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Schools can help prevent pupils becoming caught in the net

Elijah Lawal, Google UK's Online Safety Communications Manager, outlines five core areas of online safety

When I was in Year 8 at secondary school, I remember studying the compulsory module of social studies for a year. At first, I hated this class; there was just so much to remember about the ways of life of different people across the world. And since at the young age of 13, I was fully determined to spend the rest of my life in England (preferably in a 4 bedroom house in Mayfair – if Monopoly had taught me anything, that was the place to live), I didn’t see the need to learn about the yurts of Kyrgyzstan. Little did I know then that my teachers were preparing me for my adult years where I would happily and eagerly travel, work, live, and form relationships with people from across the world. Such is one of the most important roles of a teacher: to prepare students for the future.

I think about this a lot when it comes to children’s use of technology and the responsibility of tech companies, parents, and teachers to prepare them for the future. Technology has become so commonplace in our lives – as a tool for learning, communicating, and connecting to one another. Ofcom has found that children are most likely to own a smartphone by the time they are 8-11 years of age. Across this age group the length of time spent online increases by an average of five hours, to 13 hours a week. While there is no doubt about the educational opportunities available to children online, technology presents new challenges for both parents and teachers. It’s important that they’re equipped with resources to tackle them effectively.

Last year, Google surveyed over 200 UK teachers about their experience with online safety in the classroom. One of the most interesting findings was that teachers believed children should start learning about online safety at age seven. The majority of teachers (82%) said they didn’t feel they had the necessary resources to teach online safety. One in three also reported that they’d witnessed an online safety incident – such as sharing personal information, or cyberbullying – in their classroom.

At Google, we want to empower teachers to help prepare students for their use of technology and, to that end, have come up with five core areas of online safety. By getting acquainted with them, they can build the confidence to speak to their students about the issues.

1. Think before you share

Students often don’t understand that whatever they post online can be seen by anyone far into the future – our digital footprint. It is essential for students to understand that inappropriate posts or ‘digital mistakes’ can have a lasting effect on how others see them, or on their online reputation.

2. Check it’s for real

It’s important for students to understand that online content isn’t always honest or reliable, and is sometimes even deliberately designed to steal personal information. They need to be aware that, when online, they should always be on the lookout for phishing attacks – in their email, texts, and posted messages – and to make sure they tell the right people if they get into difficulty. 

3. Protect your stuff

Digital technology means students are connected with the world in so many ways. However, they might not be aware the same tools that make it simple for us to share information also make it easier for hackers and scammers to steal it and use it to damage our devices, our relationships, and our reputations.

It is important to help students understand that protecting all those things means doing simple, smart things. For example, they should be using screen locks on devices, being careful about putting personal information on devices that can be lost or stolen, and above all, choosing good passwords.

4. Respect each other

For students, it’s sometimes important to remind them that behind usernames and profile pictures there is actually a real person with real feelings, and that they should treat them as such. This is why emphasising the need for students to be kind and empathetic online – and knowing how to respond to negativity and hurtful behaviour – is essential for online safety, as well as building and maintaining healthy relationships. 

Simple things can make all the difference here, too: setting a good example online by being a positive voice to friends, not encouraging bad behaviour, and not liking or responding to potentially hurtful comments or posts. Also, make it clear that students should report mean, bullying behaviour using online reporting tools or by telling a parent, teacher, friend or sibling.

5. When in doubt, discuss

One piece of advice that bears repeating is that, if students come across something online they are not sure about, they should talk to a trusted adult about it. As a teacher, you can play an essential role in this by reminding pupils you’re always there for support. Peer-to-peer schemes and student support groups are other effective ways to build student empowerment.

Teachers shouldn’t feel like they need to be a digital citizenship expert to discuss these five recommendations in class. We’ve provided completely free resources online – such as our Be Internet Legends and Be Internet Citizens educational programmes – that can guide educators on what topics they should be discussing with students when it comes to online safety.

I’m optimistic that technology will remain a way for students and children to better communicate, collaborate, and learn – and that educators will continue to provide them with the tools and knowledge they need to make responsible choices online.