Teaching Internet safety – Working with parents

I have to admit to being a bit nervous writing this blog. I like to be super organised and give myself plenty of time. Time to read, absorb, question others, visit schools, redraft, edit, proofread and submit. In the ever-changing world of internet safety, that doesn’t work. Trends come and go, technology changes and keeping up with it all, as I’m finding, becomes harder the older you get.

I proudly graduated with my MSc in multimedia and e-learning in 2008. Leafing through my essays and dissertation now, I find the digital world has changed beyond recognition. Social media, once the domain of a few nerdy newsgroup users in the 1990s (yes, I was one!) has become mainstream. Gaming, once the solitary pursuit of teenagers, has become a collaborative and even international team sport. Did you think your teen was on their own playing World of Warcraft? Think again, there’s probably upwards of 30 players in a room trading ‘weapons’, clothing, cosmetics. They’re also talking about normal stuff too: what’s happening at school, with their parents, how they’re feeling. By the way, how are you feeling at this point? Scared yet? Well, there’s no point in being all Cnutist[i] about this. We can’t stop it. We can help our little darlings navigate this scary world though. Yes, some will roll their eyes but as long as we’re not all preachy about it, it’ll be fine.

The importance of internet safety for children

Teaching online safety is as much about helping parents as it is about education. How many parents would download 18 rated films for their 12-year-old children? Very few is my guess. On the other hand, how many of these kids will have unwrapped 18 PEGI rated games for their X Boxes on Christmas morning? It’s an animation…what harm can they do? It’s a make-believe world!

Now, I’m not suggesting headteachers drag parents into school to challenge them retrospectively on how they spend their hard-earned cash, although I’d pay to sit in on such a meeting. It’s about drip-feeding messages to parents. An area of the website, an e-safety newsletter, displays around the school.  Fortunately, there is quite a lot of online signposting schools can give to parents on gaming.

Most issues schools face come via smartphones of course, and the majority of issues that occur at weekends, holidays and after school. It’s the aftermath that spills into school time, so teachers pick up the pieces. Dealing with the fallout is part of the job. Dealing with the symptoms just has to involve parents who are often reticent to go near their children’s phones and games consoles.

Parenting in a digital world

Away from devices, nobody would argue that parenting is about watching who your child is meeting, who they’re speaking to, what they’re doing with their friends and the stuff they’re watching on TV. Why then is it often perceived as different in the digital world? Checking your kid’s phone isn’t snooping. Placing controls on their Roblox account isn’t against their human rights: it’s normal parenting.

The world we live in

A whopping 91% of 11-year-olds now have a smart phone. Platforms such as WhatsApp offer virtual meeting places for groups of children. With electronic communications, the nuances of jokes can be lost. The odd unkind comment can be magnified without the associated facial gestures or casual apology. These things quickly spiral out of control and schools are left to deal with cases of cyber bullying, some quite severe. Again, parents can be supported by offering advice. They should know what friendship groups exist on their children’s phones. They should limit their children’s time on social media, and they should know which online gaming platforms are used.

Open and honest

Schools can help by normalising these parent-child interactions. A regular conversation with a child about how they’re using social media will encourage them to be more open about their online behaviour, so long as the parent isn’t too preachy about it. Schools can support parents through regular newsletters and the content of PSHE lessons.  A simple question in a recent tutor session I saw provoked an interesting debate in class: ‘Should your parents know what you’re doing online?’  The vast majority said ‘yes’ in the end, although most worried that their parents would either over-react or simply wouldn’t understand the digital world young people live in.

So, is it all bad?

It’s important too not to scare parents so that the messages children receive aren’t all negative. While individuals who experience online bullying and harassment can be devastated by it, the connected world brings huge benefits overall. Teenagers who might have been struggling with their feelings previously might have felt isolated. Now, there’s a whole online community to reassure them that they’re not alone. My daughter, at age 9, found her disabled ‘tribe’ through the BBC Ouch website – a vibrant community of young disabled people. Living in a small town, this was something of a lifeline for her.  My adult son discovered he has ADHD. Through various online communities, he has met similar young neurodiverse people. The shared experiences have helped him to understand and, at times, even laugh at how the condition affects him.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and author of Parenting for a Digital Future remarks that ‘The phone has been a fantastic unleashing of what was always an unmet need on the part of young people.’ Various large-scale studies have found no consistent link between the use of technology and young people’s wellbeing. Amy Orben, an experimental psychologist at the University of Cambridge also found little evidence of a link between the two. However, she makes the comment: ‘The only person who really can judge how social media affects children is often the one closest to them’.  So, despite what the studies indicate, there are individuals that can struggle and it’s the parents that can spot the signs first. This is why helping parents to help their children should always be in the game plan for schools.

Top tips for supporting parents with e-safety

  • Signpost parents to advice from the NSPCC and CEOPS
  • Provide parents with information on what they can do if they think an image has been shared without consent, for example, using the Report Remove Tool to remove it from the web.
  • Include a section on e-safety in each parent newsletter
  • Include a comprehensive section on e-safety as part of the safeguarding information on the website. This can include sections on gaming, image sharing and social media.
  • Acknowledge the role of parents within the PSHE sessions on e-safety.

 

Additional Links

B11 Education Safeguarding Audit

B11 Education Website Review

 

[i] Derived from King Cnut/King Canute.

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