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7 tips to keep children safe online

by Terry Freedman on May 31, 2018

When it comes to e-safety in schools, good data — such as knowing very quickly whether a pupil is present or absence — is necessary. Unfortunately, it is not sufficient. Research has shown that other factors need to be taken into account.

Understanding and behaviour: a mismatch

Before looking at some of the research, an anecdote. First, some years ago my wife and I arranged to interview a 14 year-old girl in America. This had been organised with her teacher, Vicki Davis, who is very well-known in education technology circles. The pupil had a very unusual name, or at least it was not a name with which people in the UK would be familiar. For the purpose of this story I’ll call her Maestro.

Maestro had recently completed a term-long project on internet safety. She is in Vicki’s classroom, which is in a school in Camilla, Georgia. At the time of the 2010 census, Camilla had a population of just over 5,000, according to a Wikipedia article. In other words, a pretty small town. In fact, it has only two high schools.

We chatted to Maestro before hitting the record button, and told her not to give away too much information about herself, and she agreed. So we started recording, and I introduced her, and asked her about her experience with education technology.

She replied: “Hi, I’m Maestro, and I’m in the 9th grade at such-and-such school in Camilla, and my teacher’s name is Mrs Davis.”

We had to stop the podcast there and then, and start again, because the information she had given in that one sentence would have been enough to make her easily findable by anyone who had a mind to look for her. And that was despite Maestro being intelligent, tech-savvy and an expert in e-safety as a result of her project.

So why is there this mismatch between what kids know they should do or not do, and how they actually behave? Blame it on biology. Don’t tell your kids, but the risk-assessment part of their brains don’t stop developing until they’re in their 20s. What this means in practical terms is that you cannot assume that because kids understand risks intellectually, they can act on that information rationally. You can read more about this in the article Why Teens Make Unsafe Choices Online. The piece is some years old now, and further research has been done into this, but it’s a good starting point. 

Technical issues

It’s probably well-accepted now that just because kids are ‘digital natives’ doesn’t mean they are deeply knowledgeable when it comes to technology. Yes, some of them (note, not all) pick up things very quickly, but their ‘savviness’ is only superficial. In the context of e-safety, this manifests itself as an inability to change settings online or to filter out unwanted attention.

According to a report entitled Risks and safety for children on the internet: the UK report

“Bookmarking websites, finding information on how to use the internet safely and blocking messages are skills that most UK children claim to have. But only a third claim to be able to change filter preferences.”

The report also highlights the fact that 21% of children aged 11-16 have their online profiles set to only partially private, while 11% have completely public profiles.

Worryingly, a more recent study, Children’s online activities, risks and safety, found that,

“The majority of children who are social networking site users (42%) have a public profile as opposed to 32% who have private profile and 26% who do not understand the difference.”

Offline risk

It has also been established by several studies that children who are at most risk online tend to also be at risk in everyday life: the two things go together. A report entitled Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies notes that,

“Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviours and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.”

7 suggestions for practical solutions

You might conclude from all this research that in a sense kids are their own worst enemies! What can schools do to keep their pupils safe online? Here are 7 suggestions:

  • Ensure that digital literacy is properly, and fully, addressed in the curriculum. It’s not all about coding.
  • Keep parents informed about e-safety. The Risks report cited earlier notes that parents prefer to receive e-safety information from schools rather than all the other places they could go on the internet.
  • In particular, let parents know if their children are becoming cause for concern, perhaps because they have missed a few days of school or keep arriving late. 
  • On the subject of parents, consider running sessions for parents on how to adjust privacy and filter settings.
  • Involve your school or schools in Safer Internet Day, which takes place every February. That will help to raise awareness of the issues amongst both pupils and parents, and there are often good resources available to use free of charge.
  • As mentioned, reducing risk for children offline will make them less prone to risk online. While you can’t look after your pupils when they’re out of school, if their non-school life is not ideal there will be indicators that all is not as it should be. A useful article is Pupil red flags, which discusses this in more detail. 
  • Make good use of the analytics provided by products such as Groupcall Emerge. See, for example, the blog post entitled Get your statistics as soon as possible.
Managing online safety is a multifaceted affair. It requires good and timely data, teaching pupils about online risks and good practice — and not assuming they understand the technicalities of changing their privacy settings — and working closely with parents.

Topics: Child safety, Groupcall Analytics, Parental engagement