Silke Müller is a school principal, digital ambassador for the state of Lower Saxony and bestselling author. In her book "We're Losing Our Children," she calls for more protection for children and young people online. In an interview, she talks about why media literacy is the key to a world without hate and violence online.
The images that flicker across the screen are gruesome. Some viewers turn away, others cover their eyes. What appears to be a late-night screening of a horror movie is an information event at a school in Lower Saxony. Principal Silke Müller stands in front of a group of parents and says: "Please look. These are the things your children are watching."
Since 2015, Silke Müller, herself a (step)mother of two daughters, has been the principal of a high school in Lower Saxony. In her work, she is repeatedly confronted with the darker side of the digital world. 96 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds own a smartphone (JIM Study 2022) - including at Silke Müller's school. What young people send each other in chats during breaks is sometimes far removed from homework and crushes on classmates. Silke Müller knows: "Even elementary school students are exposed to images of violence, pornography and racism. Played on by classmates, but also by complete strangers on social media."
Hate and violence as entertainment in the classroom
Silke Müller has been Lower Saxony's first digital ambassador since 2021. Her goal: modern media education. Few parents and teachers are aware of how easily their protégés can access gruesome images and videos and the effects this can have on the psyche, she says. "We need more value-based discussions and conversations - both in school and in education. At the same time, clear guidelines or laws are needed to protect children from such content," Silke Müller demands. Cruelty sent back and forth in class chats inevitably leads to deadening. Hate and violence on the Internet become an entertainment factor. At some point, children lose sight of the fact that real people are suffering in the pictures and videos, but also in the comment columns.
That's why the principal demands: "We have to train our children in empathy. For this, we need, on the one hand, lightened curricula and, on the other hand, the realization in pedagogy that social networks have a much stronger influence on children's development than we think." Fundamentally problematic, he said, is anonymous access to the networks. Adults can easily pose as people of the same age and thus encounter children. In addition, there is no way to get immediate help on the Net, comparable to dialing 110. "I'm thinking of a kind of emergency button that you can press when you see something wrong on the Net, whereupon a trained person takes over the call," says Silke Müller. The solution, she said, lies in supporting young people, not in banning them. Many parents think the problem is the time their children spend with their smartphones, the principal knows. But the real problem is the content that is consumed during this time.
How do I protect my child from hate and violence online?
The key to a safe digital world for children lies in the media competence of the child, the parents and society. The goal, he says, must be to promote children's own competence to act instead of issuing bans. Müller's tips: "Accompany your child in its first steps on the Net. This includes common rules and discussions. It's important that children have someone to talk to if something goes wrong online. That's why parents should also talk to their children about a chain of trust. Ask your child, 'If you can't talk to me, who would be your next trusted person?'" In addition, parents should be aware of the networks their children are on. They should also always have played online games themselves to know where the dangers lurk. She also advises parents to make use of digital help services: "There are many really good initiatives on the web that offer informative and appealing material for parents, educators and young people. I also think that the fantastic educational spots from Telekom against hate on the net or from Unilever on toxic beauty ideals should be spread much more."
Despite all the dangers, digitization also opens new opportunities for a secure network, Silke Müller emphasizes: "I dream of a digital world of the future in which AI has become a friend and helper. There are digital online guards who help users with problems. Hate, violence and inhumane pornography is automatically filtered out of the net. The net is finally a space of knowledge again, is fun, invites creativity and, above all, peaceful, respectful and tolerant coexistence."