. Social scientists also argue that people can modify and improve their understanding through introspection, self-reflection, or gaining additional data (Constructivism, n.d.). Constructivism also helped to identify the essence of the posters and choose the appropriate visual methodology.
Through the application of this approach, visual educational materials were selected for their potential impact and ability to generate sufficient engagement among young generations. The question itself calls for the analysis of the meaning that will be internalized by students who observe these posters. This perspective gave directions for developing a research question about educative visual elements of digital safety posters and choosing a semiotic analysis as a tool for adequate perception and efficient analysis of its content. This theoretical framework is most fitting for developing a detailed response to a research question in particular and the entire research in general. The concept also shows the educational and social influence of new information sources on learners’ intelligence, namely their learning ability. Therefore, such a theoretical framework fits research needs and complements the semiotic analytical method.
By reviewing the visual materials through the lens of constructivism, it is possible to reconstruct the chain of associations that link pre-existing knowledge with the new one provided by the posters. Consequently, it can be said that novel information will be derived from digital and scholarly materials to be implemented in the schools’ digital safety programs for school children. The value of these posters will be assessed on the efficient delivery of necessary educative content and protection strategies that provokes constructive thought processes (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2021). Examination of potential connections that children could make while observing these posters can give researchers an insight into the usefulness of visual materials based on their character and content.
The choice of posters was made through the Internet search and analyzed for the value of its content. The data for this task was researcher-found through the selection of samples available on reputable websites that share templates for teachers with a pedagogical intent (Wall et al., 2012). For this paper, I have conducted a systematic research process for educational posters through Common Sense and eSafety kids’ organizations. The selected organizations are deemed reputable due to the scope of their experience and support of children’s safe spaces (About eSafety, n.d.; You know your kids, n.d.). I chose a poster from both organizations that offer the same content. I started to look for resources that are used by teachers in the classroom for primary grades in Australia and the United States. The first poster is from the Common Sense website, which includes all digital citizenship elements, and the second set of posters is from eSafety kids’ 4 educational posters that include digital safety elements. These educational posters help engage the teacher and kids in discussing digital safety.
There are several criteria in accordance with which these images were deemed beneficial for this research. First and foremost, the visual analysis criteria included learning goals identified through keywords, such as privacy, cyberbullying, and online. The other search criterion was to determine the accuracy and trustworthiness of the images (Guide to researching photographs, 2019). The suitability of the images for the target audience, which is the primary grade students, is also vital. The images benefit this research by showing how educational and software professionals use visual elements to teach kids about cyber safety in a classroom setting. Each of the selected digital images has aspects directly related to the topic of this qualitative work. For instance, the picture in Appendix I is an illustration that experts advise educators to display to motivate pupils in learning of digital protection measures (Free classroom posters, n.d.). The second image shows posters for the same purpose as the first one, including family photos instead of illustrations (Appendix II). The visual difference between the content of the posters was maintained to ensure the diversity of samples in the study.
The semiotic analysis method is relevant to analyzing the collected data. According to Aiello (2020), “semiotics is the study of anything that can be taken as a sign” (p. 368). Husain and Musfirah (2021) argue that “semiotics is widely defined as an interdisciplinary study that all kinds of communication include it” (p. 69). Semiotic analysis was chosen because it is particularly productive in analyzing visual content related to children, the researchers say (Turkcan, 2013). The analytical part focuses on conceptual patterns, and an inductive approach is also utilized to reveal the function of the visual components in the posters. The information from the posters will be analyzed simultaneously to compare and contrast their features. Two distinct themes – content and character – will be taken into consideration during the assessment.
The images present two diagonally opposite character themes despite being aimed at the same population. The images contain either a diverse crowd of children or a race-neutral simplistic child, allowing students to avoid feeling excluded. The creators of the Common Sense poster clarify that the expected target audience for this image is pupils between 5 and 11 years old (Free Classroom Posters, n.d.). The first poster avoids specifying any ethnicity or providing detailed information regarding the depicted individual (Appendix I). The second example, which is a group of four posters by eSafety, includes highly diversified groups of people of all ages (Appendix II). The posters always show a group of people, despite the first example having only a single character in the foreground. Both the concept of citizenship from the first poster and the concept of family that is presented in the second set of posters evoke associations with social groups. This content takes into consideration their ethnicity and aims to represent as many options as possible.
