Jo Budden explores the impact that increased use of online technology can have on children’s safety. Jo looks at issues of concern and provides clear, practical guidance on how to make sure children operate in a safe online environment.
There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, technology became a lifeline and enabled everyone to continue working, studying and socialising, despite being confined at home. Technology continues to be used even more creatively and helps us continue working, learning and ‘seeing’ our friends and family. We can thank technology for new ways of celebrating birthdays, taking regular exercise and supporting each other.
With more children than ever spending long periods of time online, often unsupervised, knowledge of online safety is more important than ever. As classrooms were moved online during the pandemic, how many children were given online safety advice? How many schools and teachers made sure that their learners would be able to stay as safe as possible? These questions came to mind as I saw my own two primary-aged children move into online learning, with zero advice given to them from their school about online safety, I can only imagine that millions of children globally were in the same boat.
Now, no one would send a young child outside on their own without having taught them how to cross a road and few would give a teenager a car without giving them driving lessons first. So, why are young people given access to technology without showing them how to use it safely? The myth that young people are ‘digital natives’ who are born knowing how to do everything online has long since been debunked. Children and teens need help to successfully navigate their way through their digital lives.
Conversations about online safety need to be ongoing as at different ages they will need different information and support. It’s not a topic to ‘do’ in class just once and then tick off as ‘job done’. Online safety should be brought into the classroom and discussed regularly at both home and school as children grow up. Every child will need someone to guide them and teachers can play a key role in this.
Main dangers for children online
Before we think about how we can best protect children online, let’s briefly look at some of the main dangers. Without an understanding of the potential risks it’s hard to fully justify the time invested in teaching and talking about online safety. There are links in the sources below that will expand on these topics, if more information is needed.
- Inappropriate content
If children are left unsupervised online on devices with open access to the internet they will, sooner or later, see things that are not appropriate for their age group or level of maturity. Online content, including exposure to violence, sexual imagery or hate speech can be extremely distressing for children. In addition, there are many cases of children having easy access to groups of people encouraging self-harm and suicide - the results of which can be tragic. No matter how ‘private’ a child’s own account is on social media, they are able to see the content of the accounts of millions of other users.
Online bullying can be traumatic for children as it can follow them 24 hours a day. It can result in serious mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Children need to know how to block and report bullies online, and they need to seek support from a trusted adult as soon as problems arise.
- Sexual exploitation
‘Stranger danger’ used to be something that children were warned about when they went to play in the local park. Online sexual predators befriend children online, often pretending to be the child’s age or offering presents or treats. Children need to be made aware that not everyone is who they present themselves to be online, and they must know how to act and react if they’re ever approached by someone they don’t know online.
- Misleading information
Fake news and misleading information is everywhere and children need to know that not everything they see or read online is true. Critical thinking skills are more important than ever. Many scams are directed deliberately at young people who may be more vulnerable and accepting of what they read online.
- Tech addiction and screen time
There are differing opinions on how addictive technology is, but common sense tells us that young people need to have balanced lives where they do a wide variety of activities. To grow up healthy, young people need to get enough physical exercise, outdoor time, face-to-face interactions and sleep. Screen time can often come at the expense of time spent on these activities.
Tips for safeguarding children online
These tips are deliberately general. They’ll need simplifying and adapting for the age, language level, maturity and context of your learners in order to get the messages across simply and easily. With lower level learners in monolingual classes, safety guidelines should be given in the children’s first language to ensure the messages were understood.
- Think before you post
It’s best to consider anything a person posts online to be permanent. As soon as a message is shared, someone can take a screenshot of it and it can be online forever. So, take care what messages are shared.
- Keep passwords safe
When learners are old enough to use their own passwords they need to know to keep them safe and private.
- Don’t share personal information
Children should never share their home addresses, email or phone number online.
- Tell an adult if anything you see online upsets you
This is key. Children must know who to talk to if they ever see anything that makes them feel upset.
- Check security and privacy settings
Take time to read about and explore the security information and ensure the account is as private as it can be. Use two-factor authentication if available and learn how to block and report unwanted messages.
- Balance screen time
Ensure a healthy balance of screen time and keep an eye on the clock. Most phones have screen time monitors so it’s good to check weekly and see how much time is actually being spent and try to reduce it if it’s getting out of control. Video games can easily become addictive and take time away from other activities so it’s a good idea to track time being spent on different online activities.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report in January this year entitled ‘Technology use and the mental health of children and young people’, which makes for uncomfortable reading. Overuse and misuse of digital technology can have very serious consequences. Digital addiction, lack of sleep, fear of missing out, and the need for seeking personal approval in the form of ‘likes’ can all contribute to increased levels of anxiety and depression amongst young people. The more adults are aware of this, the better placed they are to be able to encourage a healthy and positive relationship with technology.
Explore apps and games that children and teens use
Parents and teachers are better placed to discuss online behaviour and safety if they’re familiar with online environments that the children are spending time in. One way to do this is to spend some time exploring the space where children are (or want to be!). Play the games with them, have a look around the sites and apps with them and decide together if it’s a good way to be spending time.
A recent request from a 12 year-old to start using a new social media app required the parent and child to spend some time reading the Community guidelines (a real eye-opener!) and exploring the type of content she would gain access to. After less than an hour of investigation, the answer was a clear ‘no’. Apart from the fact that the age limit was 13, the app was addictive the content lacked empathy, and the videos contained suggestive or sexual content.
To conclude, the main point that runs throughout is the importance of having open conversations with our children and our learners about online safety and their digital lives. All children need to have at least one trusted adult to turn to for advice or if things go wrong. It can be a teacher, a family member or an older friend. When online safety and digital well-being are talked about and discussed openly, only then can parents, teachers, and children begin to really make the most of the amazing opportunities that the digital world offers - for learning, for socialising, for having fun and for bringing the world closer together.
UNICEF Children in a digital world:https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/SOWC_2017_ENG_WEB.pdf
Digital divide: https://cs.unu.edu/news/news/digital-divide-covid-19.html
Digital natives myth: https://www.danah.org/
Tech addiction: https://humanetech.com/problem/
Technology use and the mental health of young people: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/improving-care/better-mh-policy/college-reports/college-report-cr225.pdf
Community guidelines example: https://www.tiktok.com/community-guidelines
Nicholas Kardaras, Glow Kids, Macmillan 2016
Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, Penguin Press 2015
Susan Greenfield, Mind Change, Penguin Random House 2015
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