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Keeping children and young people safe online

I recently attended an online safety event organised by Perth and Kinross Council and partner organisations. Four experts in online safety gave presentations at the event, covering issues such as the risks of apps, the online exploitation of children and young people, and online bullying and “sexting”. This article looks at these issues and discusses what teachers can do to help keep children and young people safe online.

Evelyn Wilkins, Web Content Editor, GTC Scotland

I use social media, I use apps, I use the internet every day, but this event made it clear to me that there are limits to my internet savviness. The “digital divide” between adults and young people is well known, and age is often used as an excuse for not being up to speed with new technology. This excuse is unacceptable I was told; in fact, we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about digital media so that we have the knowledge to help keep children and young people safe online.

The risks

When young people go online the main danger is that they’re unaware of the risks they’re taking, or of the information they’re giving away about themselves. They have grown up with the internet and are so comfortable with it that they’re very open with what they share online. Young people may be fluent users of new technology, but they’re not necessarily experts in online safety.

Application danger

There are literally thousands of apps on the market, appealing to even the very youngest audience. Some apps are educational, but many are not appropriate for young people and can be highly sexualised. DC Norrie Petrie of Police Scotland talked about the danger of apps and the ways in which they can be misused. He reminded us that “a smartphone is a mobile computer, constantly connected to the www dot”, and that the personal information it contains can be shared very easily over the internet, and even without the owner’s awareness.

Some of the most popular apps are those used for online chat, with most children having three or four, or even five or six, chat apps on their phone. However, while these apps are aimed at children, it’s not just children who use them. Child grooming can occur through such chat apps, and they can be used as a step towards arranging meetings in the flesh. What is more, many apps have location sharing features on by default, some of which also synch with social networking sites. This can be unsafe; if children broadcast their location online it may not be just friends who can see where they’re located.

Online bullying and “sexting”

Brian Donnelly, Director of RespectMe, talked about bullying and behaviour in an online environment. While “cyberbully” is a subject that often appears in the news headlines, Brian explained that “there’s nothing to suggest there’s an epidemic of online bullying”; people are just doing what they’ve always done – playing out their relationships. His perspective is that there’s not some sort of divide between “online” and “offline” bullying and that the issue’s not about technology, “it’s a people issue”. Therefore, cyberbullying should be dealt with just like any other instance of bullying: by looking at the behaviour, looking at what its impact was and then dealing with it, not by labelling it as bullying, but by saying that the behaviour itself is unacceptable.

Another online behaviour issue, covered at the event by Graham Goulden from the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, is “sexting”, a term used to describe the sending of sexual photos by mobile phone using text or the internet. There’s a worry that sexting is so commonplace amongst young people that it’s not even seen by them as an issue when, in fact, young people could be breaking the law by possessing or distributing indecent images of a person under the age of 18. More about sexting can be found on the ChildLine website:

Visit the ChildLine website.

Educating children and young people

Jim Gamble, founding Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, talked about the importance of educating children about the mechanics of how to stay safe online. What Jim suggested was that, rather than focusing too much on what the risks are, we need to teach the practicalities of staying safe online.

For example, children need to know:

  • how to block, how to report and where to go for advice and support;
  • that they should not share photos, videos or information on social media or in chatrooms that they would not want a parent or carer to see;
  • how to make settings on social media sites private;
  • that they should never meet up with, or give out personal information to, anyone they’ve only ever known online;
  • how to disable location sharing facilities.

It’s also important not to underestimate the age at which education about online safety should begin. While the legal age for having a Facebook account is 13, research suggests that many children create an account at a younger age.

Further resources

The following websites provide further information and resources on online safety:

Listen to the podcast I recorded with Jim Gamble after the event for more on teaching online safety:

Teaching online safety