Whose job is it to keep children safe online? Where do the responsibilities begin and end for the educational institution?
Online safety is best viewed as part of the school’s responsibility to safeguard the young people in its care. In a fast-changing digital world, strong connections need to be created between parents and teachers, as old boundaries about what used to be left at the school gate are no longer valid. New challenges for schools and parents pop up every week and it is more important than that we all work together to support young people both on site during the school day and beyond.
What risks exist for children online? Which risks can schools most help mitigate?
Online risks fall into four categories: contact, conduct, content and commercial. Children may find themselves victims of online predators, may behave in inappropriate ways, they might access adult, extreme or illegal content, or will be subjected to inappropriate advertising or commercial interactions.
Schools are required to provide appropriate filtering and monitoring systems as part of Keeping Children Safe In Education, and are required to ensure that children are taught about staying safe online. However, with such a large number of children now accessing and creating content, shopping online and using social media via their smartphones, it is just as important to create a culture where children know what to do if they are in a difficult situation. If children believe that their teachers are disinterested or dismissive of their digital experiences, they may not approach them for support in a crisis.
Are teachers and educators aware of all the risks? Is there enough training and CPD provided for teachers?
We are all learning, all the time, and as teachers we will never be ‘done’ learning about online safety. Since young people often choose to inhabit digital spaces that are unfamiliar to teachers, it is our responsibility to stay connected to their world without invading it. Young people are not loyal to particular platforms for long and will happily pack their digital bags and move on to the next thing as soon as it drops. Teenagers I work with scoff at their parents ‘still’ using Facebook! This speed of change coupled with generational differences will always mean that teachers need to see beyond their own personal experiences.
Online safety training and awareness in response to this is improving all the time. I think it is important to promote a principles-led approach which does not require every teacher to worry about every feature of every app, but focusses instead on encouraging kindness, empathy, good decision-making and authenticity. It’s also crucial that as teachers we get past any squeamishness about discussing gritty issues with students and parents. It’s all very well wanting to protect younger students from the unpleasantness that is out there on the web, but we risk missing the boat and not equipping students with the understanding and support they need to process what they encounter until it is too late. (According to the NSPCC, the average age that a child first views pornography in the UK is 11.)
Are parents fully aware of what products and resources could help them?
Unfortunately, I do not believe that all parents are aware of the issues and often they are unsure of where to turn to get help. Parents may feel unsure about how to set appropriate boundaries, what age restrictions mean, whether to monitor their children’s activities online and where to find out more.
There are some fantastic tools online for parents and teachers, and simply getting involved with what children are doing and asking questions is the best starting point. Networking with other parents and searching for help from recognised organisations such as CEOP and the NSPCC will also help.
How is it best to discuss online safety with children?
Little and often! Online safety is not a box that can be ticked just once in an academic year. It should be embedded into lots of contexts so that children can learn to appreciate the different angles. In school, we bring online safety into our curriculum through PSHE and ICT, through whole school termly assemblies, and parent talks. Using peer mentors and digital leaders is also worthwhile to reduce a ‘them and us’ culture. Tone is also important. For example, in staff training, I have suggested that we as teachers stop talking about ‘in the real world’ when we mean ‘offline’. What happens online is interwoven with offline life for young people and to dismiss it as not real is not right.
Will children always be one step ahead?
Not at all, and I am not sure it is reasonable to assume that children are always a step ahead now! Children may be able intuitively to put new technological tools to use (sometimes only in relatively narrow ways) but they do not necessarily have mature judgement, impulse control, communication skills or discernment when it comes to decision-making. The technology is a tool alone and it is for parents and teachers to help them learn about how to put them to good use. The next generation of parents who have grown up with social media may feel this even more strongly!