A balancing act: keeping children safe in school online

Claire Stead, Online Safety Ambassador for Smoothwall, discusses the challenges social media presents to schools and teachers

Classrooms over the past two decades have completely transformed. Where schools once had a single computer or no computer at all, desktops, tablets and devices have become more widespread throughout educational institutions. As technology crept into the classroom, it is inevitable that social media would follow. In fact, almost a quarter of 8-11s and three-quarters of 12-15s now have a social media profile.

Social media is, of course, a terrific tool for connecting people. It enables us to stay in touch wherever we are through the sharing of photos, moments and memories instantaneously – all of which would not have been possible 10-15 years ago. That said, there are risks that come with social media as well that need to be considered. There is an increasing pressure to get a certain number of likes, interactions and ‘friends’, and to portray oneself in a specific way, especially for children.

This pressure and behaviour is now filtering into the classroom. Schools ought to be a place where children can feel safe and be themselves, not one where outside pressures follow them. Recent research from the Children’s Commissioner for England has, in fact, found that children moving from primary to secondary school are ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of social media. 

With online tools now an integral part of education, and the increase of smartphone usage amongst children, it is inevitable that social media is going to trickle through to the classroom. Unfortunately, this rise in social media adoption breeds bullying; it’s now increasingly the responsibility of teachers to not only know how to safeguard children in the classroom but to teach them on how to keep safe online as well.

 The unfortunate truth, however, is that teachers are not fully equipped for this additional string to their bow. Our own research has found that over half of teachers (53%) are most worried or frightened by online and social media bullying, with instances of online bullying increasing in the classroom by over a third in the last year. As well as this, a further 62% of teachers said they don’t feel they are fully supported to teach children about online safety, and over a third (34%) are not confident they would know if one of their pupils was being cyber bullied.

 So what are they to do?

 Teachers themselves have argued that the government needs to do more to help train and prepare them to keep children safe in the classroom (84%), as every teacher surveyed said they feel most responsible for teaching children how to be safe online, but need the vital support to do so. Nearly nine in 10 teachers (87%) feel that online safety ought to be a key priority in the curriculum.

 There is a clear demand for support for safeguarding children. Over half (55%) of teachers want regular training sessions delivered by online safety experts, over half desire clearer guidelines from their schools (52%) and one in four would like a dedicated helpline for teachers (40%).

 Teachers do acknowledge, however, that they cannot do it all themselves, and recognise that all stakeholders in a child’s welfare need to be involved. Teachers, parents, the government and social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram all have a responsibility in the battle to keep children safe online.

 Only together, through a collaborative effort between all these parties, can we work together to make the internet and the classroom a safe and nurturing environment. One that is rid of the pressures of likes, comments and followers, and one in which teachers feel supported to act within.