Encouraging positive online experiences amongst young people

Haylie Taylor, former teacher and education consultant at EducationCity, on supporting students with online safety

Parents and educators have long been tasked with protecting young people and providing them with the necessary skills to survive and thrive in life. However, with the rise of the internet and increasing digital applications comes a whole host of new challenges around how to teach them to navigate this ever-expanding online environment.

It’s hard to constantly monitor what students are doing, and new risks regularly arise, yet preventing them from going online is both unrealistic and unadvisable. Moreover, the internet can be an incredibly useful resource, especially for schools. Students can utilise it to help them work independently or to delve deeper into their subjects. How then, do we navigate the risks posed by the internet without hampering the educational experience?

It’s important to note that young people will also inevitably have to use the internet throughout their academic, professional and personal lives. In fact, professionally they will need to be well-versed in digital skills. As such, it’s important that schools make responsible internet use a priority, sooner rather than later.

Developing positive behaviours

Increasingly, we’re spending more time online than ever before and it’s hard to argue that the prevalence of digital and online platforms hasn’t completely changed the stereotypical childhood. Children and young people are now faced with deciding whether to play outside with friends or play games online. They further face new challenges through digital platforms such as cyberbullying and online scams.

Of course, as pupils become older, they may also become the ones that actively partake in negative internet use, which is another key factor in why schools need to teach young people how to behave positively online from an early age.

Teachers and staff can help encourage a positive balance for students by asking reflective questions about what they did over the weekend, or their upcoming plans and what the pros and cons of these were. They can also integrate offline activities into any digitised homework by asking students to discuss their key learnings with a family member or draw a flow chart of core themes to present to class the next day. Adopting this approach also then demonstrates to students how online platforms can complement, rather than detract, from experiences offline.

Protecting personal information

One of the most important aspects of staying safe online is protecting your personal information. It’s important to teach young people that the online environment is a hyper-public arena where it can be hard to maintain and protect privacy. Teachers should begin by explaining what personal information is, being sure to provide examples. For instance, teachers can explain that their address or phone number is something that is safe to share with friends they know but that it may be risky or dangerous to share with someone online. This will help introduce the idea that meeting people online isn’t the same as meeting someone in person, and that interactions they have online or in digital applications may not be what they seem.

Piracy and phishing

Another prevalent danger online is malware and bugs – software that is intentionally designed to cause damage. Children and young people tend to be more trusting than adults, which can be an endearing trait, however, it is important to instil a sense of caution towards online environments.

When educating students about these threats, classes can really benefit from the use of visual aids to show that not everything sent to them can be trusted. This can easily be demonstrated through examples of phishing (or scam) links and highlighting how they tend to differ from trusted messages. You can then provide examples of what happens if you click on these links which will help students understand why they should avoid them.

Piracy – the act of downloading and distributing copyrighted content digitally, without permission – is another common negative online behaviour. To prevent students from taking part in this activity, teachers should again start by clearly explaining and defining what this means and the many forms it can take – particularly with reference to streaming television, movies and music.

Teachers and staff can then explain the dangers involved, especially touching on the connection to malware given that piracy sites are often likely to increase the risk of infecting their device.

Protecting against cyberbullying

Critically, schools need to be teaching pupils the importance of being respectful of others online. Cyberbullying has become increasingly common, especially among teens, as the digital sphere expands and technology advances. This is having a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of young people globally.

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, cyberbullying can range from excluding people from online games or friendship groups; sending threatening, upsetting or abusive messages; sharing embarrassing or malicious images; trolling; creating fake online accounts; and more.

In developing positive online behaviour amongst young people, this is arguably one of the most important areas of online safety for teachers and schools to address. Teachers should start by explaining the importance of treating people with kindness and respect and why this should carry over from real life to online platforms.

Online safety is important, and we need to be teaching this to pupils from a young age. There are a number of online resources that teachers can utilise when delivering online safety lessons. It’s an important option to explore as we cannot expect all teachers to be well-versed in internet safety. The internet can be such a great tool when used positively, so we must support teachers in empowering pupils to safely access the many enriching opportunities the internet has to offer.

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