Sharing the responsibility of creating a safe online environment

Dawn Jotham, pastoral care specialist for EduCare, considers the potential risks associated with online platforms and discusses what educators and parents can do to help mitigate effects on students

Since the advent of the internet and its rapid infiltration into young people’s lives, online safety has been a safeguarding issue for schools and parents alike. Additionally, with an increasing number of online platforms appearing and edtech on the rise, the internet is also being integrated more and more into schools for educational purposes. All in all, children are spending more time online than ever before.

With this in mind, it is important that parents and educators are aware of the potential dangers, and work together to provide holistic support to instil an understanding of online safety best practice among students. 

With the responsibilities of social media companies high on the national agenda, recent investigations into these platforms reveal that Instagram is now the leading channel for child grooming in the UK, and is fast becoming a ‘gateway’ for child abuse. Subsequently, the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee has called for tech giants such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat to be subject to a formal legal duty of care for all users.

 Online platforms have been criticised for their lack of regulation, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office due to publish a white paper on online safety later this year

Recent commentary on the importance of the regulation of social media has also surrounded the vulnerability of children to viewing an ever-increasing quantity of self-harming, provocative and disturbing content – all of which has been made more accessible through the use of unregulated hashtags. This comes after links were made between the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017 and her exposure to online content about depression, self-harm and suicide on Instagram, with the app facing condemnation from the teenager’s parents.

Again, online platforms have been criticised for their lack of regulation, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office due to publish a white paper on online safety later this year. In an attempt to tackle the issue, Instagram is now rolling out ‘sensitivity screens’, a feature that blurs potentially harmful content until users opt-in, demonstrating an increasing recognition of the fact that social media sites themselves have a part to play.

Children are spending more time online than ever before

However, educators and parents alike must also remain vigilant. The pressures of social media have a large part to play in their ever-increasing use by young people, with a recent poll by The Prince’s Trust finding that more than half of young people think social media creates “overwhelming pressure” to succeed. With this in mind, we must also be aware of the risks surrounding, among others, harmful content, online grooming and exploitation. In short, providing advice for educators, as well as parents and carers, irrespective of their IT knowledge, is fast becoming a priority. 

Online safety is a balance between understanding online behaviour – knowing the differences between risk, danger and harm – and being empowered to mitigate such issues. Another key tactic is encouraging positive use of online platforms and social media. Showing students how social media can be used for good, and creating a positive digital footprint is an important aspect of staying safe online. Social media and the internet have the potential to teach young people so much about the world around them, and can open their minds to exciting and valuable opportunities for learning and personal growth. What remains important here is normalising conversation within schools and other places of learning around online safety and staying vigilant. 

Tips for developing online safety

To help schools equip young people with the knowledge and skills to be safe online, EduCare suggests the following points when drafting online safety guidelines and protocols:

  Setting privacy settings and guarding personal information

  Considering the question of ‘friend or foe?’ and making sure pupils know to never schedule offline meetings with online friends

  Creating effective communication channels for pupils to report any suspicious online behaviour

  Thinking about time and place by turning off geolocation and not using the internet for personal purposes at school

  Valuing teamwork by helping teachers protect students from harm

Creating a dialogue can include celebrating awareness days such as Safer Internet Day, that aims to inspire a national conversation about using technology responsibly and respectfully. Schools can also consider holding themed assemblies, delivering themed lessons, or encouraging campaigns to raise awareness. 

These activities can, of course, also be held at other times throughout the school year. 

Educators should also ensure their place of learning is joining online campaigns centred around internet safety, and need to create an online safety policy that includes content that is unique and relevant to each school and/or organisation. Most important, however, is considering the scope of schools’ online safety guidelines and ensuring that they include information about privacy settings and location sharing, carefully critiquing friend requests, and providing a safe environment for students to disclose concerning online behaviour. Teachers can also incorporate developing this awareness through activities in class that ask students to identify safe versus suspicious behaviour. Additionally, Childnet, a leading internet safety charity, recommends taking a whole-school approach that sees online safety messages embedded in all areas of the curriculum. 

Of course, technology is changing rapidly year-on-year, so it’s important schools stay up to date with current trends by keeping dialogue with pupils open.

In this day and age, learning about online safety is a vital life skill and one that must be taught to students. Recognising that we all have a role to play, and educating ourselves first, gives us the knowledge to empower students with the know-how to safeguard themselves and their personal information, and reduces the risk of danger, bullying and exploitation. Teaching students and young people how to stay safe online is something that should be nurtured throughout a child’s early and middle years, right through adolescence, to see them successfully into adult life. 

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