Online safeguarding: trends, tools and guidelines for 2018

By Charlotte Aynsley, Online Safety Consultant at RM Education and owner of E-safety Training and Consultancy

While every school knows the importance of safeguarding in our digital world, it’s also important that they know and understand the most effective strategies to help safeguard their pupils online, both in and out of the classroom.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), have recently launched a framework which aims to highlight, across all key stages, the skills and knowledge children should have in order to feel safe and act responsibly online, so that they are able to enjoy the online world.

The framework contains learning outcomes which maps to the PSHE and Computing Curriculum, but it also presents opportunities for teachers to incorporate online safety into a range of other subjects, such as English. While it doesn’t provide teaching resources, it does give schools a very clear idea of the competencies pupils should have at each stage of their learning.

These guidelines are also designed to help schools to better understand what they should be doing to introduce and tailor online safety strategies across all age groups. For instance, it’s very important to introduce online safety to children from a young age in a way that is appropriate for them.

For example, for younger children we would talk to them about friendships and being kind to one another in the online world; with older children this discussion would progress to what to do if you’re being bullied online, how to screen-grab content and report it to providers.

It’s a really useful guide for schools and, while it isn’t a statutory framework, it can’t be ignored; if the purpose of school is to prepare young people for their future lives, online safeguarding is probably the most important topic for any school to tackle.

“While children cannot be safe 100 per cent of the time, we want to make sure that we’ve done everything – as a whole-school community – that we possibly can to help minimise these risks.”

In addition to incorporating this framework into the way they teach online safety, schools also need to stay up to date with the key online trends and cultural shifts that are presenting continued risks to children online.

Snapchat, for example, continues to remain a challenge for many schools. While a lot of social media is used for bullying behaviours, they are not intrinsically bad. That said, you could argue that Snapchat promotes risky behaviour because it perpetuates the concept that, whatever content you share, it will then disappear so the risk is considered eliminated.

Many children wised up to this, so Snapchat introduced functionality to enable you to see if someone has saved your picture, but that doesn’t stop someone filming over your shoulder or saving the imagery.

Anonymous messaging services, when used in a bullying context, can also present a serious concern, because it facilitates ongoing abuse without the victim ever being able to identify who’s doing it. But the tide could be changing here; recently, an app was removed from the iTunes store after a successful petition was instigated, and we could see more people taking a stand like this.

One of the biggest changes to online safety threats in the last 12 months has been the ‘live’ broadcasting environment. Unlike a standard social media post, children can’t remove it if they think they’ve made a mistake; a live environment, whether it’s Facebook Live or Snapchat or Instagram, is instantaneous and content can’t be edited or changed – it’s out there for all to see.

This trend has also impacted on sexting, with more children sharing imagery this way rather than sharing static imagery. Young children can very quickly send an image or broadcast a video, but may not have the knowledge to stop and consider the impact and implications.

“No policy is going to be fully effective without actually engaging the pupils and listening to their experiences and concerns with various sites or apps.”

Sexting is an area which could see some significant changes over the next few years. While there haven’t been any amends to existing legislation, there’s currently a case in Manchester where a pupil’s mother is challenging the fact that her son has been given a criminal record for being involved in a non-aggravated sexting incident. This could change the way police record and respond to the crime.

If her challenge is successful, this could set a new precedent in terms of case law. It will be interesting to see how this evolves because, under current law, while sexting is clearly a very serious issue, it can have more serious ramifications in terms of criminality than the act of a child having underage sex.

There have also been some notable changes in terms of online bullying in recent months. While statistics vary considerably between age groups about increases or decreases in instances of online bullying, there are more instances of children being excluded from online conversations and this being used as a bullying tactic.

This could mean, for instance, pupils pushing individuals out of Whatsapp groups or removing them from group chats on other platforms; this trend is much more subtle than the overt name calling we usually associate with online safety; while the former is still happening, the latter is becoming more widespread.

Another vital and often neglected area is the concept of peer-to-peer mentoring for teenage children and young people. From around the age of 13, children tend to refer much more to their peers than their families. We therefore need to recognise that peers have a really important role in supporting each other, both online and off.

In terms of the potential to report these issues, more needs to be done; OFSTED have made it clear that schools ought to have a robust system in place to report an incident, not just as part of their online safety strategy but for bullying in general.

Reporting online activity can, however, be notoriously difficult, and this is an area where social networking sites and apps need to take much more responsibility. Pupils themselves actually want social media sites to intervene; I often hear children say they’ve reported content but it’s taken a long time to be taken down, so we need to see much more transparency from these sites about their thresholds and processes for reporting.

“If the purpose of school is to prepare young people for their future lives, online safeguarding is probably the most important topic for any school to tackle.”

Online safety continues to present challenges to schools. While technical solutions and robust reporting systems are crucial tools in keeping pupils safe, what we really need to focus on is instilling a cultural shift and enabling a culture of collaboration and support where pupils have a respect for safeguarding and their role in their own safety.

For schools who are embarking on this journey, or beginning to align their safeguarding strategies with the UKCCIS framework, one of the most effective approaches is a whole-school approach. On some occasions, schools have devised an online safety policy based on assumptions around what the threats are, rather than seeking this information from their pupils.

No policy is going to be fully effective without actually engaging the pupils and listening to their experiences and concerns with various sites or apps, and the worrying behaviours that they see. This could be achieved by running an annual, anonymous survey. The data from this survey would offer schools a strong foundation on which to build a robust strategy and important information to develop their whole-school approach.

I would also suggest that, if schools currently have an offline peer-to-peer mentoring solution, they look at bringing that into their online strategy too; if children are behaving badly online, they need to be challenged in exactly the same way as they would be in an offline context – the bystander principle needs to operate in the online world too.

The next step should be around delivering high quality education and training across the curriculum, covering all the issues schools need to talk to their pupils about, which might be over and above what’s been outlined in the framework.

Ensuring staff are trained in online safety and understand the risks, knowing how to respond when someone reports an incident, is also essential. So too is having a designated online safety lead. Parents need to be supported through awareness initiatives, as we know they look to schools for information on this topic.

We are certainly beginning to see more schools accessing training for staff around online safety. We’re also seeing a growing number of secondary schools using monitoring tools as a form of protecting students by understanding exactly what they’re doing online. This intelligence can then be used to build their education programme, intervene where appropriate, or offer more bespoke, directed support towards vulnerable children.

Technologies like filtering and monitoring should support their overall strategy, rather than dictate it, and feed into effective processes for monitoring and reviewing safeguarding for the benefit of the pupils, school and stakeholders.

This process is really about mitigating risks; while children cannot be safe 100 per cent of the time, we want to make sure that we’ve done everything – as a whole-school community – that we possibly can to help minimise these risks.

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