The background of the posters is also essential for defining their characters. The setting of the first poster is simplistic and gives little indication of the setting, although it adds a barely visible crowd of other students that represents the communal need to remain alert (Appendix I). The second set of posters presents various backgrounds, ranging from study rooms and classes to outdoor parks (Appendix II). Moreover, people are shown in different situations, such as studying, playing, talking, and chatting online. Another crucial detail that separates these posters is the addition of minor cartoon characters on the second set of posters which aims to add visual appeal (Appendix II). In contrast to each other, these posters focus on different aspects of character representation that will affect the outcome of information assimilation.
First of all, these images attempt to avoid imposing the desired behavior through strict instructions but promote digital safety through advice, examples, and polite guidance. The first example is less direct in its recommendations, as it does not refer to a viewer directly. Instead, it suggests behavior that a good “digital citizen” would aim to uphold (Appendix I). The second example shares more straightforward recommendations with a clear definition of positive online behavior (Appendix I). Additional recommendations are given through the drawn characters at the posters’ borders in speech bubbles (Appendix II). While most of the semiotics consist of symbols, these posters also rely on signs that are easily identifiable by children, especially on the second example.
The first poster utilizes easy-to-read font that resembles a child’s handwriting in order to appear more appealing (Appendix I). At the same time, the second example implements color-coded messages written underneath photos that represent the promoted behavior (Appendix II). Both posters show bright colors that appeal to children and attract their attention, although the first piece of promotion is less colorful, as it is done with two tones of different hues (Appendix I). Their visual features catch an eye and direct one’s sight directly to the recommendations incorporated within the pictures. Another noticeable difference in content representation is the poster’s attempts to familiarize themselves with students. The first poster includes short sentences that give simplistic definitions of positive behavior that it promotes (Appendix I). The second poster’s content aims to link real-life examples of positive behavior with digital ones, as it allows authors to show less abstract examples (Appendix II). Overall, their content aims to be as easy to understand as possible.
Findings and Discussion
The central idea around the characters of these posters is the unity of action. The posters use concepts that are familiar to children, such as community and family, to explain the necessity of digital safety. The first poster introduces children to digital security as a civic responsibility that they should never forget to perform (Appendix I). Family and continuity are the main themes of the second group of posters (Appendix II). The authors conceptually link children’s parents and family activities to digital safety, thereby showing children that it is easy to follow these rules. It is an effective tactic to present digital safety to them through the most familiar imagery. This method of visual data representation also shows that government entities view the relationship between themselves and their citizens, especially the youngest ones, as family ties.
The content of the posters shows slight differences yet similar connotations. The choice of colors is predominantly bright, as they catch children’s attention with ease. Text messages are simplistic, and short, yet brightly colored and have high contrast. The first poster’s visuals and text messages also encourage children to spread these rules among peers and collectively oppose cyberbullying and other harmful online practices (Appendix I). The second example is more complex in its formulation, as it catches viewers’ attention with a bold statement and then directs it over to the advice and explanation (Appendix II).
Ethical Issues Management
The trustworthiness of this visual exploration is achieved by the correct utilization of the theoretical framework, the chosen methodology, the data collection strategy, and the analytical method. Therefore, one can safely state that this study is credible, dependable, and confirmable. The acceptability and usefulness of the research findings for educators, policy-makers, parents, learners, and the community also support its trustworthiness (te Riele & Baker, 2016). The data collection method and the semiotic analysis are credible not only because of their correct use but also the significant theoretical basis behind them. Moral and professional drivers directed each section of this work, making it a contribution to the public good. It also protects the confidentiality and anonymity of the authors of the posters and real people featured in photos (Cox et al., 2014). The analysis is done on the posters that are shared for public usage, making it safe to assume that such measures were already taken by their authors.
Visual materials, such as the posters used in this paper, are protected by law. It will be necessary to adhere to visual data-sharing principles in research and acquire permissions through such tools as copyright release forms while making its intended usage completely transparent (Papademas & The International Visual Sociology Association, 2009). The usage of visual data, especially photos, is linked with potential breaches of privacy, making it essential to give due respect to the poster owners and acquire their consent (te Riele & Baker, 2016). It is also vital to note that the materials will be utilized for research purposes. Otherwise, this research has followed the fair use rule to promote teaching and the study (Wolff, n.d.). The research has achieved the ethical values relevant to enhance the credible and trustworthy investigation. One also must mention that five moral values guided the author during the study, which can be proved by peer debriefing.
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