Playing it safe online

Kevin O’Malley examines the education sector’s role in cyberbullying, radicalisation and sex crime

The rise in cybercrime is as dangerous to young people as it is to businesses. According to Nelson Ody, security services manager for Jisc, the two biggest online threats facing anyone who uses the internet are fraud and identity theft. “It’s in all our interests to learn how to protect ourselves, and there are several simple steps we can all take to reduce our risk of falling victim to cybercriminals,” he said. 

But some threats are unique to younger users. The NSPCC has flagged the amount of inappropriate content available online that glorifies self-harm and suicide. Combined with the rising mental health crisis in the younger generation, this material can devastate young internet users psychologically, increasing the risk of mental illness and dangerous behaviour. Poor education on the long-term ramifications of internet usage can leave parents and schools unable to protect their children, and lead those children to make immense mistakes. The education sector must respond to protect its students. But who in the sector is responsible? What issues must they target? And how can industry help?

 Name-calling, spreading rumours, death threats and blackmail published publicly on social media profiles, blogs and online pictures were just some of the ways young people told counsellors they were being tormented – NSPCC spokesperson

Cyberbullying

On paper, current government legislation and school policy is already in place to protect children against bullying. Online, however, is a different story. “At Childline we hear from thousands of children every year who are tormented around the clock by bullies through social media,” said a spokesperson for the NSPCC. “Last year we delivered 3,088 Childline counselling sessions to young people worried about cyberbullying. Name-calling, spreading rumours, death threats and blackmail posted publicly on social media profiles, blogs and online pictures were just some of the ways young people told counsellors they were being tormented.”

The legal responsibility to protect students from these threats currently rests with schools and colleges, where child welfare is already an embedded aspect of training. Teachers’ powers have been strengthened to allow them to discipline students for poor behaviour outside of school grounds, as well as extending their searching powers to electronic devices such as mobile phones. 


In 2018, the NSPCC delivered 3,088 Childline counselling sessions to young people worried about cyberbullying


The problem, however, appears to only be worsening. According to NHS figures released in July of last year, almost 400,000 people under the age of 18 are being treated for mental health problems per annum – almost a third higher than two years previously.

Radicalisation

The recent case of Shamima Begum should show how dangerous online propaganda can be, and how young its targets are. ISIS’s recruiting techniques are not unique; in New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto made multiple references to online right-wing communities where he constructed his ideology. In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 others. His manifesto revealed his activity as part of the Incel (involuntary celibate) movement online, which preaches hate for women.

Radicalisation is one of the greatest dangers online today. All schools, further education institutions and higher education institutions are subject to a duty under section 26 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, in the exercise of their functions, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This duty is known as the Prevent duty.


Almost 400,000 people under the age of 18 are being treated for mental health problems per annum, reports NHS data released last year


There are many forms of support offered by the government to schools and institutions. On July 1, 2015, the Home Office published Keeping Children Safe in Education, which detailed how schools were required to observe the Prevent duty. The strategy’s effects were analysed two years later in the paper What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experiences’, undertaken by Coventry, Durham and Huddersfield universities. The study found that “while confidence in implementing the Prevent duty is generally fairly high, it is, on average, significantly lower among less experienced members of staff and those who are not part of institutional safeguarding teams.” It also revealed strong concerns amongst surveyed teachers that Muslim students were being stigmatised by Prevent.

Grooming and sex crime

Grooming is one of the great dangers of online content. A recent investigation by the NSPCC found more than 5,000 offences taking place within 18 months. These crimes took place on social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. “Online grooming can escalate very quickly from meeting and talking to someone on a social media site, exchanging numbers and text messages – which are often sexual – to arranging to meet in person,” said a spokesperson for the NSPCC. “Often young people are threatened and blackmailed in staying quiet about the abuse they have been subjected to.”

However, grooming is far from the only issue facing young people online. The London Grid for Learning (LGfL) recently undertook their 2018 DigiSafe online-safety survey. Their findings revealed a distinct shift in risks and dangers from strictly contact-based to content-based; specifically a marked growth in mental health issues (especially self-harm and distress caused by sharing of sexual and violent videos), and a greater prevalence of violent or sexual content. Sexting and child sexual exploitation via live streaming was flagged as a major issue by those surveyed.

 Online grooming can escalate very quickly from meeting and talking to someone on a social media site, exchanging numbers and text messages – which are often sexual – to arranging to meet in person – NSPCC spokesperson

These findings are echoed by the NSPCC. “We know that sexting is very common amongst students, it was the most-viewed topic on the Childline website last year with more than 221,000 page views. There is a real danger that once they send a nude image of themselves they lose control of who views or shares it, which could result in them being abused, bullied or blackmailed,” a spokesperson told ET. 

Solutions and the role of business

These threats are diverse, and the responsibility to handle them is spread between schools, institutions and the government. Steps are being taken to combat cyberbullying in schools, and the government is already working with the Diana project to train students as anti-bullying ambassadors. “In every school the programme is led by the ambassadors because young people – not adults – are at the centre of the experience,” says CEO Tessy Ojo. The training includes a digital programme, Be Strong Online, covering privacy, apps and social networking, and promoting positive digital behaviour. The Diana Project is not alone. The LGfL SafeConf Safeguarding Conference, held for the second year on 11 March 2019, delivered valuable CPD and training to teachers on the subject of online safety and safeguarding. The NSPCC is lobbying for updated sex education in schools, and providing better training for teachers to provide it.


Sexting was the most-viewed topic on the Childline website in 2018 with more than 221,000 page views


This push for greater safety for children provides an opportunity for business. Internet safety programmes like cyberpatrol have protected young users for decades now, and apps such as Yubo and GoBubble are already beginning to provide improved safety for young users. 

But if private bodies do not make an effort to provide improved safety for young students, the long-term cost may be dire. The NSPCC is already calling for the government to bring in an independent statutory regulator to force social networks to do much more to keep children safe, giving it the power to impose tough sanctions and fines on tech companies if they fail to deliver. The message is clear. The internet must be made safe – with or without tech companies’ assistance. 


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