The future of online security teaching in schools

How do we protect children from the dangers of internet use?

It is one of the hottest topics in education technology and a continuous cause of concern for parents and teachers everywhere: how do we protect children from the dangers of internet use? There are a few options. Some think we must implement an effective strategy for preventing misuse of the internet from an early age, while others believe the onus lies with webmasters and tech companies to clamp down on online abuses. In the meantime, the government has slowly been including elements of online safety into the curriculum; but is it going to be enough?

A new problem of youth

The tech revolution has brought about more change for the global community than could have ever been predicted, or has ever been seen before. Children growing up in the twenty-first century accept technology as a part of their natural environment, interacting with it intuitively and instinctively. It has long been accepted that children’s natural affinity with technology should be harnessed. These ‘digital natives’ view the world through the lenses of social media and internet surfing, spending more of their time on their mobile devices than anything else. As a result, educators have begun to incorporate these platforms in their teaching. Throughout primary, secondary and higher levels of education, effective teaching strategies employing various self-led and assisted online training courses have been implemented.

The real question remains, however, how are children going to be educated in the dangers of online use? As they continue to rapidly develop digital literacy from an ever-younger age, do they not equally need to be educated in how to safely navigate the online world? A recent report from Australia showed that children as young as eight had multiple social media accounts and were already familiar with some aspects of online abuse, including bullying and the misuse of personal information.

An issue for the school or for parents?

The question of how to counter online threats invariably raises the question of who should take responsibility for the child’s web use: whether it is in the nation’s interest and therefore enforced by the national curriculum or whether it is a matter of judgement to be overseen at home. Invariably it is a combination of the two, and the UK government has implemented mandatory classes through the KS1 to KS6 to address specific topics since 2014. However, as industry thought-leader Sophie Knight asserted, “Online safety is not a box that can be ticked just once in an academic year”.

At home, parents can install parental controls on their browsers which block inappropriate material, and should closely follow any material that is downloaded by their children. Beyond this, there are increasingly a number of independent resources out there to help educate young people and try to raise awareness of how to prevent and limit the damage of online abuse. Organisations like Childnet and Internet Matters have devoted themselves to this topic, but equally other service providers are beginning to offer advice on such matters too. The web hosting company 1&1, for instance, recently published a series of articles related to email security, including tips on what to do if your email account is hacked. Arguably, these developments indicate a shift in popular consciousness and a turn to more proactive responses.

The view going forward

Anne Longfield, the government Children’s Commissioner, has recently hit out at social media giants for dragging their feet over the topic of online malpractice. She is petitioning for a simplification of terms and conditions that allow young people – their largest demographic – to understand exactly what they are signing up to. She is also pushing for
digital citizenship to be studied in school, covering the rights and responsibilities of online users and creating a platform for positive online learning. Just as advanced levels of verbal literacy encourage better emotional and critical development, equally so can improved digital literacy.

As we move into the future, traditional school subjects may be made redundant by the ultimate take-over of many jobs by machines. In this scenario, the time freed up from cutting them from the curriculum could be reinvested into more topical subjects for the world of tomorrow. These might include analysis of laws governing online copywriting or intellectual property, or the development of different coding languages. Just six months ago it was announced that the UK would introduce extra-curricular classes aimed at protecting the country from online attacks, by training teenagers in specialist cyber security skills. The very same skill drain that the government is worried currently exists, putting the nation’s security at risk of cyberattack from countries such as Russia and China, arguably already exists regarding personal online security.

In the next few years we can only hope to see the proactive development of cyber security programs for schools. There is no knowing when businesses such as Facebook and SnapChat will take greater accountability of the content on their apps, and until they do there must be an alternative. There is no doubt internet security will be one of the most important topics of the next generation, and it is imperative we find solutions earlier rather than later.