The increasing need for social media savviness

Dawn Jotham outlines how young people can stay safe online and offers practical tips for supporting students

Today’s children and young people are the first generation to be brought up with the internet, and most use technology intuitively. Social media channels are a big part of this, and can empower students to socialise, learn and discover new experiences.

However, social media also poses challenges and risks, including cyberbullying, grooming and self-harm. By following the advice from the Department for Education’s model of the three Cs – content, contact and conduct – teachers and staff can normalise positive online behaviour and help make the internet an enjoyable and safe place.

With increasing internet usage by young people, social media companies are responding to increasing risks, including Instagram’s October announcement of plans to extend measures banning graphic images of self-harm by restricting content with suicidal themes. Yet, with some criticising the rest of the industry for being too slow to respond, Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet, says that educators can have a part to play, given that “children feel very passionately about online safety”.

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There are a range of safety tools available for educators and students to adopt in order to empower themselves to have a more positive online experience. Applying these tools to each of the three Cs, as well as considering what educators and schools can do on a practical level to promote responsible behaviour and safer internet use, remains key.

While it is perhaps optimistic to expect all those who work with children to keep up to date with everything available online, getting to know social media’s basic concepts and the multiplicity of platforms and experiences is imperative to understanding the potential risks. Often, there is no discrepancy between online and offline life for young social media users. This isn’t always a bad thing, with the UK Safer Internet Centre’s Digital Friendships Report finding 68 per cent of young people believe talking to a friend online cheers them up.

The three Cs are a useful way of avoiding a negative online experience. Platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram are extremely popular, and all support interactions with friends, whether those friendships are online or offline. They also allow for photos, videos, thoughts and feelings to be shared, either publicly or privately – something that is often attractive for a young person going through the difficult emotions associated with attending school or growing up more generally.

Teachers and staff can normalise positive online behaviour and help make the internet an enjoyable and safe place

Social media, however, also holds a plethora of risks, where a child may be exposed to unwelcome or inappropriate content. These can include sexual, pornographic or violent images, websites encouraging dangerous or unhealthy behaviours, or abusive or bullying messages. While social media sites do have safety tools in place to address this, students should be supported to access, implement, and manage them. The most effective tools to teach children about are:

  • A blocking tool to remove the option for somebody to contact them again
  • A reporting tool to notify the platform of inappropriate content
  • Privacy settings to remove the possibility of interacting with strangers

When it comes to contact, social media is an integral part of building and maintaining friendships, and how many ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ a young person’s platform generates can influence their feelings. Talking to somebody a young person doesn’t know can open the door to dangers such as cyberbullying, which poses a greater risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviours, and grooming, where a young person may feel pressured to send indecent images or videos to – or meet with – someone who intends to inflict harm. The aforementioned safety tools are useful in addressing these issues, and geolocation settings, which identify where a young person lives, can also be turned off via privacy settings. Important, too, is highlighting the risks of communicating with a stranger online or meeting them offline.

The last C, conduct, demonstrates the need for educators to make students aware of how their online activity can impact both themselves and others. This may concern a young person learning how to manage their own online behaviour, but also covers knowing how to report concerns about others. Risks here can include sexting or sending nude images, as well as online sexual harassment. Young people are also impacted by their digital footprint, where what they share online, as well as what others say and share about them, can affect how they are perceived by others in the future. Students may also be unaware of the degree of personal information they are sharing, either through photos revealing identifying features such as their address or school name, or direct conversation.

“Getting to know social media’s basic concepts and the multiplicity of platforms and experiences is imperative to understanding the potential risks”

With what is shared and said and to whom online so important, educators should ensure students know how to engage with online platforms in a careful manner. The three Cs need not only be used by educators, but pupils, too – education settings might consider online safety lessons or assemblies to share the message, partake in a day of action such as Safer Internet Day, or follow Childnet’s Social Media Guide. Education settings should also make clear who their designated safeguarding lead is, so students can report any concerns they may have and encourage critical thinking– or, in a nutshell, ‘think before you post’.

Crucially, educators have a big part to play in supporting students to safely explore their friendships online and enjoy a sense of self, emotional wellbeing and confidence. Social media is a large part of growing up, but keeping both students and staff, as well as parents, aware of the tools available to protect young people from online risks, will help develop a safer online culture.

Dawn Jotham is pastoral care specialist at EduCare